A tour of Soweto South Africa reveals the heart and soul of Johannesburg.The images of burning cars and riots of the 1980s are long gone.These days, the people of Soweto are filled with optimism. South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 soccer World Cup created further opportunities for the enterprising. Even so, a visit to Soweto is bound to unveil a grittier side of life. So why go?
Soweto South Africa
One good reason is that Soweto played such a key part in South Africa’s history that you could not even begin to understand the psyche of the nation without touring its cultural and political heart.
It’s where 40% of Johannesburg’s populations lives.
Our car pulls up at Motsoaledi, one of Soweto’s shanty towns, where our guide Aby (short for Abraham) beckons a young man in jeans and a black leather jacket.
Even though Aby assures us that it’s safe to wander through the informal settlement with Eric Simphiwe, the local guide, I have a niggling doubt about walking through the slums with a stranger.
We shuffle along a narrow dirt path past unruly curls of dilapidated chicken-wire fencing.
I glance over my shoulder to catch Aby nodding, his lips forming a slight grin. Was that encouragement or amusement?
The track opens out onto a dirt road where shacks are patched together with sheets of corrugated metal.
We pass a day-care centre with colourful swings and slides in the front yard. In front of one shack, a hairdressing business, is a billboard advertising models with frizzy afros and dreadlocks.
Public tap and Coca Cola
We stop at a public tap near a ramshackle shed advertising Coca Cola. I’m surprised to learn that many homes have no water or electricity.
The residents share water for bathing, washing and cooking from the settlement’s 40-odd public taps.
Soweto (short for South Western Townships) was established in 1905. Today there are over 3.5 million people living in an area of around 9000 hectares.
There are 270 primary schools, 70 secondary schools, and the Soweto campus of Johannesburg University confers BA degrees.
We visit the home of single mum, Nokwanda, who lives in a two-room shack with her three teenage sisters and son Owami.
Their main living area is furnished with a rickety lace-covered dining table, two broken chairs, a slashed leather lounge, camping stove and cooking implements.
Allowing visitors to peek into her home is a tolerable imposition as visitors are encouraged to leave a small tip. “I don’t mind showing you my house,” she says as she cuddles Owami. “It’s a way for me to make extra money.”
Although many residents are poor, the post-apartheid economy has created a few black billionaires and the ranks of the middle class continue to swell.
Some areas look just like a middle-class Australian suburb with green lawns, rendered homes and late-model family sedans parked in the driveways.
Nelson Mandela history
Our Soweto tour takes us to the former home of South Africa’s father of liberation Nelson Mandela, now a family museum packed with memorabilia like honorary degrees, photographs of the Mandela family and gifts from international celebrities.
During the years of underground plotting against apartheid and up until his arrest in 1962, Mandela shared the Ngakane Street house with former wife Winnie. Nearby is the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
There are signs of growth everywhere. South Africa’s largest hospital and a huge shopping mall are both located just down the road from shacks selling fruit, brooms and second-hand car parts.
We visit the Hector Pieterson Museum, a memorial that commemorates the death of the 13-year-old schoolboy killed during the June 1976 student march against the use of Afrikaans as a teaching language.
When the students arrived at the school and refused to disband, police fired tear gas into the crowd.
Chaos ensued, Hector Pieterson was shot dead and the students began the historic clash with security forces that is known around the world as the Soweto Uprising.
Soweto’s largest Catholic Church, Regina Mundi (Queen of the World) also played a pivotal role in the history of resistance against apartheid.
Visitors stream into the church to see the wounds of war: a broken marble alter, bullet holes in the ceiling and the damaged figure of Jesus Christ.
As we leave Soweto, we drive past hitchhikers with their hands in the air signalling their destinations in a code understood only by the locals: two young girls are looking for a lift to the shopping mall, a man is on his way to church, a family wants a ride to the next district. Everyone is looking to go somewhere.
If you’re lucky, your flight from Sydney to Johannesburg might offer views of the South Pole. Watch my video here:
Christina Pfeiffer was a guest of South African Airways and Abercrombie & Kent
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South African Airways flies from Sydney or Perth to Johannesburg. SAA has the most comprehensive airline network on the African continent.
Looking for more things to do in Soweto? Here’s a list of for your next Soweto tour.