“When you wake up in the morning and when you come home from work, the rotten smell is the first thing that hits you,” Priscilla Nqwili says of Kliptown, the neighbourhood she grew up in, and the birthplace of SA’s Freedom Charter.
Walter Sisulu Square is both a bustling commercial precinct and a monument to the adoption of one of the most influential documents in SA history.
Across the road is a massive informal settlement where thousands live in abject poverty. Residents call it the place history forgot.
They speak of widespread unemployment, illegal electricity connections and exposed sewage as part of their daily lives. In some families, there have been generations of poverty.
In his 2015 book, The Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter, ANC struggle stalwart Ismail Vadi, who was born in Kliptown, writes: “The Congress of the People, where the Freedom Charter was formally approved by several thousand delegates, was held over a weekend in June 1955 in an open field in Kliptown, south of Johannesburg.
“It was a colourful dramatic affair. For Ellen Lambert, the congress was ‘the day of liberation like Martin Luther King’s meeting where he gave the ‘I have a dream’ speech’.”
Nqwili, who has lived in a number of areas around Soweto, said the time she spent in Kliptown was the worst experience of her life, resulting in her dropping out of school in Grade 11.
“I came back to a candle and a shack. When it rained at night we had to wake up and put buckets in place to catch the leaks.
“When you come out of your shack, you passed a filthy furrow with people’s vomit and waste running through.
“When you go to the toilet, you found aborted foetuses. It gets as bad as five or 10 families using one toilet.”
Lack of access to schools, clinics and basic municipal services are among several other problems in Kliptown.
Police Nyalas and other vehicles pepper the streets close to the informal settlement where a protest over housing shut the neighbourhood down a week before.
The 36-year-old Nqwili is among a group of community outreach volunteers trained by social justice NGO Khulisa Social Solutions who advocate for social change in the grossly under-serviced township.
Run by award-winning philanthropist Lesley Ann van Selm, Khulisa is partnering with the Thuli Madonsela Foundation in the Walk In My Shoes storytelling campaign this month to raise awareness about underprivileged communities such as Kliptown.