Soweto (South Western Townships) is a large township in Johannesburg, which came to the world’s attention during apartheid regime with protests and the Soweto uprising. We booked a half-day Soweto tour with Soweto Guided Tours and had a wonderful guide, who lives in Soweto and was able to answer a lot of questions.
There seems to be a lacking of consensus on how many people live in Soweto, but there are estimates between 1 and 2 million people, so we are not talking about a small neighborhood. This also means that there are very different types of housing in the area, so it is not all shanty towns and misery that some of our tour members seemed to expect.
You can explore Soweto with Hop On Hop Off bus ticket as they have a separate car driving smaller groups around Soweto, but I really recommend this tour or at least a tour with a knowledgeable guide. We really liked our guide Simon. Our tour cost R1160 for two people (≈80€), which was a reasonable price.
We stopped at a market and had a small tour of a shop with traditional medication. The seller had all kinds of certificates showing how she is skilled in traditional healing and apparently it runs in the family. For such a sceptic as myself this was amusing at first, but then it became apparent that there is apparently a huge market for this kind of service as well as for different kind of “spiritual help” and sadly also for abortions, which are not taking place at a hospital.
Our next stop was Orlando Towers, which have become a symbol of Soweto. They are repainted every few months and the work was in progress for the second one, which was going to be a Vodafone ad.
I must say that it felt weird driving through all-black neighborhood in a van full of white people taking pictures of how the people in Soweto live. It didn’t help that sometimes you hear comments such as “See how they are smiling? It just proves that you don’t need money to be happy.” I was happy I went and saw Soweto with my own eyes, but it was mentally uncomfortable.
Also in Soweto people protect their homes with security bars on windows and barbed wire. If you have more money, you of course have a nicer house, but you protect it in the same way as everywhere else in South Africa. So it really depends on where in Soweto you live as there are nicer areas and not-so-nice areas.
What was interesting is that a lot of houses have these smaller shacks on their property and it turns out that a lot of people build them in their yards and rent them for extra income.
Our next stop was at Hector Pieterson Museum, who became the symbol of the Soweto Uprising when a photographer Sam Nzima captured an image of dying 13-year-old Hector being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo with Hector’s sister at his side.
Mbuyisa Makhubo was harassed by the police after the incident and he went into hiding. The fate of Mbuyisa is unknown.
We were also told about the surname Pieterson and how people changed their last names trying to pass as a different ethnic group under the Apartheid system of racial classification to have even a bit better chances in life and a fraction better rights.
Our next stop was Nelson Mandela House Museum. 18th of July was Nelson Mandela’s birthday and is known now as Nelson Mandela day, so by pure chance we happened to be at Nelson Mandela House Museum at Nelson Mandela Day. According to our guide the idea was at first to have the day as a national holiday, but Mandela refused saying that people should rather spend time to change the world for the better.
“Mr Mandela has spent 67 years making the world a better place. We’re asking you for 67 minutes.”
So on this day people go and do something for their neighborhoods like cleaning playgrounds or supporting the community in other ways.
Our last stop was an opportunity to snap a few photos of the FNB Stadium.
When driving back the guide pointed at some people sitting at the side of the road next to the train stops. He said that the train stops have free wifi and the people are taking advantage of it. And yes, most people had their phones, but some even their laptops. I thought that this was an excellent idea.
We asked to be dropped off at Constitution Hill instead of our hotel and our guide kindly did so. We bought tickets for the Constitution Hill and as there was some time before the next guided tour, we decided to have lunch at The Hill Cafe at the Constitution Hill. The food was pretty good, but the shakes were great. 😉
After lunch we headed to have a guided tour at the Number Four Prison, which used to have both common criminals, but also many political prisoners, who opposed the rules of the Apartheid regime. The prison had its grim history so similar to many other notorious prisons of the world, but this one had also a history of systematic racism. On this beautiful day the daily horrors described by our guide seemed to be far away and the empty prison looked like something from a very distant past. It is almost unbelievable that the prison closed only in 1983, so we are talking about the very recent history.
Right next to the prison museum is South Africa’s Constitutional Court, which was built with a lot of symbolism and is in stark contract with its neighbor.
The days seem to be short in South Africa as a lot of places close around the time it gets dark, so we walked to the Gautrain station, which was about a kilometer away and took the train back to our hotel. In the evening we went to have dinner at the restaurant called Craft and we loved it. The restaurant was cozy, the food and drinks were good and they had crazy over the top desserts. The service was also very attentive, so if you are after not so fancy, but great tasting food (especially hamburgers), this is your place.