10 and a half reasons to go to Soweto, South Africa

Best reasons to go to Soweto - Top South African travel blog

When I was working on cruise ships I often met guests who had plans to visit South Africa. They would ask me how they could make the most of their time in Johannesburg (my home city). Every time, without having to think, I would reply “You have to go on a tour of Soweto”. While this city has many experiences to offer visitors, if you’re going to come all this way, Soweto should be at the top of your sightseeing list. 

I have visited this lively township a few times, (usually for work) and it left quite an impression on me. When I was given the opportunity to be the guest of MoAfrika Tours on a tour of place, I was thrilled. 

(While they may have sponsored my trip, the opinions expressed below are my own.)


Here are 10 and a half reasons why you should go to Soweto:


1. To get an education

Soweto is a township of about 2 million people located on the south-west of Johannesburg (the name is an abbreviation of ‘South West Townships’). This area has been the site of significant political hardships and events throughout Johannesburg’s gold mining and apartheid eras. Pivotal events that have shaped present-day South Africa occurred here and there’s something about visiting these sites that makes their impact really hit home.

Politically significant sites worth seeing include:

- The mine hostels
The tour drove us past the rudimentary accommodation where mineworkers were forced to live in shocking conditions during Johannesburg’s mining era. 

- The Hector Pieterson Memorial 
A short distance away from where the June 16th massacre occurred is this memorial and (if you have time) its museum. It honours Hector Pieterson (the child in the famous photograph) and the other approximately 600 school kids were killed on June 16th 1976 while protesting against Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in schools. 


Top 10 reasons to go to Soweto


- Vilakazi street 
This is the street where two Nobel peace prize winners lived: Both Nelson Mandela and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The Tutu residence is still a private home and is marked by this plaque. 


Best reasons to go to Soweto

The Mandela house has been turned into a museum, which is also worth a visit if you have time. 


Soweto Tour - Mandela house


- Vandalised RDP houses
To give tourists a full picture of Soweto’s history, we were driven past RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) houses built for poor South Africans after apartheid ended that were then vandalised during xenophobic attacks on the foreigners who bought these houses through corrupt government systems. 


2. To get a reality check 

Part of the tour took us into one of the poorer areas of Soweto: The Motsoaledi Informal Settlement.

I can’t tell you how many times while working on cruise ships I would hear guests complain about the cruise being too long, or the Wifi being too slow. Sometimes they weren’t even paying guests, sometimes they were teenagers cruising on their parents’ money, never having worked a day in their lives, complaining that they wanted to go home because they didn’t like what the DJ was playing at that exact moment. Every time I wished more than anything that I had the superpower to be able to teleport spoilt people to poor Third World communities. It’s so easy to get consumed with comparing your life on social media with those who seem to be doing better than you, that you forget how ridiculously privileged you are. Everyone needs to experience something like this every once in a while.


Soweto Tours - reasons to go

In this area, we were given a walking tour. Apart from taking us to this very rickety lookout point, we also got to visit someone’s home. 

Soweto Tours, Johannesburg, South Africa


I’m just always in awe of how people live and what’s ‘normal’ to them. (Everyone’s ‘normal’ is completely foreign to someone else.) I love how people decorate, and really make the most of what they may have.


3. To make some new friends

As soon as we got off the bus in Motsoaledi, a group of children were waiting for us. 

Together with our tour guide, they also escorted us on our walking tour. They were very friendly and affectionate. They loved hugging us, holding our hands, testing our Zulu and posing for pictures (I just wouldn’t post them because I think it’s unethical and a bit creepy to post pics of other people’s children on social media without their consent). 


Reasons to visit Soweto

I also find it amusing that in the USA, children as old as seven are still being pushed around in strollers. Here, not only are there no strollers (or ‘push-chairs’), but children who don’t even look two years old yet will escort you on a walking tour, regardless of how long it may be.


4. To give back

If you need more convincing, part of Mo Afrika’s tour price goes towards the upliftment of the people living in this informal settlement. 


Soweto tours

We also stopped at a daycare centre during our walking tour. If you really want to feel good about yourself, you could bring along small inexpensive toys for the kids as well as stationary or educational supplies for the teachers.


5. To marvel at distinctly African architecture

On our way to Soweto, the tour also took us past the FNB stadium. 
It is well-known as the location of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2010 Soccer World Cup, and more recently, the Global Citizen concert where Jay-Z, Ed Sheeran and Beyonce performed and then lots of people got mugged (and I mean LOTS).  


FNB Stadium and flamingo
Rodrigo outside the FNB Stadium

It is said to have been designed to represent a Calabash (or traditional African bowl). The partial canvas roof supposedly represents the foam from the beer that may traditionally be served in a bowl like this (possibly as a somewhat of accurate reflection our nation’s appreciation of alcohol). Either way, it is an impressive structure (and I’m sure the architect was sober when he designed it). 


6. To be entertained by the street performances 

Near Vilakazi street, we were greeted by more than one street performance. (I still feel bad that I didn’t have any cash on me for tips.) From gumboot dancing (a style that originated in the mines) to more traditional African dance, and even some lady spontaneously belting out a Whitney Houston song acapella, there is something for everyone on this street. 


Soweto street performances


Vilakazi street performance

Please, someone, tip these people? It’s cold!


7. To appreciate the street art

Reasons to go on a Soweto tour
Motsoaledi street art

Soweto street art / sculpture


Soweto tour - Vilakazi street
Vilakazi Street mural

I will find a mural to have my picture taken against anywhere. It’s becoming a problem. 


8. To buy stuff

If you are in the market for beaded jewellery, clothes with African prints, or souvenirs of any kind, the vendors here will appreciate your money a lot more than the people who own those fancy shops in the airport. Some of the roadside curios offer credit card payments but it’s good to have cash on you for the majority which don’t. 


9. To sample the local cuisine

‘Shisa Nyama’ is the name given to a communal ‘braai’ (or barbecue) where people come together to cook their meat on an open flame in townships. South Africans of different races seem to associate their national identity with the practice of braaing. It’s what we do to celebrate our heritage on Heritage Day (or ‘Braai Day’) and it is definitely the most authentically South African way to eat. We were treated to Shisa Nyama (or braai meat) together with pap (boiled crushed maize - also very South African) at Chaf Pozi, a restaurant at the base of the Soweto Towers. 

Lunch at Chaf Pozi -Soweto

You can wash it down with a local beer or - if you’re like me - ‘Grapetiser’ (another very South African drink consisting of 100% carbonated fruit juice for spoilt people from the northern suburbs who don’t like alcohol). 


10. To photograph yourself with (or jump off of) one of South Africa’s most famous landmarks

Frequently changing and always colourful, are the Soweto power station cooling towers. While the power station may no longer be functional, the cooling towers still are: Currently, they are advertising a cellphone network and an alcohol brand! (Considered South Africa’s largest murals, they do make for prime advertising space.) You can also throw yourself off of a suspension bridge between them (i.e. bungee jump).


Famous South African Landmark
The mismatched socks on the feet of Johannesburg


10.5. You can stop at the Apartheid Museum on the way back

While this is not technically in Soweto, it’s not far from it (that's why it's only 'half' a reason). While you’re in the neighbourhood it’s definitely worth a visit. You should be warned that your entrance ticket may come with a temporary race reassignment, but it’s all part of the experience. 


Soweto Tours

This is a truly world-class museum that has taught me so much about the history of my own country. Definitely a moving experience. 


__________________


If you go:

Tours
Mo Afrika did a great job with the one I went on. You can find out more about the tours they offer with this link here. (Sponsored.)

Flights
If you are travelling to South Africa from an international location, the best way to find cheap flights is with Kiwi. I recently booked a return flight from Johannesburg to New York through their website at a much cheaper rate than if I had gone directly through the airline’s website. It’s also the best flight search website when it comes to buying multi-city flights if you intend to go elsewhere during your trip. You can check out their flight deals here(This is an affiliate link and I will get a very small commission if you book through it.)

Accommodation
If you are interested in staying in Soweto itself, there are guest houses in the township that are safe for tourists. Be sure to check with your hosts what you can and cannot safely do in the vicinity of your accommodation. Booking.com has a range of diverse accommodation options in every price range, in both Soweto and in areas considered to be safer. You can check out their specials here. (Again, this is an affiliate link and I will get a very small commission if you book through it.)

Safety
Soweto is a very big complex and diverse township. Some parts are incredibly ‘touristy’ others are very dangerous. I am the type of person who has grown to resent tour groups. I would definitely rather explore a place on my own than have to wait for that one annoying couple at the back while fighting the urge to beat them with their selfie sticks. I have to say, however, that in this part of the world, venturing off on your own is not really an option. While the crime and politics are way too complicated for me to try to explain in this blog, I always advise tourists not to go into Soweto on their own. In terms of safety, the only way to see it is with an organised tour and a fair amount of planning ahead.  

Top reasons to go on Soweto Tour


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Comments

  1. I love this post but especially #2. I was born and raised in the United States and live in Washington state. We are truly blessed with the amount of "stuff" we have here and I, too, have absolutely no patience with young people, in particular, who complain about how bad they have it. My husband and I are very fortunate to have taken two World Cruises on Princess and have traveled to over 70 countries. We know how the vast majority of people live in the world and our grateful every day of our lives. Thanks for pointing this out here.

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Sharon Waugh

Sharon is a writer, cruise ship entertainment host and freelance unicorn wrangler. She is currently taking a break from her seafaring adventures to explore some more landlocked locations from her homebase in Johannesburg, South Africa. She likes to photograph a plastic lawn flamingo 'Rodrigo' on her travels because it seemed like a good idea ten years ago and 53 countries later, it’s probably too late to turn back now.

 Sharon greatly dislikes reading 'travel blogs' by people who are just rephrasing press releases or composing lists like '15 ways to travel the world for cheap', specifically formulated for SEO, with absolutely no evidence that the writers have ever left their bedrooms. (This is not one of those blogs.) Sharon also dislikes bigotry and referring to herself in first person, apparently.

To find out more about Sharon and Rodrigo’s travel aspirations read this.

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