A Tour of Soweto – 72 Things You Need to Know

Soweto first came to the attention of the international media when a photograph of a young man carrying a dying 14-year Hector Pieterson during the Soweto Uprising made world headlines. This heartrending photograph, with his crying sister running alongside, exposed the brutality of the apartheid police and triggered an international movement to intervene in the struggle of Black South Africans who were fighting oppression and the severe domination of the National government.

Today Soweto has risen from the ashes of apartheid to become a thriving powerhouse in South Africa’s economic landscape. Soweto is rich in history and, while it enjoys the spoils of modern development, the residents of the city pay homage to its roots; safeguarding its historical heritage with museums and statues that honour the great struggle veterans who fought for freedom and equality.

Soweto Uprising

A tour of Soweto takes you past iconic landmarks to the famed Vilakazi Street that is the only known street in the world to boast being the former home of two Nobel Peace Prize winners; Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. A knowledgeable guide that was born and bred in Soweto regales tales of historical events that shaped the destiny of this great city.

A Soweto tour exposes you to the hardships of daily life of Soweteans, many of which still live in abject poverty; and then moves on to massive urban developments that showcase an upwelling of wealth and prosperity in the region. A highlight of a tour of Soweto includes lunch at a local tavern (street restaurant) where tourists can sample authentic African cuisine and interact with the warm and welcoming patrons.

MORE ABOUT SOWETO

Soweto is a township of the city of Johannesburg in Gauteng, South Africa. It borders the historical mining belt in the south in a region previously known as the Witwatersrand Basin and the epicentre of South Africa’s gold rush era.

The origin of Soweto

Soweto Tours - 16 June 1976
The rise of the people of Soweto

Its name is an abbreviation of the label South Western Townships, formerly a separate municipality but now incorporated in the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality. When gold was discovered in Johannesburg, thousands of migrant workers and immigrants descended on the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republic (ZAR) and settled in shanty towns to the south of the city.

When the National Party of the former Transvaal Republic came into power, they imposed regulations that sought to separate the White working class citizens from the Bantu (Black African) population and new suburbs were laid out for Burghers (Whites), Coolies (Indians) and Malays (Coloureds).

Most of the Black migrant workers had by this stage moved far out of town to the farm Klipspruit (later called Pimville), south-west of Johannesburg. The council had erected iron huts next to Kliptown, the oldest Black residential district of Johannesburg. Soweto as we know it today was laid out on Klipspruit and an adjoining farm called Diepkloof. It was not unlawful in the former Transvaal Colony for “people of colour” to own property and Blacks were encouraged to buy property in an area that became known as Sophiatown.

In 1923, the national government passed the Natives (Urban Areas) Act; with the purpose being to provided improved conditions for residence living in settlements segregated as native urban areas. The Act was used to control access to these townships and to restrict their consumption of “intoxicating” liqueur. The council by this stage had bought land in the Klipspruit area and the first housing development there became known as Orlando Location. Most of the houses were temporary single-room shelters suitable for single men working at the mines.

Towards the end of World War II there was an acute shortage of housing in Johannesburg. Homeless Blacks were encouraged by a political activist to squat on vacant land in the Orlando Location; the squatter camp burgeoned until the City Council’s resistance waned and it was agreed that an emergency camp would be established for close to a thousand families. It was called Central Western Jabavu.

A second wave of land invasions took place in 1945 with some 30 000 squatters congregating west of Orlando. A new emergency camp was established called Moroka and a thousand sites made available for homeless families. It became one of Johannesburg’s worst slum areas; with communal bucket-system toilets and scarce access to running water. Both Moroka and Jabavu shanty camps were demolished in 1955; by which stage there were close to 90 000 inhabitants squatting in the area.

These rural townships received limited resources from the City Council and the inhabitants endured extreme hardships. The settlements were located far from the hub of the gold mining operations and the mine workers had to travel great distances to get to work. The mass settlement region was thrown a lifeline in 1941 when the British government built a military hospital on the road between Johannesburg and Potchefstroom. It was called The Imperial Military Hospital, Baragwanath.

The Transvaal Provincial Administration bought the hospital at the end of the war and created the Black section of Johannesburg (known as the Non-European Hospital). This renowned hospital was renamed Chris Hani-Baragwanath Hospital in 1997, in honour of the struggle veteran who fought alongside Nelson Mandela to bring about democratic change.

In 1952, the national government passed the Bantu Services Levy Act which imposed a levy on employers of African labourers. The levy was used to finance basic services in Black townships. The City Council built 6 500 houses in Jabavu and Mofolo; using a standard design for a low-cost, four-bedroomed, 40 sq/metre house. Another township called Dube Village was established for the “more urbanised and economically-advanced Natives”. Tenants could purchase stands and erect a dwelling that conformed to approved building plans.

Match-box houses built during the apartheid era

Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, a wealthy mining magnate, arranged a loan of £3 million from the mining industry which was used to build an additional 14 000 houses. The national government, who was growing increasingly bothered by the burgeoning growth of these Black townships, passed the Native Resettlement Act, which permitted the government to remove Blacks from suburbs like Sophiatown, Newclare and Western Native Townships. Displaced Blacks were forcibly removed to Meadowlands and Diepkloof.

The City Council launched a competition to find a collective name for all the townships south-west of the central business district of Johannesburg. In 1963, the official name of Soweto was adopted, an abbreviated form of South-Western Townships. After years of tension between the national government and the independent City Council, the West Rand Administration Board took over the administration control of Soweto; a consequence of the Black Affairs Administration Act that was passed in 1971.

The chairman of the board at the time had no idea of the troubled times that lay ahead when he was famously quoted in a newspaper as saying, “The broad masses of Soweto are perfectly content, perfectly happy. Black-White relationships at present are as healthy as can be. There is no danger whatever of a blow-up in Soweto.”

The Soweto Uprising

Soweto Tours - Soweto Uprising 1976
Turbulent times in Soweto

In 1976, the Soweto Uprising brought about an extended period of conflict and loss of life. The origins of this tumultuous era started when mass protests erupted when Black residents objected to the government’s policy that forced schools to teach scholars in Afrikaans, rather than their native language.

A group of some 10 000 students marched from Naledi High School to Orlando Stadium, a scuffle ensued and the riot police opened fire. Twenty-three schoolchildren died on this tragic day, including Hector Pieterson. Dr Melville Edelstein, a lifelong humanitarian, also died on the first day of what would become known as the Soweto Riots.

A photograph captured by a young newspaper journalist of a dying 14-year boy made international headlines and the impact of the tragic end to the children’s march reverberated around the world. Economic and cultural sanctions were imposed and political activists fled the country to train for a guerrilla resistance.

Soweto Tours - 16 June 1976
School children marching to Orlando Stadium

Soweto and other Black townships became the stage for violent state repression. The Black inhabitants fought back and the leaders of the struggle movement garnered international support to bring about radical change to the oppressive and severe domination of the apartheid government. In response, the state withdrew financial support for urban development and finally handed Soweto its municipal independence to Black councillors in 1983, in line with the Black Local Authorities Act.

The embattled Black councillors struggled to address housing and infrastructural problems and were accused by township residents of benefitting financially from the oppressive regime. Municipal elections were subsequently boycotted and, in the years that followed, a depressing stalemate between the Black residents and the apartheid government prevailed.

The struggle movement gained momentum during the 1980s; educational and economic boycotts were initiated and student bodies were organised. Street committees and civic organisations were established as alternatives to state-imposed structures. Such actions were strengthened by the call issued by African National Congress in 1985 to make the country ungovernable. The state forbade public gatherings and church buildings like Regina Mundi were used for political meetings.

A young Nelson Mandela

Political unrest finally came to its bitter end when then President FW de Klerk authorised the release of Nelson Mandela and other struggle veterans. The first democratic election was held in 1995 with the ANC winning by a huge majority. Nelson Mandela was elected the first Black president of South Africa and his leadership heralded the dawn of a new democracy.

The people of Soweto

Soweto remains a predominantly Black city; with a multi-cultural mix of Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Venda and Tsonga inhabitants. The 2011 census estimated it to have a population of close to 1.3 million inhabitants; with some 6 400 inhabitants per square kilometre. Soweto is also home to small communities of Coloured and Asian residents.

Historically, Soweto was not allowed to create employment centres and the majority of residents were forced to commute long distances to work in other parts of the city of Johannesburg. Most commuters today travel the same long route on the popular mini buses whose drivers are notorious for their impatient behaviour.

The Soweto Highway, with dedicated taxiways, links Soweto with Johannesburg and Metrorail operates commuter trains along the same route. The N1 Western Bypass skirts the eastern boundary of Soweto, taking commuters to the outlying suburbs of Johannesburg.

The majority of residents still live in the old “matchbox” houses that were built by the apartheid government or the four-roomed houses built as cheap accommodation for the Black migrant workers and their families. Vacant land has attracted a mass of homeless people who endure squalid conditions in iron shanty huts. Trees and shrubs planted by the City Council in greenbelts between the suburbs add some aesthetic appeal to settlements that are otherwise quite depressing.

Formal housing settlement in Soweto

Hostels that were built by the apartheid government for single men working on the mines are a prominent feature on the Soweto landscape. Many have been improved and are home to young couples and families.

Music is the lifeblood of young Soweteans and the city is renowned as the founding place for Kwaito and Kasi Rap, a hip-hop genre that is unique to South Africa. Soweto reverberates to a musical beat that is a combination of house music, American hip-hop and traditional African music. Many of the popular songs tell the tale of oppression and the people’s will to fight for freedom and equality.

Nothing gets the people of Soweto more excited than watching a game of soccer at the FNB Soweto Stadium, especially if it is a match between the two rival soccer teams. The city is divided between Kaizer Chief and Moroko Swallows supporters. On match day, the city vibrates with the deafening sound of Vuvuzelas; a plastic trumpet that gives off an ear-splitting sound after a heavy blow. The FNB Soccer Stadium is one of South Africa’s largest stadiums.

Soccer fans with vuvuzelas

The combined spending power of the people of Soweto is estimated to be in the region of R4.5 billion. It really is a numbers game, with the vast majority of residents classified as low-income earners. Private initiatives have tapped into this goldmine of accumulated wealth and massive urban developments in Soweto have cropped up in recent years. These include the impressive Jabulani Mall and Maponya Mill.

Johannesburg City Council has invested heavily in Soweto, providing improved infrastructure such as street lights and paved roads, and city parks and sports complexes. Isolated pockets of upmarket residential developments are scattered around the city and fine-dining Western-style establishments are gaining in popularity.

PLACES TO VISIT ON A TOUR OF SOWETO

Soweto Tours - Vilakazi Street

A tour of Soweto with a knowledgeable Moafrika Tours guide takes you on a journey through Diepkloof to Soweto’s most famous tourist attraction, the Vilakazi Street Precinct. Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners, namely Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Their former homes are located a short walk from each other.

House number 8115 is the former house of Nelson Mandela, the first Black president of South Africa and an iconic figure of the struggle movement. Now known as Mandela House, the simple three-bedroomed home has been carefully restored as a living museum.

Mandela House of Vilikazi Street

Mandela moved into the house with his first wife, Evelyn Mase, in 1946. He lived there for a short time after his release from prison with his second wife, Winnie Mandela, until he took up residence in the presidential home in Houghton.

A short distance away is Tutu House, the former home of his good friend and fellow Noble Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Two large metal bull heads have been erected outside Mandela House, entitled The Nobel Laureates. They stand on the corner of Vilakazi and Ngakane Streets, representing the two great men who played such a significant role in the struggle for freedom and democracy.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Another metal structure has been placed on Moema Street that commemorates the Soweto Uprising; it depicts a group of schoolchildren facing a policeman with a growling dog. The impressive structure honours the young children who lost their lives during the student protests of 1976. A memorial wall of slate on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Streets provides visitors with a quiet place to sit and contemplate the fateful day of 1976 and the events that unfolded in its aftermath.

A striking piece of street art is visible where Vilakazi Street intersects with Khumalo Street. Eight huge grey hands spell ‘Vilakazi’ in sign language. Other murals in the street include one that depicts the scene of 16 June 1976 with police and their vans, and placard-carrying children. Several concrete benches have been livened up with intricate mosaic work and a row of bollards with wooden heads has been placed on the corner of Vilakazi and Ngakane streets.

The Hector Pieterson Museum

Hastings Ndlovu’s Bridge was erected on the corner of Klipspruit Valley and Khumalo Road in remembrance of the 15-year old boy who was the first pupil shot when the police opened fire on the schoolchildren. He was rushed to hospital but died of his head wound. A statue of the young Hastings stands sentry on the bridge; dressed in school uniform, smiling and holding his arm up. Storyboards line each side of the bridge that tell the tale of the heroic bravery of young schoolchildren like Hastings.

Various streets, museums and graveyard sights in other parts of the city commemorate Soweto’s turbulent history and tell the silent tale of tragedy, suffering and bravery. This includes the grave of Hector Pieterson at Avalon Cemetery and the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum.

Soweto Tours - Hector Pieterson
Famed photograph of Hector Pieterson

The memorial site and museum was opened on 16 June 2002 in Orlando West in Soweto, marking the place where Hector was shot. It not only honours the life of Hector but also those that died on that fateful day and in the months following the 1976 Soweto Uprising. The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism awarded R16 million to its development and the Johannesburg City Council contributed an additional R7,2 million to the costs.

A blown-up photograph of the dying schoolboy, Hector Pieterson, carried in the arms of a young 18-year old pupil with his crying sister running alongside is the centre-piece exhibit of the museum. The photograph reminds visitors of the agony and suffering these three young school children endured, caught up in a moment of time that changed the destiny of Black citizens of South Africa. Thereafter, a tour of the Hector Pieterson Museum is a fusion of modern technology and cultural history.

Hector Pieterson Museum

The red-bricked museum was erected in Kumalo Street, two blocks away from where Hector was shot on the corner of Moema and Vilakazi Street. Hector’s mother, Dorothy Molefi, lives in a nearby suburb called Meadowlands. She says the family is very proud of the museum and the fact that children can learn about South Africa’s history there. Hector’s father passed away shortly after the museum was opened but at least he lived to see his son’s memory immortalised in this landmark building.

Regina Mundi Church is the largest Roman Catholic Church in South Africa and is found in Rockville, in the middle of Soweto. It is famous for having opened its doors to protesting schoolchildren in 1976 when the apartheid police opened fire on them. Public gatherings were banned by the apartheid government after the Soweto Riots and Regina Mundi Church was used for political meetings.

Soweto Tours - Regina Mundi Church
Regina Mundi Church

Orlando Towers is a striking landmark in Soweto; painted luminous blue and covered in traditional artwork depicting the historical struggles and the daily life of Soweteans. The Orland Power Station is a decommissioned coal-fired power station that stands out like two sentries overlooking the city of Soweto. The power station was erected at the end of World War II and served the city of Johannesburg for over 50 years.

Orlando Towers in Soweto

The mural on Orlando Towers was hand-painted and took 6 months to complete. Orlando Towers is popular among thrill seekers who come from far and wide to bungee jump off it, swing or freefall their way to the bottom.

Chris Hani Baragwanath Academic Hospital is located in Diepkloof and is the third largest hospital in the world with approximately 3 200 beds for patients. It was built in 1941 by the British Government and served as a military hospital, known then as the Imperial Military Hospital, Baragwanath. Today this extensive medical facility also includes a training college for young doctors and nurses.

The end of a tour to Soweto takes tourists past the impressive FNB Soccer Stadium, affectionately known as Soccer City. The massive stadium was designed to depict the traditional calabash, a hard-skinned squash that is a staple vegetable for traditional African families. The stadium is located in Nasrec, on the outskirts of Soweto.

FNB Soccer Stadium in Soweto

Soccer City is the home ground of Kaizer Chiefs Football Club and hosts national fixtures in the South African Premier Soccer League. Nelson Mandela chose the FNB Soccer Stadium to make his first speech after he was released from prison in 1990. His memorial service in 2013 was held at the stadium.

At the age of 92 years, Nelson Mandela attended the closing ceremony of the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final that was held at the stadium; it was his last public appearance and a fitting end for a man who presided over the birth of a democratic South Africa. Mandela smiled and waved as 85 000 supporters rose to their feet, giving a thunderous welcome to their hero.

THE HISTORY OF TRADITIONAL SHEBEENS IN SOWETO

Soweto shebeen

Establishments in South Africa selling alcohol without a license goes back to the early Dutch settler days when the Cape Malay slaves where prohibited from selling alcohol and “partaking in too much rivalry”. During the apartheid era, Soweto residents were prohibited from establishing formal businesses and the Native Act restricted the consumption of “intoxicating” liqueur in townships.

As would be expected, makeshift taverns called shebeens cropped up and soon became associated with Black townships. They often served as meeting places for political activists. The word shebeen comes from a combination of the Irish-Gaelic word síbín and the Zulu word shibhile, both meaning ‘cheap’.

The economic effects of the Great Depression were devastating to an increasingly poor and landless rural population, forcing huge numbers of Black people to move to urban areas to seek wage-paying jobs. African women struggled to find work in the formal sector and many resorted to applying their traditional skills to making home-brewed beer. These women became known as “shebeen queens”; making and selling a type of beer known as  umqombothi to the migrant labourers.

Shebeens provided these hardworking men a place to relax and socialise, shrugging off the oppression of life under apartheid rule. Despite being illegal, shebeens provided the community with a safe place to express their cultural traditions; enjoying their own music, traditional dancing and authentic food. The shebeens were often raided by the apartheid police and owners and patrons found themselves behind bars.

Today the traditional shebeens are a fixture of the Soweto social scene but have evolved to cater for a younger, trendier set of both Black and White patrons and international tourists. A visit to a shebeen in Soweto is an incredible experience; not only is it a chance to soak up the ambience of this vibrant city but it is also a chance to pause and remember the hardships and oppression the average person in Soweto experienced before they shared the joy of freedom and equality.

WHERE TO EAT OUT IN SOWETO

The most well-known restaurant in Soweto is Wandie’s Place in Dube. The restaurant operates out of a typical Soweto four-roomed house that once was an illegal shebeen, selling food and drink without a licence. Today it is a vibey, fun hangout that has hosted the likes of Will Smith, Richard Branson and Chris Rock. Food is served buffet-style and includes local cuisine such as umngqusho, morogo and chakalaka.

Wandie’s Place can probably be credited for introducing non-Sowetans to experience authentic African cuisine and started a trend where curious White co-workers – who had never set foot in Soweto – came to the city as a guest of a Black friend for a genuine township experience. The walls of the bar area are plastered with business cards and a quick look at them gives you an idea of how far some people have travelled for a delicious meal at Wandie’s Place.

Sakhumzi Restaurant is located in Vilakazi Street and is the ideal place to eat traditional township cuisine while soaking up the rich historical atmosphere. The restaurant serves up a variety of dishes that includes mogodu (tripe) and ujege (steamed bread).

Restaurant Vilakazi is another hugely popular eatery on this famous street, serving up a menu that is described as “South African fusion food”. Popular dishes such as oxtail stew and samp with butternut and spinach are given a classy twist to cater for foreign taste buds.

Nexdor offers tourists uncomplicated, simple but good quality meals. It is situated in the heart of Vilakazi Street and becomes a thriving nightspot after dark.

Ntsitsi’s Fun Food is one of Soweto’s most famous street stalls. Situated in Diepkloof, it is famous for its Soweto-style kotas. A kota is a township version of bunny chow; a quarter loaf of bread that is hollowed out and filled with potato fries and Russian sausages or a meat and veggie stew. Ntsitsi has 40 variations of kotas on their menu.

Chaf Pozi is located right below the Orlando Towers. Tourists who have bungee jumped off the towers or just got back from a bicycle ride through Soweto enjoy the relaxed atmosphere with its Soweto-style shebeen décor. Chaf Pozi is famous as a chesa nyama destination.

For finer dining, visit the Jazz Maniacs and Rusty’s Bar at the Soweto Hotel. This restaurant is located in a four-star establishment, situated in the middle of the city. The dishes served are a fusion of traditional African cuisine and modern Western cuisine. Walk-in customers are welcome and their food prices are very reasonable, despite the fact that it is a rather posh restaurant.

The Sowetalian was established by a chef whose father is Italian and mother is Sotho (from Lesotho). Items on the menu are a fusion of typical township cuisine and authentic Italian dishes. The restaurant is located close to the Regina Mundi Church.

WHAT TO ORDER AT A SOWETO RESTAURANT

Chesa nyama or shisa nyama (meaning burnt meat in Zulu) is the same as an American barbecue. Meat bought from the butchery owner is cooked over an open fire and served with traditional side dishes. We’ve compiled a list of traditional township dishes which you should study before you go on a tour of Soweto.

Number one on the list is mieliepap (maize meal porridge) or pap as the locals call it. Pap served for breakfast is more liquid and runny and served with milk, butter, cream and sugar. Meat and vegetable stews are usually served with “stywe pap” (Afrikaans for firm). It has a doughy texture and is traditionally eaten with your hands; rolling a piece of pap into a ball and scooping up the meat and gravy like you would a dipping sauce.

Pap is dry and fairly unappetising on its own so it is always served with either a meat stew, chakalaka or shebu, which is a sauce made from green vegetables and chillies. Considering the majority of traditional Africans live on the breadline, anything goes into the sauce; beetroot, carrots, cabbage, onions, potatoes and morogo (a variety of wild weeds collected from the fields).

A good chesa nyama meal is usually accompanied with a glass or two of umqombothi; a popular traditional home-brewed beer made from sorghum mixed with maize meal, water and yeast and left to ferment.

Other side dishes include tripe which is left-over cuts of a carcass, including the liver, kidneys, brains, stomach and lungs. Traditional meat stews are often made from low-quality cuts of meat such as the tongue, tail, feet and head of a cow. Locals love what they call “walkie-talkies” which is a traditional dish of grilled or deep-fried feet and heads of chickens.

Sweet potato is more popular than the common potato as it is rich in nutrients. It’s usually cooked over an open fire in its skin and then mashed up and served with butter and roasted peanuts and a squirt of honey.

Nelson Mandela’s favourite meal was umngqusho. This is samp which is broken dried maize kernels mixed with red beans. Samp is usually boiled in butter and flavoured with butter, onions, potatoes, chillies, lemon juice, salt and oil. The samp is left to simmer on a low heat until all the ingredients are tender.

Morogo is a widely-used term for any combination of edible green leaves, including wild spinach, bean and beetroot leaves. It’s delicious when boiled and served with pap and a braised onion and tomato sauce.

If you have a strong stomach, try amanqina which is a spicy, sticky stew made from the hoof of a cow, pig or sheep. Or try mashonzha which is a dish made from Mopani (common tree) worms. These worms look like caterpillars and are delicious fried, grilled or cooked with chilli and peanuts.

If you are battling to choose from the list of foreign-sounding African names for the food items at a Soweto tavern, ask your Moafrika Tours guide to recommend something on the menu that is delicious but won’t make you feel like you’re a contestant on Fear Factor. Cow hoofs, ox tongue, Mopani worms and “walkie-talkies” are not everyone’s thing but you should always trying something once.

WHAT TO DRINK IN SOWETO

The local people of Soweto love umqombothi, a traditional beer made from maize (corn), maize malt, sorghum malt, yeast and water. It is rich in Vitamin B and low in alcohol. It certainly is an acquired taste; a thick, creamy beer with a distinctly sour aroma and gritty texture.

Amasi (or maas in Afrikaans) is the common word for fermented milk and tastes like cottage cheese or plain yogurt. It is traditionally prepared by storing unpasteurised cow’s milk in a calabash (dried squash) or hide sack. The milk is left to ferment and soon develops a watery substance called umlaza. The thin liquid is discarded and the remaining thick fermented milk is either drunk on its own or poured over pap (cooked corn flour) or breakfast porridge. A meal of pap and amasi is traditionally served in a clay pot and eaten with wooden spoons.

Mageu is a traditional non-alcoholic drink made from fermented mealie pap (cooked corn flour). Traditional women still prepare this much-loved drink at home but it is also available in cartons at most supermarkets. The lactic acid produced during the fermentation process gives the drink a distinctive sour taste, although store-bought mageu is often flavoured and sweetened.

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