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Johannesburg: A tour of Soweto township

It’s impossible to understand Johannesburg — its chequered history and the dynamism of the present day — without visiting Soweto township.

By Amelia Duggan
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:20 BST
Orlando Towers, Soweto, Johannesburg.
Orlando Towers, Soweto, Johannesburg.
Photograph by Getty Images

“Travellers are surprised by what they see,” says my charismatic guide, Charles Ncube. “Yes, life in Soweto can be tough. We have three classes: low, very low, and very, very low,” he jokes. “But it’s a proud, positive place. Everyone is building a better future. The footballers and celebrities who make it big, now they stay. It’s the place to be!”

The sprawling, low-rise township on the city’s southwestern periphery is home to a staggering 1.3 million people. Under Apartheid, Soweto was an address synonymous with forced habitation and deprivation, but today it’s a very different picture: this township is a driver of Johannesburg’s diversity and dynamism.

A different perspective
It’s perfectly safe to walk unguided around the main tourist sights, so set out on foot. “Some locals find tour buses offensive. Get out and explore! We’re not going to bite. This isn’t safari,” Charles says. His top tip: sign up for a tour offered by a local business. Lebo’s Backpackers offers neighbourhood tours by bike or bright yellow tuk tuk. But the best township view is only for the brave: in 2008, a 328ft-high suspension bridge was strung between Orlando Towers for bungee jumpers. There’s rock climbing and the world’s highest SCAD freefall inside the disused power plant, too.

Welcome to Vilakazi Street
Orlando West’s lively artery is the only street in the world to have had two Nobel Peace Prize winners as residents. Mandela House museum, the home of South Africa’s first black president from 1947 until just after his release from Robben Island in 1990, is must-see: full of memorabilia, it shines a light on Madiba’s early family life. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s former home, a block away, is marked by a plaque. Vilakazi is full of restaurants, costumed dancers, and stalls selling Mandela merchandise and clothes in bright shweshwe fabrics. But for the best of Soweto fashion, check out the Box Shop, which showcases up-and-coming local designers. Nearby, at the intersection with Moema Street, the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum commemorates the tragic events of the Soweto uprising. Hector, a 12-year-old schoolboy, was among the first shot dead on 16 June 1976 when police opened fire on a student march. “It put Soweto on the map,” Charles explains. To hear stories of Soweto under apartheid, gather round the campfire in Lebo’s Backpackers on the last Thursday of every month when locals share memories with travellers.

Eating local
Sakhumzi Restaurant on Vilakazi Street began life as a shebeen (illegal bar) and was formalised into a restaurant in 2001. Its menu offers a solid introduction to township dishes, including grilled lamb, mogodu (tripe), the pap corn dish of umqa, and pot stews. The quintessential township eating experience is, however, a shisa nyama — an open-fire barbecue. At Chaf Pozi, at the foot of the Orlando Towers, diners choose their cuts of meat then watch them sizzle on the grill while enjoying DJs and live township music. To drink, try South Africa’s first township beer, Soweto Gold — then later, tour the microbrewery that makes it, set just off Vilakazi Street. There are plenty of informal places to eat, too. Look out for hole-in-the-wall shops selling deep-fried ‘fat cakes’ and the homemade township ‘beer’ umqombothi, an earthy, sour brew. Charles explains: “We drink it after a long day, at traditional events, or when we’re communing with the ancestors. And Soweto is the best place in Johannesburg to find it.”   

The sound of Soweto
One of the best venues for live music in Johannesburg is Pata Pata, in the trendy Maboneng neighbourhood, which draws on the concept of township shebeens to showcase local drummers, performers and singers in a low-lit, informal restaurant setting. The venue takes its name from a song by the singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, who began her career in Johannesburg’s township shebeens. Another of her songs, Soweto Blues, released in 1977, is an important cultural text, written in the aftermath of the student uprising. 286 Fox Street. T: 00 27 73 036 9031

Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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