Soweto, Johannesburg

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.

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.

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.

Travellers' Reviews

1 Review from travellers. All reviews are verified.

Verified reviewexcellent

Soweto is a fascinating place! Unlike no other! Rich in history (understatement), diverse in culture, amazing business opportunities, warm, friendly people who are very appreciative for what they have and what you do for them! Developed and developing (more of) demography all in 1!

Len Swart (Vanderbijlpark)

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