On this last day of my mission trip, I toured SOWETO—heart and soul of the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa in the 70’s and 80’s. How well I remember the conflict between the White apartheid government in retrenchment and Black nationals gaining global solidarity for the justice of their cause. In both college and seminary, we as students lobbied our institutions of higher learning to divest themselves of South African corporate holdings to help break the back of the regime. We were inspired by Nelson Mandela’s long imprisonment and championed his release. We welcomed with great enthusiasm Bishop Tutu’s visits to the United States to update supporters on the resistant movement’s momentum and success. Finally, we celebrated the free election of Nelson Mandela as the first President of the new South Africa.
After 20 years, I finally had the chance to visit the sites of the Soweto uprisings. My Nazarene hosts—Linda Braaten and Kenneth and Theola Phiri—drove me into the Southwest Township of Johannesburg (SOWETO), past Diepsloot Squatter Camp to Regina Mundi Roman Catholic Church which served as a public gathering space for the movement.
On June 16, 1976, Bishop Tutu was speaking at the podium when the police raided the church. The marble altar was broken by the butt of a police rifle; gunshots pierced the windows of the church; the crowd dispersed in a panic, breaking through the altar rail. They showed me the bullet holes still in the ceiling of the church as the choir was rehearsing for Sunday’s service. How could this happen in a sanctuary? I asked myself. Thank God for the prophetic witness of this church. Why were so many other churches in South Africa silent and uninvolved?
Our next stop was the site where Hector Pieterson, the youngest of the victims, was shot to death in 1976. Now a national monument and museum, the pilgrimage site is well-maintained and often-visited. I was shocked again by the familiar photograph of an older kid carrying young Hector’s body. I was struck by the silent witness of those who gathered here in remembrance.
Our final stop was House No. 8115 on Ngakane Street, corner of Vilakazi in Oriando West-Soweto—the home of Nelson Mandela where he lived with his family before he went to jail for 27 years. A simple four-room house, it now contains many artifacts and memorabilia of Mandela, including: his boots, boxing belt, animal-skin bed covering, photographs, letters, and some of the diplomas of honorary doctorates. Every day pilgrims from around the world pack into this small house that has become a museum.
Today, Nelson Mandela lives in a bigger house in Johannesburg, and the movement he embodied and inspired lives on in the spirit and nationalism of the people in South Africa.
I pray that the good people of Malawi, as they continue their democratic reforms and struggle with poverty and AIDS, will learn and take heart from the experiences in South Africa.