Why Soweto should be part of your Johannesburg itinerary

By Ashworth Africa, March 8, 2019

Just south-west of Johannesburg, Soweto is one of South Africa’s most popular tourism destinations. It was first thrust onto an international stage when it became the centre of anti-apartheid activism pre-1994 and for being home to some of the most influential South Africans in history. Today, there are plenty of reasons to visit – here are just a few.

Soweto
Mandela’s former home on Vilakazi Street. Credit: South African Tourism.

Fast facts:

  • Soweto is actually a collection of townships across an area of 77 square miles (200 square kilometres): the name stands for South Western Townships.
  • About 1.3 million people live in Soweto. All of South Africa’s 11 languages are spoken, but predominately Zulu.
  • Soweto came into being in the 1930s when the government first started to formerly segregate black and white people. This was when the first townships were created under the Urban Areas Act of 1923. Soweto – named as such in 1963 – was to become the largest black township in South Africa.
  • Today it is an area with many different faces, ranging from a middle-class neighbourhood where many successful Sowetans have stayed to poorer areas that haven’t yet benefitted from development.
  • The country’s current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, was born in Soweto.

History 

South Africa is packed full of historic destinations, but Soweto is perhaps the most iconic and important. The area was on the front line of the anti-apartheid movement and home to many activist leaders. A number of significant events occurred in Soweto during this period.

Soweto
Visitors at the Hector Pieterson Memorial. Credit: South African Tourism.

The Soweto Uprising began on 16th June 1976 after the government decided to make Afrikaans the official language of education institutions, preventing people from learning in their native language – a deliberate attempt to prevent black South Africans from furthering their education. There were multiple protests, which culminated in police opening fire on 10,000 students in Orlando West (part of Soweto). At least 176 people were killed during the course of the uprising, including Hector Pieterson who was just 12 years old. Pieterson became the symbol of the uprising due to a now-iconic photograph of 18-year-old Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying his body to a press car, with Pieterson’s sister, Antoinette Sithole, running alongside them. 16th June is now a public holiday: Youth Day.

Hector Pieterson Memorial
Hector Pieterson Memorial, featuring the famous image of Pieterson. Credit: Martyn Smith, Flickr.

To learn more about the uprising, you can visit the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Soweto.

Soweto is also home to the only street in the world that housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners: Vilakazi Street, where both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived. Mandela’s house has been converted into a museum.

Soweto
Mandela House.

Adventure

It’s no big secret that South Africa is an awesome country for adrenaline sports. Between Soweto’s famous mural-covered cooling towers of Orlando Power Station is a ‘power swing’ that ranks amongst the most popular adventures in the country. From a 100-metre viewing deck, step to the edge of the platform and take the plunge between the towers, a pendulum swinging you back and forth between them. What a way to take in the sights of Soweto!

Orlando cooling towers
The Orlando cooling towers. Credit: Tracy Hunter, Flickr.

Homegrown business

There are a number of successful businesses that have grown out of Soweto, some of which you can support on your visit. One of the best ways to see the area is by bicycle on a tour led by locals. Afterwards, have South African potjiekos (stews cooked over fire in cast-iron pots) at Lebo’s – which has been in business for over 16 years – or head over to Vilazaki Street to dine or have a drink at Restaurant Vilakazi or Nexdor.

Soweto
Cycling through Soweto. Credit: South African Tourism.

Sport

Sports-lovers should check out a football (soccer) game at the FNB Stadium in Orlando West. This was where Spain won the World Cup in 2010 and is the largest stadium in the country. If you happen to be in South Africa during the Soweto Derby – when the area’s rival clubs, the Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, play each other – expect the stadium to be packed to the rafters.

FNB Stadium
The FNB Stadium in Soweto. Credit: Martyn Smith, Flickr.

Read more:

Your guide to Johannesburg’s uber-cool Maboneng district

50 fascinating facts about South Africa

Or: book your trip to South Africa with a stopover in Johannesburg.

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