Soweto is arguably the most famous black township in South Africa, but surprisingly the name that sounds so ‘African’ is an acronym for ‘South Western Townships’ coined during the apartheid era. It is a sprawling 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. The spots were black neighborhoods which the apartheid government had reserved for whites.
Soweto is a city of enterprise and culture, hence a popular tourist destination. Located on the outskirts of South Africa’s economic hub Johannesburg, the township is a trend setter in politics, fashion, music, dance and language.
As one of the founding places for kwaito, a style of hip-hop specific to South Africa, which combines many elements of house music, American hip-hop, and traditional African music, and became a strong force amongst black South Africans. 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 would like to see all facets of the rainbow nation.
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 (both Nobel peace price laureates), Musician Yvonne Chaka Chaka and soccer maestro Jomo Sono, and football star Doctor Khumalo.
In fact, Soweto has produced the highest number of professional soccer teams in the country like Orlando Pirates, Kaizer Chiefs and Moroka Swallows.
Its attractions include Kliptown Freedom Square, where the Freedom Charter was drawn up, former President Nelson Mandela’s home, the Hector Petersen Memorial site, restaurants and shopping malls.
Nelson Mandela’s first house is not surprisingly a popular tourist attraction. Mandela stayed there with his then wife, Winnie, before he was imprisoned in 1961 and jailed for 27 years.
Today, it contains memorabilia from the short time they lived there together before Mandela went into hiding. One can also glimpse the high-security mansion belonging to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in an affluent part of Orlando West which is a symbol of the current Soweto – a mixture of old poverty and new black affluence.
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 has the same vibrant, racy feel of Johannesburg, and the high unemployment rate is not an impediment to a cheerful energy, a bustle of activity, with informal traders plying their wares on every corner. A night out in the ghettos of Soweto is an eye-opener in the townships bustling nightlife.