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AA tour of Soweto (short for South-Western Townships – the ‘bantu location’ laid out south-west of Johannesburg to house black people under apartheid) is a must for any visitor keen to get a taste of the vibrant street life that this city-within-a-city is famous for.
Indeed, Soweto is more of a sister city to Jo’burg than a ‘township’. It has its origins in the gold mines that drew workers to Johannesburg soon after the city was founded in 1886 – the area that became Soweto was once a collection of working-class areas that remained multiracial until determined efforts to segregate them into suburbs based on ‘racial groups’ began in the 1920s.
After the National Party was voted into power in 1948 and formalised strict segregation under the ‘apartheid’ (‘separateness’) system, Soweto grew rapidly as black people were forcibly removed from ‘white’ areas.
Today, a tour of this sprawling area will show you many milestones from South Africa’s turbulent political history.
First, you’ll see the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown, where South Africa’s Freedom Charter (a document used to help draft the country’s post-apartheid constitution) was signed in 1955.
Another important stop is the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, commemorating the famous Soweto uprising that began on 16 June 1976, when school pupils took to the streets to protest against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in their schools.
The iconic news photograph of a dying 13-year-old Pieterson, cradled in the arms of a fellow school pupil after being shot by the police – taken by The World photojournalist Sam Nzima, although he struggled for years to have his copyright recognised – drew attention to South Africa’s oppressive racial policies. It’s a sobering image that even today hits you hard, emotionally, but it gives a vivid perspective of South Africa at the time.
A more cheerful stop on the tour – or at least, one with a happier ending – is the famous Vilakazi Street, once home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners: late former president Nelson Mandela, and Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. Here you can put your feet up for a bit, while you savour a delicious meal in one of the taverns or restaurants that abound here.
Other must-sees include the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, listed by the Guinness World Records in 1997 as the largest hospital in the world (it has since been outstripped by 2 hospitals in China, but it remains the largest hospital in Africa), as well as the vibrant Orlando Towers, two cooling towers at the decommissioned power station where the more adventurous can get their adrenaline pumping with an urban bungee jump.
The easiest way to experience Soweto is to go on a township tour, on which knowledgeable guides will educate you on the significance of so many places in our history.
TTravel tips & Planning info
Who to contact
City Sightseeing Jo'burg Taxi to Soweto Tour
Tel: +27 (0)861 733 287
Soweto Outdoor Adventures
Tel: +27 (0)72 692 8159
Best time to visit
Length of stay
Depending on the time you have, you could breeze through a whistle-stop tour in half a day or a day, or take 2 days to really get to know Soweto.
What to pack
A hat, sunscreen, walking shoes, camera, cash for tips.
Where to stay
The Soweto Hotel on the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication in Kliptown is the first 4-star hotel to have been opened in Soweto.
What to eat
Try some traditional township food like umngqusho (samp and beans) with ujeqe (steamed bread).
Buy traditional crafts from a street stallholder at the market adjacent to the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum.