Soweto: from struggle to suburbia

Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was signed.
Walter Sisulu Square in the heart of Kliptown, Soweto, forms part of a new tourism spine that has brought in over 1-million visitors keen to explore and understand the township’s role in the struggle against apartheid. (Images: Brand South Africa)

Brand South Africa Reporter

The vast township of Soweto, once the centre of violence and turmoil in the struggle against apartheid, has become something of a scenic tourist attraction in the 20 years since the end of National Party rule.

Getting its name from the apartheid designation of South Western Townships, Soweto was built as a shantytown on the edge of Johannesburg. It was essentially a dumping ground for black citizens, far from work and the white suburbs. Between 1955 and 1958 the government, vigorously implementing its apartheid policies, moved thousands of black South Africans from the city to Soweto.

As with all townships, it was ignored by the former regime. Its dusty roads were unpaved and untreed; tiny matchbox houses were built out of a mix of iron, wood and brick. Backyard shacks and informal settlements marked the place, which, at over 200 square kilometres, is the largest township in the country. By 2003, Greater Soweto consisted of 87 townships.

Today it is almost unrecognisable: an economic hub of activity with a fully-fledged upper, middle and lower social class, its roads are tarred and trees shade its many green spaces.

Rebuilding the township

Since 1994, a huge amount of work has gone into developing Soweto and reintegrating it into the city.

More than 100 000 houses have been built or refurbished in the township over the past 20 years, according to the Presidency’s Twenty Year Review, and all outstanding water, electricity and sanitation connections to thousands of houses – neglected during apartheid – have been completed. Sowetan residential property is now booming, with the highest average prices in the affordable housing market segment countrywide.

Some 314 kilometres of gravel roads have been tarred, and all other roads resurfaced, kerbed, pedestrianised, linked to a new cycleway, provided with street lights, and integrated into a comprehensive stormwater system. Soweto is also home to Africa’s biggest healthcare facility, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

Over the past 20 years retail space has grown from fewer than 60 000 square metres to 220 000. Five new major shopping malls with major retail anchor tenants have been established – including the flagship Maponya Mall.

A new tourism spine has brought in over 1-million visitors keen to explore and understand Soweto’s role in the struggle against apartheid. The spine links the Vilakazi Street precinct, where tourists can see the house museums of Soweto’s two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu, with the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum and the 12-kilometre June 16th Route, the Regina Mundi Parish Church – the gathering point for protest meetings and refuge from the apartheid brutalities – and loops back to Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was signed.

Other tourist attractions include the Oppenheimer Tower, Credo Mutwa Cultural Village and Orlando Towers, former cooling towers, colourfully painted, that offer spectacular views of the city – and heart-stopping bungee jumps. The township also hosts the Soweto Open tennis tournament, the Soweto marathon, and the Soweto Wine Festival, among other regular events that draw crowds of thousands.

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The colourfully painted Orlando Towers, formerly cooling towers for a now-decommissioned power station, are a prominent Soweto landmark and popular tourist attraction.

The home of South African soccer

Soweto has produced the highest number of professional soccer teams in the country. Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs and Moroka Swallows were all born there, and remain among the leading teams in the Premier Soccer League.

Sport is big in the area. FNB Stadium, the country’s largest stadium, is in Soweto. Known as Soccer City during the soccer World Cup in 2010, for which it was purpose built, it is the centre of soccer in South Africa. It is the home ground of the national soccer team, Bafana Bafana, as well as Kaizer Chiefs, and the preferred venue for major concerts.

Other sports facilities in Soweto include Eldorado Park Stadium, Moroka Swallows’ Dobsonville Stadium, Jabavu Stadium, Noordgesig Stadium, Orlando Pirates’ home ground of Orlando Stadium, and Meadowlands Stadium.

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FNB Stadium was completely rebuilt for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

Converting hostels into homes

Apartheid’s migrant labour system relied on men transported far from their homes into the city, where they would live and work far from their families. These labourers were often housed in single-sex hostels, brutal and often violent places. Today, the Johannesburg Housing Company is busy converting these structures into comfortable family homes.

Once such development is Orlando Ekhaya, a huge affordable rental housing project. Here the city of Johannesburg has invested some R130-million in good-quality, high-density family flats in the Soweto suburb of Orlando.

Orlando Ekhaya is being constructed in three phases, with the first phase, converting a single-sex hostel into 102 family dwellings, completed in 2011. The next two phases, to be completed this year, are to convert a further 76 family homes, and build 112 new four-storey, walk-up units on vacant land near the former hostel.

Hostels elsewhere in Soweto are getting the same treatment, such as in the suburb of Jabulani, where 401 family homes are being built out of a former hostel, as well as in Dube, Diepkloof and Meadowlands.

Half a million trees

Johannesburg is known as the world’s largest man-made urban forest, with some of its trees dating back to the early 1900s. But while the city itself was green, for decades Soweto was drab and dusty, with only a few trees planted in the 1950s. The Greening of Soweto project, launched in 2006 with the planting of 6 000 trees – and an ultimate aim of half a million – is perhaps the city’s biggest green revolution.

Since then more than 200 000 new trees have been planted and six new ecoparks built. In 2008 Nelson Mandela planted the 90 990th tree, on his 90th birthday. The aim is for a further 300 000 to be planted by 2016.

The greening project has received two separate gold awards at the UN Liveable Community Awards, one in 2008 and again in 2010.

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Open spaces have been refurbished towards Bara Taxi Rank.

Transport upgrades

Given the almost total lack of investment in public transport by the previous government, for decades minibus taxis and rail were the main means of getting around Soweto and into Johannesburg. The township’s transport hub is the Bara Bus and Taxi Rank, near the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital – or Bara as it is commonly called.

The rank, the biggest and busiest bus and taxi rank in Soweto, was given a massive facelift in 2003 thanks to a R60-million government investment over a three-year period. According to the City of Joburg Property Company, R100-million was spent on the Bara Central Redevelopment, which aimed to transform the public environment, upgrade the area into a vibrant high-density mixed-use destination with an underground parkade, a new public square with artwork and an upgrade of the streets.

Twenty years of freedom have seen heavy investment is Soweto’s public transport. The city of Johannesburg’s Rea Vaya bus rapid transit system was first rolled out in the township, as an attempt to fix the irrational spatial planning of apartheid and provide affordable transport to those forced to live furthest from their places of work.

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Minibus taxis stream past the Bara Taxi Rank on Old Potchefstroom Road, Soweto.

Shopping malls, businesses and a theatre

A number of neighbourhood shopping centres were developed in the 1980s around the Soweto, but it was only in 1994 that Soweto’s first major shopping complex was built, in Dobsonville. In 2005, the Protea Gardens Mall opened, followed by the Bara Mall in Diepkloof, adjacent to the hospital and taxi rank, and, in 2006, the Jabulani Mall.

The following year, Soweto’s homegrown millionaire Richard Maponya opened the township’s first mega mall, the 65 000 square metre, R650-million Maponya Mall on Chris Hani Road.

In 2012, the city of Johannesburg opened the state-of-the-art Soweto Theatre as part of a multimillion-rand investment in Jabulani. It includes the R320-million shopping mall, the 300-bed Jabulani Provincial Hospital, and a residential area with three- to five-storey walk-up blocks of flats.

The hospital was built to alleviate pressure on clinics and on Bara, the only government hospital in the massive township.

Business facilities in Soweto are also being considered, and in her State of the Province address in 2013, Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane said the provincial government had partnered with Century Property Development Company to establish a R1.6-billion industrial park in Diepsloot.

The once dusty and desperate streets of Soweto are being turned into a tidy city of their own, complete with all the facilities and amenities needed for modern life.

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A massive elephant sculpture welcomes shoppers to the mega Maponya Mall. (Image: Media Club South Africa photo library. Click for a larger view.)

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