Soweto, once South Africa’s biggest and most famous township is now a bustling growing metropolis with its own unique character. It lies southwest of Johannesburg.
During the 1976 student uprising this township received much international media coverage and it has therefore become a popular tourist destination. Johannesburg and Soweto are bound by an economic umbilical cord that cannot be cut. Most Sowetans are employed in Johannesburg and commute daily, supplying Johannesburg with the workforce that supports its economy.
The name Soweto is an acronym for SOuth WEstern TOwnships. It started life in 1950, when the National Party government developed five farms as housing for the thousands of mineworkers and migrant labourers who streamed to Gauteng to work in the gold mines and factories.
Much of the history of our already ten-year-old democracy was conceived on the dusty streets of Soweto, where the politically and socially conscious people of this township led the nation in revolt against the unfair system of Apartheid. Soweto also has the distinction of being the only place in the world where two Nobel-prize winners, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, lived — both on Vilakazi Street!
Today’s Soweto is home to more than three million people and includes the areas of Dobsonville, Diepkloof and Dube. It is a symbol of hope and liberty, but also a historical reminder of what people can subject each other to.
Adventure And Sport
Soccer: The First National Bank Arena (“Soccer City”) is the venue of many international and national soccer matches.
The many soccer stadiums in Soweto, Elkah, Jabavu, Dobsonville and Lenasia, demonstrate the enthusiasm of the residents for soccer.
Art And Crafts
African Institute of Art and FUNDA Learning Centre: The African Institute of Art and the FUNDA Learning Centre has an important social upliftment function that it exercises by exposing disadvantaged and underprivileged people to art and culture.
Regina Mundi Church: The historic Regina Mundi Church houses a small art gallery, Ma-Africa Art Gallery. The gallery is open to the public and sells local works of art (10 per cent of the proceeds go to the church). Internationally renowned artists produced the art that mainly depict life in the townships – the tears and the laughter.
eKhaya Soweto Neighbourhood Museum: The innovative and creative centre in Phase 3, Diepkloof Extension is continually undergoing change and improvement. The social club gives precedence to soccer, the game of the people, and shows regular videos of soccer games. The art in the museum depicts life in the townships.
Shebeens: One experience that the visitor should not miss is lunch at a shebeen. There is no better way of getting to know the people or of experiencing their lifestyle and philosophy than in this informal setting. Several restaurants, coffee shops and shebeens are on the itinerary and their names are known to tourists all over the world.
Soweto Township Tour: A township tour into Soweto is an experience not to be missed. However, it is best to be accompanied by accredited guides. The tours include some of the most prominent historical sites (see: History and Architecture) in Soweto and also afford visitors a peep at the extreme circumstances in which the people of Soweto live — the squalor and the splendour. Should visitors wish to stay over in Soweto, they need to make arrangements well in advance.
History And Architecture
Many of the historic events in the political struggle for freedom took place in Soweto and there are many sites that commemorate this turbulent time in our history.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house: Archbishop Tutu used to own a home in Soweto but the house is not open to the public. Bishop Tutu was always a resolute figure, never afraid of voicing his strong opinions in public, and in more recent years, became the Chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. While driving by, a guide will tell visitors more about his life.
Avalon Cemetery: The cemetery in Chabuse Street dates from 1972 and is the final resting place of famous political activists such as Helen Joseph, Joe Slovo and Lilian Ngoyi. Young Hector Pieterson also lies buried here. During the turbulent past, many funerals were not simply occasions for mourning, but often grew into mass gatherings. Tear gas canisters being fired by the police at mourners were thus not an unusual occurrence at funerals. Many graves are covered with metal rectangular cots, a practice taken from Mpumalanga where rocks were placed on graves to prevent animals carrying away the bodies that could not be buried deep enough in the rocky soil. The cemetery is currently being upgraded and there are plans to create a Heroes Acre here. Avalon sees some 200 burials over weekends.
Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital: This is the largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere. It was originally built as a military hospital but has since grown considerably and boasts some of the most sophisticated medical facilities in the world. Tours of the hospital are possible but arrangements need to be made well in advance.
Enoch Sontonga memorial: The memorial marks the final resting place of the man who wrote “Nkosi Sikelele iAfrika” (Lord Bless Africa), which became our national anthem in 1997. Enoch Sontonga was a teacher in Johannesburg and wrote the hymn in 1897.
Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum: The museum and memorial at 8288 Maseko Street in Orlando West is dedicated to the 12-year old boy who was the first child to die in the student uprising of June 1976. The memorial is a small marble stone that bears a brief written history of Hector’s life and of the Freedom Struggle. It is located a mere two blocks from the spot where Hector lost his life. The museum documents the events that were driven to a head on 16 June 1976, when Soweto children took to the streets to take charge of their future. Hector Pieterson quickly became a household name, who will remain a symbol of the struggle for many years to come, and 16 June is commemorated as Youth Day in South Africa. Eyewitness accounts, photographs, text panels and audio visual footage illustrate the human tragedy that led to the deaths of several students from June 1976 to the end of 1977.
Kliptown: Kliptown was established in 1903, and is one of the oldest urban settlements in Soweto. The Congress of the People adopted the Freedom Charter, the cornerstone policy of the African National Congress (ANC), on this spot on 26 June 1955. The square has been declared a National Heritage Site, and is a permanent reminder of the strength and determination of the human spirit. Future plans for Kliptown include a monument at the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, the refurbishment of the railway station, a new taxi rank, an informal trader’s market, new houses, cleaning of the Klipspruit river and recreational facilities.
Mandela Museum: Many of the most important black political figures of South Africa used to live or still live in Soweto. Guided tours are conducted to show visitors, among other things, the erstwhile or present homes of these leaders. For example, the 4-room house at 8115 Ngakane Street in Orlando West where Nelson Mandela lived while he was practising as a lawyer in Johannesburg, before he went to prison for 27 years, has become a part of our national heritage. The inside of the house is filled with small mementoes and treasures of him and his family. Many of the artefacts have their own stories to tell. The “karos” (piece of skin worn as traditional Xhosa clothing), which he wore during a trial to show his contempt for the Western legal system, lies on the bed in the main bedroom.
Morris Isaacson Secondary School: One of the buildings visitors will pass on a tour is the Morris Isaacson School where many of the preparations for the 1976 student uprisings were made. Many of the political leaders of South Africa attended this school.
Oppenheimer Tower: This tower was built amid the ruins of the old shantytown, where gardens have now been developed as part of the Oppenheimer Complex. The tower is mainly visited for its view over most of Soweto. A hall for functions and parties is also available.
Regina Mundi Catholic Church: The Regina Mundi Church at 1149 Khumalo Street is considered by many the spiritual home of the freedom struggle. The people of Soweto held many political meetings, rallies and community gatherings in the church grounds. It is also the largest church in Soweto and many of the people who perished during the struggle were buried from here. Bullet holes, most likely caused by shots fired by police from inside the church while they were trying to break up a meeting, can still be seen. A famous painting of the Black Madonna also hangs inside the church. A permanent photographic display tells the story of “Soweto, June 16th 1976 … Before and After” – the 50-year journey to political freedom.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s house: The home of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s second wife, whom he divorced soon after his release from prison, is a popular attraction. She played a strong role in the ANC Women’s Movement and is still active in politics. She still owns and occupies this house and visitors will only be able to see the outside.