Formally known as the South West Township, Soweto has historically been synonymous with resistance to apartheid, South Africa’s former policy of racial segregation. In the 1970s and '80s, the sprawling district on the edge of Johannesburg was frequently in the news, especially as the Soweto Uprising of 1976, a series of protests led by black schoolchildren, produced one of the world’s most iconic news images: that of child Hector Pieterson, shot by police, dying in another protester’s arms. This complex history has shaped the township, where its cultural richness and important political significance now shine through in its moving museums, historical monuments, and strong traditions held by its some 3 million residents. Read on to learn how to visit Soweto, one of the largest black urban settlements in South Africa.
Best Ways to Visit Soweto
Take a guided tour to learn about the rich history, culture, food, and modern life in the township. For any Soweto tour, your tour guide will most likely meet you in central Johannesburg or Pretoria and provide roundtrip transportation by car; both full-day and half-day tours are available. A visit to the community can also be combined with a general Johannesburg city tour or a short Pretoria tour. Otherwise, it’s a 15-mile (25-km) drive along N17 to reach the South Western Township from downtown Johannesburg. While it’s possible to drive yourself, the township’s layout can be confusing.
What To See in Soweto
Johannesburg’s most famous district features a number of well-known tourist attractions, including the history-rich Apartheid Museum and the Hector Pieterson Museum, where Soweto Uprising victims are honored. The emotional Nelson Mandela House (Nelson Mandela National Museum), set on Vilakazi Street, is dedicated to the history and mission of the famous South African leader, while the former home of another Nobel Prize winner and social rights activist, Desmond Tutu, can be found just down the street. Visitors can learn about other local leaders through stops at buildings that honor their memories: the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Diepkloof and the Regina Mundi Church, one of South Africa’s largest Roman Catholic churches.
Kliptown, the oldest settlement in Soweto and home to Walter Sisulu Square, is visited for the role it played as the site of the 1955 Congress of the People. This unprecedented meeting produced the Freedom Charter, one of the first documents of resistance during the apartheid era. Also of note is the FNB Soccer Stadium on the border of Soweto, where many South Africans spend their leisure time watching games; and the Orlando Towers, prominent Soweto landmarks that were once cooling towers for a coal-powered plant but are now popular bungee-jumping sites covered in murals by local artists.
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