Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnships) is a very familiar name, but I would imagine most people's knowledge about the Township, starts and ends with the riots of 1976, when thousands of school children voiced their objection to being treated as second class citizens.

I've helped tourists through the years plan their itineraries, and always suggested Township tours, but more often than not, felt a bit of apprehension on their side.
That's all changed, and happily that dread is no longer.
Soweto is now Johannesburg's #1 tourist attraction and South Africa's most popular Township tour!

The match box houses that are home to the majority of the residents of Soweto
The match-box houses that are home to the majority of the residents of Soweto

With some of the defining moments in the history of South Africa so intertwoven in its uneven streets, Soweto Township should be a compulsory stop for all foreigners - as well as locals!

The best way to experience this Township is to use a Soweto guide or take a Soweto tour, as getting around on your own in the organised chaos, can be quite confusing.

The former home of Nelson Mandela, which should give an insight into his lifestyle before Robben Island, has been re-developed at a cost of R9 million, and tragically lost all of its charm.

It retains the brick and mortar structure that Nelson Mandela moved into with his first wife, Evelyn Mase in 1946 - but unfortunately little else!

The bedroom of Nelson Mandela in the Mandela House Museum in Soweto
The bedroom of Nelson Mandela in the Mandela House Museum in Soweto

My first visit was shortly after it had been declared a national heritage site in 1999, and I loved the intimacy and the reality.
I felt honoured to be there, and felt as tough I was a guest in the great man's home.
Today, it's no longer where he lived, but a monument to where his home once stood.

The Hector Pieterson Museum is an incredibly powerful and thought provoking experience.
It almost comes across as an interpretive centre, as it explores a short series of local events, and relates to how they had far reaching effects on the country and its future.
It's basically a museum to A-Day-In-The-Life-Of-South-Africa.
A day that changed history.
It's a very sobering experience, so allow yourself plenty of time to wander around.

I found the Regina Mundi Church, famous for the political “sermons” that were delivered at the height of the township's resistance in the 70's and 80's, enthralling.
It's one of the largest catholic churches in South Africa, and the bullet holes in the ceiling, the broken alter and the damaged figure of Christ all echo the absolute disregard, or possible desperation, of the police when they stormed the church on June 16th 1976.
It's lovingly referred to by residents as the Queen, or the Parliament, of the Township!
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a symbolic act, chose this church for the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation from 1995 to 1998.

The Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication is no longer the dusty square where the Freedom Charter, which is the basis for the country's constitution, was adopted on the 26th June 1955.
Like the “remodeling” of the Mandela House, I find the square somewhat sterile and devoid of its previous vibrancy as a community clothes market.
It falls short of its intent to involve the people, and the square, which is in the old suburb of Kliptown, has done little to alleviate the unemployment, poverty and the lack of service delivery in the suburb.
Of interest, is the conical “shrine” - the Freedom Charter Monument, which is dedicated to the 10 pillars on which the present South African Constitution is based.
A flame, symbolising "an Eternal Light of Freedom", burns 24 hours a day in the facebrick monument.
The ten columns in the traffic circle outside the square, again represent the 10 pillars on which the South African Constitution is based.

On the southern side of the Square is the Kliptown Museum, housed in the building that, in times gone by, was Jada's Hardaware.
The Kliptown Museum is is a fairly small museum, but is unique in that all the exhibits have been made by crafters and artists.
The displays depict the roots of democracy and the collective visions of various people who never gave up hope.

The Hastings Ndlovu Memorial Site, 600 meteres away from where Hector Pieterson was shot and killed, is on the old Orlando West bridge on Kumalo Main Road.
This site marks the spot where Hastings Ndlovo, 3 years older than Pieterson, was shot by police on 16th June 1976.
It was believed that he was the first child shot by police, but only died later in the day - after Pieterson, of his injuries.
Sadly, somewhat neglected and run down!

If you're an adrenaline junkie, take a swing or bunjee jump - the first of its kind in the world, from one of the old Orlando Towers.
The Orlando Towers were originally built for the Orlando Power Station, which at the time was the most advance facility in the southern hemisphere.
Although the power station is located in Soweto, the electricity was used to light the white suburbs, whilst Soweto remained in the dark!

Chaf Pozi, a restaurant/pub situated at the base of the Orlando Towers, is a very popular spot to eat and drink.

The Orlando Stadium, built in 1959, was the venue for many a derby match between the Soweto football giants of Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates and the lesser supported, Moroka Swallows.
The Orlando Stadium was later used for political rallies, and rose to prominence during the Soweto student uprising of 16th June 1976, when a mass meeting of the Township's schoolchildren was planned.
The Orlando Stadium had a huge facelift when it was chosen as a training venue for the 2010 Football World Cup.

The Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, with close on 3,000 beds, is the largest trauma hospital in the world!
It is the only public hospital serving the sprawl of Soweto.
Hastings Ndlovu, and other children caught up in the 1976 riots, were brought to this hospital, and it was here that Hastings Ndlovu died of his wounds.

The Avalon Cemetry is the most prominent in the country as the final resting place for heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle.
Those buried here include Hector Pieterson - the first victim of the 1976 riots; student leaders Tsietsi Mashinini and Khotso Seatlholo; Communist party leader Joe Slovo; human rights activist Helen Joseph and Rivonia trialist Elias Motsoaledi.

The 1976 Memorial Acre is situated opposite the Morris Isaacson High School and contains several artistic figures and a commemorative wall.
It was proclaimed in 2006, on the 30th anniversary of the 16th June 1976 Soweto uprising.
Like so many sites throughout the Johannesburg area, it is sadly very neglected and run down!

The Oppenheimer Tower offers a good view of the layout of the area below.
The bricks for the tower were taken from demolished Sophiatown houses - from 1955 onwards, when residents were forcibly removed to Soweto.

Don't miss the Credo Mutwa Village in the grounds of the Oppenheimer Tower.
It's an outdoor museum that displays traditional African art, culture and folklore.
The artist, author and traditional healer, Credo Mutwa, has constructed both human and animal sculptures and built a number of traditional homes, using a number of African building styles.

The area across the road from the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital - the Baragwanath Taxi Rank and Trader's Market, is one of the biggest taxi ranks in the country, and displays some interesting community art.
The area is hectic and dusty and so typically Africa.
Go walkabout and soak up the sights and sounds of real Africa, with the barbers, street vendors and open air butcher shops.
Let go of all inhibitions, and try a “smilie” - a roasted sheep's head!
I haven't been brave enough to try one, but have been told that they are really delicious!!

Admire the little matchbox houses, and the proud homeowners, across the unnamed road in Diepkloof Zone 6.

Without feeling like a voyeur, take a walk with a local through the rutted streets of the Elias Motsoaledi Settlement.
Share the pride of the residents for what they have, despite it being very little.

Maponya Mall, Soweto's largest shopping mall, is much like any other, although people-watching over a cup of coffee, is a really interesting exercise.

Music has been prominent in the Township, and older styles such marabi - a keyboard style, similar to American ragtime, and its offshoot, kwela - with its unique sound of the pennywhistle, have been followed by the more recent kwaito, which is a style of hip-hop specific to South Africa.
Sowto is also home to groups such as the Soweto Gospel Choir and the Soweto String Quartet.

A visit to a restaurant or a shebeen, is a must to absorb the real atmosphere of the Township.
Personally I'm not a fan of Township food as I find it very much more-of-the-same, and somewhat boring, but on one visit, I had folk from overseas say their Soweto meal was the best food they'd had during their entire stay in South African - so you be the judge!

What I do like is the chisa nyama, where you buy your piece of meat - although it does tend to be a cheap cut with lots of fat, and then have it cooked in front of you on an open fire.
Usually a great social atmosphere, especially after a local soccer derby, or whilst watching the Soweto Marathon!

Page uploaded : 13th October 2011
Page updated : 5th November 2013

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