Soweto, Johannesburg

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Soweto, Johannesburg

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South of Johannesburg is Soweto, a city developed as a township for black people under the apartheid system. Most of the struggle against apartheid was fought in and from Soweto. The name Soweto is an acronym, made up - in apartheid days - from the first letters of the words “south western township”. Soweto is inhabited by over two million people, with homes ranging from extravagant mansions to makeshift shacks. Soweto is a city of enterprise and cultural interaction. It is a popular tourist destination with sites such as Kliptown (where the Freedom Charter was drawn up), the home of former President Nelson Mandela, the Hector Petersen Memorial site, restaurants and shopping malls. It boasts one of the largest hospitals on the continent and the only African-owned private clinic (see Soweto Map).

Soweto is a sprawling township, or more accurately, a cluster of townships on the south-western flank of Johannesburg. Soweto was created in the 1930s, with Orlando the first township established. In the 1950s, more black people were relocated there from 'black spots' in the inner city - black neighbourhoods which the apartheid government had reserved for whites.

Soweto's growth was phenomenal - but unplanned. Despite government attempts to stop the influx of black workers to the cities, waves of migrant workers moved from the countryside and neighbouring countries to look for employment in the city of gold. With a population of over 2 million, the township is the biggest black urban settlement in Africa with a rich political history. Soweto was the centre of political campaigns aimed at the overthrow of the apartheid state. The 1976 student uprising, also known as the Soweto uprising, started in Soweto and spread to the rest of the country. Many of the sights on the heritage route therefore have political significance.

Poor suburb of Soweto
Sowetans pride themselves on being urbane and streetwise. They look down on the moegoes (country bumpkins) from the rural areas. Most residents here are rooted in the metropolis and are detribalised. Soweto is a melting pot of South African cultures and has developed its own sub-cultures - especially for the young. Afro-American influence runs deep, but is adapted to local conditions. In their speech, dress and gait, Sowetans exude a sense of cosmopolitan sophistication. Sowetans have evolved a local lingo, tsotsitaal, an eclectic mix of several local languages, Afrikaans and street slang, constantly evolving and spoken mainly by the young.

From the foot bridge of the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the largest on the continent, one can get a panoramic view of Soweto. In Diepkloof, you will find many grey, four-roomed dwellings, cynically called 'matchbox houses' by locals. These are the original dwellings constructed to accommodate the first black migrants to the cities who had come in search of greener pastures. Although they are small, locals take pride in their houses and many take efforts to make them habitable and even homely. In contrast to these symbols of poverty, there are various 'extensions' that have been established to accommodate the relatively affluent. One example is Diepkloof Extension, home to the emerging black middle class. The suburb boasts beautiful houses, the roads are in good condition, there are playgrounds and schools.

Other attractive sights are residences of famous anti-apartheid activists. Just a few kilometres drive from Diepkloof, you arrive at Orlando, the first township of Soweto. Here, you can visit Nelson Mandela's first house (left) which is a popular tourist attraction. Mandela stayed here before he was imprisoned in 1961. Security guards will not let you in, but you can see the modest house clearly enough from the street. You can also have a glimpse of the mansion belonging to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in an affluent part of Orlando West. Archbishop Desmond Tutu's house, the Sisulu residence and the Hector Pieterson memorial museum are in the same neighbourhood. The recently renovated museum offers a detailed account of the events of 1976, including visuals and eye-witness accounts.

Soweto, Johannesburg
For insight into African traditional medicinal practice, check out the Credo Mutwa village in Central Western Jabavu. Mutwa is an African traditional healer and fortune teller who claims to have foreseen some significant political developments, such as the assassination of Chris Hani in 1994. He advocates the appreciation of indigenous cultural practices and forms of knowledge.

Along the Old Potchefstroom Road, you come across Regina Mundi: a local church which became home to many anti-apartheid organisations. The church encapsulates the spirit of resistance and is rich in political history. In Kliptown, you can visit Freedom Square, a place where the Freedom Charter was adopted as the guiding document of the Congress Alliance. This was a gathering of various political and cultural formations representing different constituencies to map a way forward in the repressive climate of the 1950s. The charter was the guiding document of the African National Congress and envisaged an alternative non-racial dispensation in which "all shall be equal before the law."

Soweto offers other less aesthetically pleasing sights for a visitor. For instance, there are the hostels: monstrous, prison-like buildings, designed to shelter male migrant workers from the rural areas and neighbouring countries. These workers were used as cheap labour and their stay in the city was considered temporary. The new government has converted some of these into 'family units,' but they remain unbending in their ugliness. Recent years have seen the emergence of squatter camp communities, euphemistically called informal settlements, where poverty is palpable. This is partly because of the scrapping of the 'influx control' regulations that prohibited people in the countryside from settling in the cities. These camps are home to many of the unemployed who use corrugated iron sheets to build shelters. These places lack basic amenities like running water and electricity and are a hazard to live in. Home to the destitute, there are no yards to speak of and privacy is sacrificed for communal well-being. These shacks get extremely hot in summer and freezing cold in winter.

Despite their poverty, these people have managed to build a strong sense of community. They remain in Johannesburg in search of the elusive gold. Many of these places have been named after the icons of the struggle who have since left in response to the beckoning of upward mobility. One such settlement is the Mandela squatter camp some seven kilometres from Baragwanath hospital.

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Soweto Reviews

average visitor rating: 5/5"Soweto is a fascinating place! Unlike no other! Rich in history (understatement), diverse in culture, amazing business opportunities, warm, friendly people who ..." - Len Swart, Vanderbijlpark

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Featured Attractions in (or near) Soweto

Apartheid Museum

The Apartheid Museum is the story of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Beginning in 1948, the white elected National Party government initiated a process which turned over 20 million people into 2nd class citizens, damning them to a life of servitude, humiliation and abuse. Their liberation in ... more information

Hector Pieterson Memorial

The Hector Pieterson Memorial and museum opened in Soweto in 2002, not far from the spot where 12 year-old Hector was shot on the 16 June 1976 during the Soweto uprising that today is a symbol of resistance to the brutality of the apartheid government. Soweto, a city developed as a township for black ... more information


Kliptown is the oldest district in Soweto, famous as the site known as the Congress of the People, where 3 000 gathered together in 1955 to write the Freedom Charter. It later served as the basis for South Africa's liberal constitution. There is more history. The place where they met was ... more information

Kliptown Open Air Museum

Standing in Freedom Square in Soweto, the Kliptown Open Air Museum, dedicated to Walter Sisulu, tells the story of the drafting of the Freedom Charter. And it does so via photographs, art, song, news clipping and narration. It is a thoroughly visual journey made by visitors to the museum, one that ... more information

Mandela Family Museum

Nelson Mandela's humble house in Orlando West, Soweto, now called the Mandela Family Museum, is an interesting stopover for those keen to imbibe a slice of authentic history on the world's most famous former prisoner. The museum, a house comprising four inter-leading rooms, contains a rather ... more information

Oppenheimer Gardens

In the midst of Soweto, on the corner of Majoeng and Ntsane Streets, you will find a garden. Actually it looks as if it could be a forest, the many trees of the garden are so dense, and it certainly qualifies as a bird sanctuary for this reason. The Oppenheimer's already have a gorgeous garden in the more affluent suburbs of ... more information

Soccer City Johannesburg

Soccer City is earmarked to host both the opening and final matches of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Built in 1987, Soccer City has played host to some of the most memorable matches in South Africa’s soccer history. Soccer City has been enlarged to a seat 94 700 for soccer’s showcase event. Some significant changes ... more information

Soweto Overnight Tours

Visit this fascinating town, meet her people, learn about the history of Soweto from the people who experienced it, dine in her restaurants, visit a Shebeen (local Pub), take a guided tour and perhaps visit the Hector Peterson Memorial Site, Nelson Mandela's former home (now a museum), Baragwanath ... more information

Soweto Tours

The Soweto Tour: The Soweto tour gives you the opportunity to gain a new perspective and personal insight into the largest Black city in Africa. Soweto is synonymous with the struggle for freedom in South Africa and is a vibrant, culturally rich township situated on the outskirts of Johannesburg. Within ... more information

Vilakazi Street

Just about every tour through Soweto stops at Vilakazi Street. There is reason enough. It is probably the most famous street in the huge Soweto township. Both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu lived here – how many places can claim that two Nobel Prize winners lived in the same street. In fact ... more information

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Things To Do in Soweto

Power Swing across Soweto

Where: Soweto
How much (per person): Price on request

Feel the power of gravity now where the power of electricity stood before. Free fall into a town that has arisen. The decommissioned cooling ... more information

Diepkloof Park

Where: Soweto
How much (per person): Free

The suburb famous for the Soweto Wine Festival - three nights of wine and festivities -, one of the founding places of kwaito (a style of h ... more information

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Restaurants in Soweto

Choc's Restaurant & Bar

Where: Soweto

Choc's Restaurant & Bar, the trendiest restaurant in the heart of Soweto is situated close to Maponya Mall and about 5km to The Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown. Famous for being the vibey place ... more information

Jazz Maniacs Restaurant

Where: Soweto

The music of the townships served as an important platform and vehicle for developing singers and instrumentalists. The 1950's was the era of Jazz development in South Africa. This 60 seat Jazz Maniac ... more information

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Events and/or Festivals in Soweto

Soweto Marathon

Location: Soweto
Duration: 1 day

More Information

event starts: 02 November 2014
Soweto Fashion Week

Location: Soweto
Duration: 4 days

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event starts: 26 November 2014

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Soweto Map
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