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Documentary : Bitter Harvest of Apartheid on Display in Soweto : Great poverty and wealth are intertwined in a vast metropolis that is often difficult to grasp and define.

June 26, 1990|MICHAEL A. HILTZIK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

That was written in 1948. Although it has doubled in size in 42 years, Baragwanath has never been able to keep pace with the explosively growing township. Van den Heever says he regularly requests expansion, but the approvals are "always too little, too late."

Part of the problem is the system of international sanctions against South Africa, which Mandela is asking to be maintained. Among the U.S. companies divesting themselves of South Africa operations as a result of the sanctions was Chase Manhattan Bank, which had been financing an expansion of Baragwanath. "The two new wards going up right now should have been built in 1981," Van den Heever says.

The superintendent has the experience and perspective necessary to chart some important social trends in his domain. Baragwanath used to treat one or two gunshot wounds a week; with the vigorous trade in firearms outside the hospital's doors, the figure now is closer to 100 a month. To that can be added hundreds of knife wounds.

"The life of a surgeon at 'Bara' revolves around trauma," he says. "By the time a (surgical) resident leaves here, he can handle a stabbed heart easily."

There's more to the giant hospital than that: It can perform CAT scans and kidney dialysis. Its clinics manage to immunize 85% of Soweto's children against the six major childhood diseases. (The hospital says the rate would be higher were it not for a steady influx of unimmunized rural children.) Until recently, when such surgery was centralized by health authorities, Baragwanath did heart transplants too.

There is no better location from which to follow the changing culture of South Africa's blacks.

"Twenty years ago, we used to see diseases at the end stage, because people had not come in for care--enormous thyroid tumors, emaciated cancer victims," says Van den Heever. "Now we see diseases we never did before in black Africa. They're more like white diseases, the product of urban stress: coronary artery disease, duodenal ulcers, strokes. This is what happens when the community gets urbanized."

Schoolchildren made Soweto a household word on June 16, 1976. That's when police fired on a pupils' march protesting a rule requiring the use of Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch-descended whites, as a teaching medium in their schools.

Since then, Soweto's educational system has never run smoothly. Among the most recent incidents was a monthlong boycott of classes in March. This month, a group of Soweto parents staged a sit-in and hunger strike at the offices of the Department of Education and Training, the government ministry responsible for black schools. Their complaint was over a chronic shortage of books and supplies.

In the center of Soweto, Capheus Hlangu has no trouble understanding the parents' complaint. The assistant principal of a secondary school with 1,200 pupils, he explains that black schools must place their book orders as far as five years ahead. Even at the start of each cycle, the supplies are inadequate. "We have maybe one book for every two pupils," he says. "They share." How do they do their homework, then?

Hlangu smiles wanly. "If there are problems assigned from the book, one of the two children is supposed to copy out the problems," he says. "But they generally do not have the time to do so. You find that half the class has no homework done."

Books get worn and overused, or they disappear as students vanish from the neighborhood and the school. "At the end of five years, you find that perhaps only the teacher's copy remains," Hlangu says.

A mile or two away along the treeless streets, Ephraim T. Tshabalala is involving himself in the third crisis, housing. Tshabalala gave his name to one of the biggest squatters' camps in Soweto many years ago, when he was mayor of the township, by turning over to homeless people the land of an abandoned municipal golf course.

"They were giving birth in scrap cars," he says today. Now the old golf course is a sub-community of 1,000 one-room shacks built around a maze of dirt paths, so tightly packed that the vast hollow seems to be fairly paved in galvanized tin.

Tshabalala is a leonine man in a brown suit and vest that accents the immense broadness of his shoulders, as wide as the sitting-room archway he stalks through to greet visitors. He halts under a faded photographic portrait of himself in his old crimson mayoral robe, and allows to being 82 years old.

"E.T." came to Johannesburg in 1922 as a horse drover. After World War II, when there was still no meat in Soweto because it went to feed the troops, he began selling pork bones and bacon rinds. Soon he was one of Soweto's commercial grandees. Up the block and across the street is his movie theater, named with a neon \o7 "Eyethu,\f7 " or "Ours." Around a corner is a strip shopping center with one of his two butcheries and a couple of other shops. Down the road is one of his three gas stations.

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