Soweto, heartbeat of the nation

Infused with the history of the struggle against apartheid and abuzz with the energy of the city of gold, Soweto is a must-see for tourists who are looking for more than sun, sea and the big five.

A street in Soweto
Soweto – melting pot of South African urban culture, rich with the history of the struggle against apartheid. (Image: Gauteng Film Commission)

Brand South Africa reporter

With heritage sites, restaurants, shebeens and budget accommodation options aplenty, Soweto is well worth visiting, whether on a day tour or for a longer period to experience the real Soweto – a place of friendship, vibrancy and contrasts.

Soweto is the most populous black urban residential area in the country, with Census 2001 putting its population at close to a million. Thanks to its proximity to Johannesburg, the economic hub of the country, it is also the most metropolitan township in the country – setting trends in politics, fashion, music, dance and language.

The making of Soweto

Soweto may sound like an African name, but the word was originally an acronym for “South Western Townships”. A cluster of townships sprawling across a vast area 20 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg, Soweto was, from the start, a product of segregationist planning.

It was back in 1904 that Klipspruit, the oldest of a cluster of townships that constitute present day Soweto, was established. The township was created to house mainly black labourers, who worked in mines and other industries in the city, away from the city centre. The inner city was later to be reserved for white occupation as the policy of segregation took root.

In the 1950s, more black people were relocated there from “black spots” in inner city Johannesburg – black neighbourhoods which the apartheid government then reserved for whites.

It was not until 1963 that the acronym “Soweto” was adopted, following a four-year public competition on an appropriate name for the sprawling township.

Soweto’s growth was phenomenal – but unplanned. Despite government attempts to curb 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 fast-growing city of gold.

The perennial problems of Soweto have, since its inception, included poor housing, overcrowding, high unemployment and poor infrastructure. This has seen settlements of shacks made of corrugated iron sheets becoming part of the Soweto landscape.

Apartheid planning did not provide much in terms of infrastructure, and it is only in recent years that the democratic government has spearheaded moves to plant trees, develop parks, and provide electricity and running water to the township.

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.

Rich political history

Soweto’s rich political history has guaranteed it a place on the world map. Those who know very little else about South Africa are often familiar with the word “Soweto” and the township’s significance in the struggle against apartheid.

Regina Mundi Church became home to numerous anti-apartheid organisations and hosted the funerals of scores of political activists.

Since it came into being, Soweto was at the centre of campaigns to overthrow the apartheid state. The 1976 student uprising, also known as the Soweto Uprisings, began in Soweto and spread from there to the rest of the country. Other politically charged campaigns to have germinated in Soweto include the squatter movement of the 1940s and the defiance campaigns of the mid to late 1980s.

The area has also spawned many political, sporting and social luminaries, including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu – two Nobel peace price laureates, who once lived in the now famous Vilakazi Street in Orlando West.

Other prominent figures to have come from Soweto include boxing legend, Baby Jake Matlala, singing diva Yvonne Chaka Chaka and soccer maestro Jomo Sono. Others include mathematician Prof Thamsanqa Kambule, medical doctor Nthato Motlana and prominent journalist Aggrey Klaaste.

The township has also produced the highest number of professional soccer teams in the country. Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs and Moroka Swallows all emerged from the township, and remain among the biggest soccer teams in the Premier Soccer League.

There are plenty of politically significant landmarks, including the houses of some world-famous anti-apartheid activists.

Just a few kilometres drive from Diepkloof is Orlando, home to Nelson Mandela’s first house, not surprisingly a popular tourist attraction. Mandela stayed here with his then wife, Winnie, before he was imprisoned in 1961 and jailed for 27 years.

The house is now a museum, run by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and contains memorabilia from the short time they lived there together before Mandela went into hiding. Mandela now lives in Houghton, a suburb several kilometres north of Johanneburg’s city centre, with his third wife, Graca, widow of the late Mozambican president Samora Machel.

One can also glimpse the high-security mansion belonging to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in an affluent part of Orlando West.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house, the residence of ANC stalwarts Walter and Albertina Sisula, 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.

Hector Pieterson Museum
When you visit the Hector Pieterson Museum in Orlando West, Soweto, you’ll see Nzima’s legendary photograph showing the unconscious Hector being carried by Makhubo, with Hector’s sister – now Antoinette Sithole – running alongside. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Hector Pieterson, who was shot dead by police during the student uprisings which spread around the country and changed the course of history for South Africa, and the famous picture of his lifeless body being carried by mourning youths, have come to symbolise the 1976 Uprisings.

In Kliptown, you can visit Freedom Square, a place where the Freedom Charter was adopted as the guiding document of the Congress Alliance – a broad alliance of various political and cultural formations 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.”

Mansions and ‘match-box’ houses

Soweto is a place of contrasts: rows of tin shanties abut luxurious mansions; piles of garbage and pitted roads offset green fields and rustic streams.

Soweto has the same vibrant, racy feel of Johannesburg, of which it is an integral part. Despite the high unemployment rate there is a cheerful energy, a bustle of activity, with informal traders plying their wares on every corner.

From the footbridge of the world-renowned Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, one has a panoramic view of Soweto. In the immediate vicinity of the bridge many people mill around – hawkers peddling a variety of goods, shoppers looking for bargains, and of course the ever-present commuters hurrying to board taxis.

Further afield, the barrenness that comprises much of the old Soweto comes into view – the small brown houses of Old Diepkloof and Orlando townships, in stark contrast to the colourful shades and tree-lined streets of the newer parts like Diepkloof Extension, home to the relatively affluent.

In Diepkloof the grey, four-roomed dwellings, cynically called “matchbox houses” by locals, abound. These are the original dwellings constructed to accommodate the first black migrants to the city. Although they are small, locals take pride in their houses, and put much effort into making them habitable and cosy.

In contrast to these symbols of poverty, there are the various “extensions” that have been established to accommodate the relatively affluent. One example is Pimville Extension, home to the emerging black middle class. The suburb boasts beautiful houses, the roads are good, playgrounds and schools are in mint condition.

Migrant hostels, squatter camps

Soweto offers plenty of other less aesthetically pleasing sights for the 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; historically, they always lived on the fringes of Soweto communities. The new government is busy converting the hostels into family units, but they remain unbending in their ugliness.

Then there are the squatter camp communities, euphemistically called “informal settlements”, where poverty is palpable. These camps are home to many of the unemployed, who use corrugated iron sheets to build shelters. Despite their poverty, these shackdwellers have managed to build a strong sense of community. They remain in Johannesburg in search of the elusive “gold”.

A place to party

Recent years have seen Soweto become a site of massive development projects and a major tourist attraction in the country.

For those looking for a night out in the ghetto, Soweto offers some popular joints for relaxation. There are plenty of venues that offer a relaxed atmosphere, pleasant music (both dance and ballads) and a jolly good time.

Perhaps the most popular of these joints is Wandie’s Place in Dube. It is a cosy restaurant-bar-lounge popular with tourists and it offers great service. Other taverns in the area are Pallazo Distella in Dube, Club 707, a restaurant and bar or Ubuntu Kraal, both in Orlando West.

You may prefer to visit one of the popular shebeens of the township. Shebeens are local drinking joints. They have survived the attempts of the authorities to shut them down and the condemnation from the pulpits of local churches to become thriving informal social centres patronized by local socialites.

Some of the better known shebeens are: Tyson’s in Pimville, Vardos in Mapetla, The Rock in Rockville, Boyce in Diepkloof, and Cornish in White City.

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