When you travel to Africa, don’t pass up the chance to visit Soweto, a group of townships in Johannesburg that is best known for once having been home to South Africa’s former President, Nelson Mandela. “Soweto” stands for South Western Township and has a significant place in South Africa’s turbulent past. Soweto’s other claim to fame is that it is the only place that has ever produced Nobel Peace Prize recipients– Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, both for their ground-breaking work against apartheid.
Soweto was established in the 1950’s as part of the segregation activities under the apartheid regime. It was meant to house blacks who worked in white houses and businesses. Blacks were made to live in cheap, government-constructed, four-room match box houses and were not allowed to trade with each other for the most part. The only economic activities were butchery, selling food and operating general shops. Due to these economic restrictions during the apartheid, the region’s growth has been slow.
The government’s announcement that the blacks would be taught in Afrikaans instead of English led to the Soweto uprising in 1976. These mass protests were led by students and had 23 casualties on the first day alone, the first of which was a twelve-year old named Hector Peterson. After this, Archbishop Desmond Tutu fought for economic boycott and disinvestment, resulting on disinvestment by the US and by the UK, which prompted government reforms.
Today, in post-apartheid Soweto, most of the residents live in improved and expanded versions of their matchbox houses. Some affluent residents even have luxurious houses in a few areas. Soweto has three malls and has become a center of cultural activity in Johannesburg. There are also bed and breakfasts that offer comfortable accommodations to visitors to Soweto. While the Orlando west side is safe for tourists, we do recommend that you engage a tour group or at least have your B&B host guide you.
When you visit Soweto, you will find that, aside from Mandela House, which is Nelson Mandela’s old home that has been converted in a museum, there are other places and monuments of interest in Soweto. Visit the Hector Peterson Museum on Maseko Street, which honors all the victims of the 1976 protests. Check out the local fare at the Baragwanath Taxi rank area and enjoy some “runaways” and “smily’s”, chicken feet and sheep’s head respectively. Go to a real “shebeen” –Soweto’s equivalent of a local bar– and have a taste of the local liquor. If you want something more upscale, make sure you check out the 200 stores, restaurants and cinemas in Soweto’s newest mall, Maponya Mall. Try over 950 wines at the annual Soweto Wine Festival. You may also go to see the Soweto Gospel Choir.
Visit Soweto, and learn about its history – a proud history, one that has brought South Africa to where it is now – a future that is written in hope.