Discuss as:

Chronicling post-apartheid South Africa through one township's story

Per-Anders Pettersson

Members of a church choir wait for their bus after performing in a community hall in Pimville Community center in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, May 2007.

By Becky Bratu, Staff Writer, NBC News

Photographer Per-Anders Pettersson has been chronicling daily life in South Africa for almost 20 years, his images capturing the struggles of a nation caught in the middle of a social, political and economic transition.

His Soweto photo project focuses on the country's largest township -- which Nelson Mandela once called home. A once-impoverished area that served as a center for apartheid resistance has in the last few decades become a dynamic, sprawling community -- a symbol of the country's transformation.

But while apartheid is yesterday's news, the threat of violence has lingered, as has the poverty that still hinders many from reveling in the luxurious lifestyle promoted by newly opened designer boutiques and ever-expanding shopping malls.

Per-Anders Pettersson

An unidentified man plays golf with a young boy as caddie at the Soweto Country Club in Soweto outside Johannesburg, South Africa, March 2005. A growing number of people belong to the new black elite in the country. Well educated and connected, they have risen from the poverty in the townships to a very different lifestyle, since the fall of apartheid and the start of democracy in the country in 1994.

Pettersson, who was born in Sweden, says he’s come to call South Africa home, although he describes his connection to the country as a “love/hate relationship.”

“A lot of things have changed for the better,” he said. But Pettersson described South Africa as lagging behind in improving racial relations, education and economic development.

“There are so many other African countries that are doing well … but here for the moment they’re not doing well at all,” Pettersson said.

South Africa struggles with a 25 percent unemployment rate – a number that is much higher for people under 35. Pettersson said citizens feel threatened by migrants from neighboring countries like Zimbabwe, who they think are stealing their jobs.

“It has a lot to do with education,” he said, adding that students are not always prepared to get a job after graduation.

The situation is dire in rural areas, Pettersson said, where schools lack textbooks and proper teaching tools.

A former center of resistance to apartheid that struggled with poverty, Soweto, South Africa's largest township, has become a dynamic, sprawling community -- a symbol of the country's own transformation.

Young South Africans, he said, are not interested in politics. Nor do they feel a strong connection to ailing former president and anti-apartheid icon Mandela, 94. For that reason, Pettersson said, he didn’t think Mandela's death would bring the race riots some fear.

“I don’t think [his death] is going to change that much,” Pettersson said, adding that Mandela hasn’t played a part in the country’s decision-making process for many years.

He said he'd observed that the apathetic youth appear more interested in accumulating material wealth than getting involved in their country’s political future.

Soweto has seen a lot of progress in its infrastructure and social relations, he said, but poverty has yet to be eradicated.

“Most people still live on very little, have menial jobs,” he said.

Money, Pettersson said, has replaced race as the deciding factor in South Africans’ lives. As the country becomes more economically polarized, access to a good education is a luxury many can’t afford.

“There’s an economic apartheid,” Pettersson said.

View the slideshow


Per-Anders Pettersson

Youths in a brass band rehearse in a backyard in Orlando, Soweto, South Africa, May 2007. The band has about 30 members and they rehearse a few times a week and usually perform in churches and at weddings and funerals during the weekends in the township.

More news from South Africa: