Day 297… You haven’t really experienced life in South Africa until you’ve visited a township, and Soweto, to the south-west of Johannesburg, is the largest of them all. As a visitor, the easiest and safest way to experience Soweto is to go on a township tour, which I do thanks to a handy nearby hostel. This area is also famous for its role in the struggle against apartheid, and there are now many sites of historical significance.
A tour of Soweto (short for South-Western Townships) gives me a taste of the vibrant and gritty street life this township is renowned for. By rights more of a city in modern-day South Africa than just a traditional township, Soweto has its roots in the gold mines that drew migrant workers to Johannesburg at the turn of the 20th century. After the National Party was voted into power in 1948, Soweto grew rapidly as apartheid tightened its grip on the country and squeezed black people out of white areas. Today a township tour of this sprawling area will take me to see many of the highlights of the country’s political history.
These include a stop at the Hector Pieterson memorial and museum, the site of the famous Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976, which saw school pupils take to the streets to protest against the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in 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, drew attention to South Africa’s oppressive racial policies and that street is permanently painted red to signify the bloodshed that day. I also get to see the famous Vilakazi Street, once home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, former president Nelson Mandela and Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and some beggar boys give our tiny tour group a ‘welcome to sowetto’ dance. Then we make a stop at a local shak pub to mull over a glass of local joburg beer (in a milk carton… apparently helps with fermentation) and get a show of modern zulu tribesmen doing a traditional style dance, followed by a simple meal in one of the tuck shops lining the street.
Another Soweto highlight includes the brightly coloured Soweto Towers, where the more adventurous can opt for an urban bungee jump. One other thing this tour does which i find fascinating as well as important is a trip into the slums of Soweto itself to see the programs in place to help the community. These are some seriously poor people (although india beats them… they totally win /loose that game) but they do ok… new programmes for youth to build houses from shipping containers and schools, from kindy to yrs 12. Depending on life… I may come back here to help out.