Soweto, the largest township in South Africa, is a country unto itself. About a million people live there — the same population as Swaziland. It’s a cultural and economic hub for black South Africans, and legendary for the historic events that happened there in the decades leading up to the end of apartheid.
My friends at the Melville Visitors Centre recommended that I book a tour through Taste of Africa, a company that specializes in cultural tours of Soweto. Rather than riding a tour bus, waving at people through the window and stopping at a couple of museums (which is what many Soweto tours consist of), Mom and I were paired with Caroline, a woman who has lived in Soweto all her life. Our day began at Caroline’s home at 9:00 a.m.
We chatted at the house for a little while and then took off on foot. Our first stop was Oppenheimer Gardens, a city park across the street, where we received a tour of the Oppenheimer Tower and the Credo Mutwa Cultural Village.
Judging from the number of visitors in the park that day and the dearth of information I found online (it’s not in Wikipedia!), the Oppenheimer Tower is relatively unknown. It was built in 1957 to honor Sir Ernest Oppenheimer, a mining magnate who worked to alleviate the housing crisis in Soweto. It’s built from materials from old Soweto shanties that were torn down and replaced with permanent homes.
We followed Lebo, the guide at Oppenheimer Gardens, up the 49 stairs of the tower (one for each of the 49 townships that make up Soweto). When we got to the top we discovered an amazing 360-degree view of Soweto.
The cultural village at the foot of the tower, which is a collection of sculptures and traditional African dwellings, was created by the Zulu Shaman Credo Mutwa in the 1970s. Each part of the village has a specific spiritual meaning — I won’t try to explain it all because I’ll get it wrong and make a fool of myself. But it was fascinating and I’m grateful to Lebo for explaining everything to us.
We left the Oppenheimer Gardens and cruised down the road, greeting people and waving to kids in a schoolyard. Eventually we got to a main road, where we caught a taxi to Kliptown.
Our taxi speeds past a guy driving a horse and cart. Taxis, or informal minibuses, are the main mode of transport in Joburg. They’re usually white vans and people pack in shoulder-to-shoulder. This was my first time riding in one.
Kliptown is the oldest district in Soweto and was also the site of the Congress of the People, a gathering of about 3,000 people who got together in 1955 to write the Freedom Charter. The charter was written to refute the apartheid government and later became the Foundation of South Africa’s constitution in 1996.
We wandered through Kliptown’s Walter Sisulu Square and looked at the monuments to the Freedom Charter. At the edge of the square is a free museum about the Congress of the People. The museum is built on the site of an old hardware shop that was owned by an Indian family called the Jadas, who played a significant role in planning the Congress. Like lots of other things in Soweto, there is very little about this museum online. But it’s beautifully put together and we learned a lot there.
We were exhausted and hungry. We waded into the Kliptown taxi rank and rode to our next stop — lunch at the Hostel.
The Hostel is a typical Soweto lunching spot — a small shack serving traditional South African food with benches and tables outside. You can also buy your own meat and braai (grill) it yourself.
We chowed on chicken and beef stew, pap (maize porridge), mashed pumpkin, and coleslaw. Satiated, we taxied to our final destination — Vilakazi Street.
Vilakazi Street, home of Desmond Tutu and the former home of Nelson Mandela, is Soweto’s biggest tourist attraction. Caroline calls it the Beverly Hills of Soweto. It was a nice way to end the tour, but we didn’t feel the need to go to the Mandela Museum or eat at the famous (and overpriced) Sakhumzi Restaurant. We strolled up the street and Caroline told us about the 1976 Soweto Uprising, which began at the high school there. She was 13 when the uprising happened and explained what a sad day it was for her and everyone in Soweto.
Grafitti commemorating Hector Pieterson, a 13-year-old boy who died in the Soweto Uprising. He was killed by police as schoolchildren protested Afrikaans as the medium of education in black secondary schools.
We sat down on a bench outside the Hector Pieterson Museum and watched the other tourists snap photos. We said goodbye to Caroline, who would be taking another taxi home, and climbed into the Landrover that would take us back to Melville. We watched the rain and thought about everything we saw and did in such a short time — it was only about 2:00 p.m.
Next on the vacation schedule: a two-hour nap.