Soweto… short for Southwestern Townships… is the second largest township in South Africa and home to 1.3 million people, or 1/3 of the population of Johannesburg, who live in an area of 200 sq km. Created as an offshoot of the apartheid system, blacks were forcibly moved to townships surrounding Johannesburg proper in order to separate the races.
Soweto has a long and complex history of political resistance and was home to not one but two Nobel Prize recipients – Nelson Mandela (his former wife Winnie maintains a home there) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Once an area that was both off limits to outsiders and incredibly dangerous, since the early 1990s, Soweto has undergone (and continues to undergo) a renaissance and revitalization with neighborhoods that range from affluent to middle class to traditional match box style houses (4 rooms, very square and small) to public housing to barely held-together tin shanties.
The township is also embracing cultural, historical and adventure tourism and encouraging travelers to get the Soweto experience. I mean, you know some invisible barrier has been crossed when a former coal generation plant is now a popular bungee jumping attraction.
We hired a private guide, once a resident himself of Soweto, to take us through the township and give us the Insider’s viewpoint of life in this densely populated, evolving neighborhood. In the presence of our guide, we were able to wander the streets, markets and squares of Soweto and dive into the history of the place. I’m fairly certain, however that it’s still not a place where independent travel is encouraged.
Johannesburg itself is a city of about 4 million, and after just two days there, I know for sure it’s not one I need to return to. It’s not particularly beautiful, the architecture isn’t compelling or very interesting and it’s gritty reputation for petty, and not so petty crime and violence well deserved.
Downtown, or at least the City Centre/Financial District we stayed in, is not a place for wandering freely. And I hate that in a city. I want to be able to get out and explore, not feel hemmed in by fear and threat of safety. Throughout our time in Johannesburg we are warned to keep our valuables in the room safe, we are given a guide to go three blocks to nearby Gandhi Square when all we want to do is find a corner store and purchase waters and cokes. Walking anywhere at night is out of the question. When we go out we hire an Uber or ask the establishment to call a taxi for us. This of course makes Johannesburg an unnecessarily expensive city.
Also, in fair warning, Johannesburg in August is cold. Toronto is currently 35 degrees, Johannesburg is 13 degrees and windy. Central heating is non-existent. People where their outerwear everywhere — in restaurants and in bars –and layering is a necessity. I am more than a little grateful for my pashmina scarf.
On the upside, the water in the city is completely safe to drink. In fact, Johannesburg prides itself on the quality and cleanliness of its water.
Overall, Johannesburg is a good place to start an African adventure, but there is little reason to stay.