06 August 2013

{Soweto in a Day}

Last week, I had the opportunity of touring Soweto as part of one of my Master's courses.  Although I've been to Soweto on numerous occasions before {see here}, these were always for isolated events or volunteer opportunities, leaving me with only a glimpse of all that the entire area has to offer.  Existing as South Africa's largest township and containing the only street in the world that houses two Nobel Peace Prize laureates {Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu}, it was definitely time for me to set a day aside to play tourist in a place so central to South Africa's controversial history.

For many, the name Soweto in and of itself triggers a flood of difficult {and often times conflicting} emotions.  This rings especially true if you're a) South African or b) have spent any amount of time in South Africa.  If you haven't been able to make your way to the rainbow nation yet, let me explain.  

Soweto was created under the old Apartheid regime when tens of thousands of non-white South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes in Sophiatown in conjunction with the government's plan for a separatist state {i.e. blacks and whites were geographically separated by law}.  At that time, Soweto was nothing but a barren meadow, leaving those who were relocated with no shelter or access to water and electricity.  As a result, Soweto's first occupants were forced to construct shacks using pieces of scrap metal and other disposables... a phenomenon that continues to occur on a wide-spread basis today.  

And from these circumstances, Soweto was born.

Despite the transition to a new, democratic government in 1994, poverty continues to prevail across South Africa and Soweto still exists as one of the poorest places in the world.  In some areas of the township, dirt roads are too narrow to allow for cars and those falling ill need to be carried out on foot.  In Kliptown {a sub-area of Soweto}, 44,000 people are forced to share 150 pit toilets.  Pretty shocking isn't it?  Synonymous with poverty, Soweto has also become known for its high levels of crime, rape, HIV/Aids and substance abuse.  

It's easy to want to steer clear of the place all together
... and many people {understandably} choose to do just that.

But in choosing to ignore Soweto, I think that we also neglect the beauty and hope that can be found in the most unexpected of places.  The children chasing one another up and down the dirt roads in tattered clothes, but with the hugest smiles.  The little girl with a runny nose, who quietly creeps up behind you and ever so slightly holds your hand.  The young entrepreneur who makes jokes about how white you are while trying to smooth talk you into purchasing a Madiba shirt.  And the mothers, who wave enthusiastically and welcome you inside to take photos of their modest, yet engaging homes.  

Proof that true joy can be found {and lived} even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Soweto has so much to offer.  And, a growing middle class.  Ever so slowly shacks are being demolished in exchange for concrete houses, malls are popping up, universities are being built and the place is quickly transforming from township to suburb.  Pretty soon it will be difficult to recognize what Soweto once was.  It's good to see that it's well on it's way to a happy ending.

If you find yourself in Johannesburg, I recommend setting a day aside to explore Soweto for yourself.  I went through Wild Culture Tours {email John here} and really enjoyed it, but I've also heard great things about Soweto Bicycle Tours.  Regardless of who you choose, 'must-sees' include Vilakazi Street, the Mandela House Museum, the Hector Pieterson Memorial & Museum, the Oppenheimer Tower and Regina Mundi Catholic Church.  We ate at Sakhumzi on Vilakazi St. and it was delicious, though slightly over priced.  And if you're feeling extra brave, you can even bungee jump off the Orlando Towers {seen in the background of the photo above}. 

Regardless of your itinerary, I can promise that you will leave a changed person.
And, gaining a new perspective is never a bad thing.


  1. Really great post Jenna.

    We didn't get a chance to visit Soweto during our short few days in Johannesburg. To be honest, living in Gabon full time which is quite undeveloped, we were yearning for Jo-burg's more cosmopolitan side as a change of pace.

    I really do hope we get back to SA as I'd love to explore more sides of it!

  2. I love this post and the pictures. I am dying to do one of the bicycle tours. My husband works in Soweto and a few weeks ago I went to visit him. Such a contrast to the rest of Joburg.

  3. Thanks for the history lesson and beautiful pictures, Jenna. I've always known about Soweto and what the township was like during the period of apartheid, but I never knew its history - how it came to be. I learned something new today, thanks to you.

  4. I think seeing places like this, with such incredible amounts of history attached, are so important while traveling. I've never been much of a history buff, but it certainly gives you a whole new perspective on a place you may never have known about otherwise.

  5. Love, love, love this entry! Thanks Jen!

  6. They have the cutest faces!!

  7. Oooh I also want to go one of these tours still!
    Lovely pictures!

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  9. Hey :) so I *thought* I found your blog from the Travel tuesday linkup... but then I realised I didn't and actually have no idea how I landed on it... but in any case, I love your blog and it's so great to see your perspective on Soweto!

  10. ah, fantastic, Jenna! I wish that I had taken more pictures while we were there. I only took pictures on Vilakazi St. silly me.

    Thanks for recommending that we go. Soweto is an amazing area and certainly did help me to gain a new perspective

  11. Incredibly inspiring - your words and photos sent me chills, seriously.

  12. I'm so inspired by this post. I read it to myself once, then read it again to my husband and actually teared up. You present a really beautiful view of a place that has such a negative image. I can't wait to visit, although it might be a while because I think we'll save this trip for when the mother in law visits. She'll be bowled over.


Thanks for the love!