South Africa’s most famous township, Soweto (short for South West Townships), is a place of surreal contrasts. The area was home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, yet suffers one of the highest rates of murder and rape in the world; it is the richest township in South Africa, home to a growing number of millionaires, but has some of the most desperate poverty; it is the most political township, yet has the most nihilistic youth.
Southwest of the city centre, Soweto is huge, stretching as far as the eye can see, with a population estimated at between three and four million. Like any city of that size, it is divided into a number of different suburbs, with middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods among them. At first sight, it appears an endless jumble of houses and shacks, overshadowed by palls of smoke, though parts of it have a villagey feel. Apart from the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, most of Soweto’s tourist highlights are physically unimpressive, their fame stemming from historical associations. That history, however, is enthralling, not least because here it is told with a perspective and context rarely found in the rest of South Africa. For visitors it means an insight not just into a place much mentioned in 1980s news bulletins for funerals and fighting, but into a way of life most Westerners rarely encounter.
A visit to Soweto with one of the many tours is the single most popular attraction in Johannesburg. Where once these had a whiff of daring and originality, a well-trodden tourist trail has developed, and unless you’re content to follow the herds of minibuses and coaches around the conventional sights, visiting the same shantytowns and shebeens, it’s well worth using an operator who mixes the highlights with lesser-known sights. Most outfits are keen for you to “meet the people”, though conversations can tend to be strained and lead to your leaving a “donation” or buying local craftwork. While this gets a few tourist dollars directly into the townships, it often leaves visitors feeling pressurized and vulnerable. Ask your guide about the best way to deal with this.
At one time, taking yourself to Soweto would have meant a display of bravado bordering on foolhardiness, but it’s now possible to visit the main sights independently. In Soweto, residents will stop to greet you or to chat, regardless of your colour. There are surprisingly few criminal incidents affecting tourists, though as ever it pays to remain vigilant; exploring less-visited areas by yourself, or going after dark, isn’t recommended for safety reasons. If you want to drive to Soweto, you’ll need good navigational skills – the lack of obvious landmarks amid kilometre upon kilometre of boxy little houses can be highly confusing. The new Rea Vaya bus route from the city centre that passes near Vilakazi Street offers a good alternative to taking a minibus taxi to Soweto, which are more confusing than dangerous, as it isn’t always easy to ascertain which part of the township they are heading for. Forming a cross with two fingers is the recognized minibus signal indicating that you want to go to “crossroads”, which will bring you to the centre of Soweto. From here you can pick up another taxi to whichever sight you want to visit, though even in a taxi you may be let out on one of the main roads and have to walk a little way to reach your target.