It is 8:30 on a Saturday morning, and our family of six is ready to go on our first tour of Soweto. It doesn’t sound like much, but this is quite an accomplishment! Not only getting everybody out of bed and out the door on time, but overcoming all sorts of grumbling – from the typical suspect, Zax, who does not particularly enjoy family outings and can sense an “educational trip” from a hundred miles away, but also, more surprisingly, from Sunshine, who has lately taken to throwing herself on the floor of her room and yelling “I’m not going anywhere!” Jabulani was grouchy but ready, and Impatience, who loves packing, was busy stuffing a “purse” with all sorts of useful things like biltong, water bottles, at least four card games, and a battery of books.

We arrive on time at the Palazzo Hotel at Montecasino, where we will be picked up by a Themba Tours bus. Rather then setting out on our own, we have chosen this tour (R450 per adult, kids half price, for a half-day tour, but there are a series of other tours on offer as well, including “Soweto by bicycle” which also sounded intriguing to me), partly because of the convenience of a personal guide, but also, I admit, because “going into Soweto” has such a dangerous ring – at least to our white ears. I’m not sure what I was expecting – scary figures lurking at every corner? Shootings? Road blocks? Burning cars? As it turns out, Soweto is nothing of the sort, but more on that later.


cooling towers in Soweto
Soweto cooling towers featuring bungee jumpers

First, you will have to bear with me as we endure one more lesson on African time, because we have been waiting for half an hour, and still no bus. The one that was there when we arrived has left, full of another tour group, whose guide kindly called the office and confirmed that his colleague is on his way, “arriving in two minutes!” What he fails to confirm, however, is where his colleague is headed, which turns out to be an entirely different hotel all the way across town. But since we have learned not to take “two minutes” at face value, at first we just wait, without knowledge of this complication. Impatience’s purse has come in handy, as the kids are happily playing cards while devouring our only food.

Another bus arrives after half an hour, which we happily board, but we are informed that it is not for us but the 9:00 group. Since it is 9:15 and the 9:00 group nowhere to be seen, we propose what seems the obvious – we get this bus and the 9:00 group, whenever it shows up, can take ours. However, this plan meets firm resistance, which results in Noisette, who has now predictably lost his patience, herding us back to our car so that we can visit the Apartheid museum on our own, but as we are leaving the parking lot, our bus driver waves us down and promises, promises, to take us immediately. We all board the bus, again. While Noisette is parking the car, again, the driver informs me that we will just wait very briefly for the other people, and then leave. Oh no, I politely tell him, you don’t know my husband. We are either leaving now or there will be a tantrum. This somehow impresses him and we do leave, without further delay. Not on the tour yet, it turns out, but to meet our designated driver, who is racing from the place he was erroneously sent to meet us at. This is purely an effort to divert us from our fuming outrage. It works, as always – you are happy just as long as you are moving, anywhere. We make a brief stop to switch vans, and finally, at 9:40, are on our way. Not a minute too soon – I was sensing imminent revolution from my family.


hector Pieterson memorial in soweto
Hector Pieterson Memorial

While we are driving along the highway, Loyd, our guide, treats us to a quick history of Soweto, where he himself has lived all his life. Soweto stands for SOuth WEstern TOwnships, a name that was officially adopted in the 1960s for the sprawling accumulation of townships where blacks and coloreds were more or less banned to live under the Apartheid government.  According to Wikipedia , Soweto today has a population of 1.3 million, but Loyd puts the number at closer to 4.5 million. Once you see it, you’ll know why it is nearly impossible to get an official count. On June 16, 1976, the struggle against the injustices of Apartheid was propelled onto the world stage, when the police brutally tried to quell student protests against a new government initiative to require education in Afrikaans rather than English. Hector Pieterson, a 13-year old schoolboy, was one of 23 people killed that day, which has become known as the Soweto Uprising and is today commemorated as Youth Day in South Africa. In the aftermath of the uprising, Soweto became a sort of power central of black resistance, and its history is inextricably linked with the history of South Africa and its rise to become a democracy in 1994.

hostels in kliptown South Africa
Hostels in Kliptown

Our first stop is Soccer City, which we’ve already seen at night in all its glory of a World Cup game, and it’s not actually in Soweto either, so we don’t linger. The Welcome to Soweto sign is only a brief photo stop as well, and then we make our way into Soweto. This is actually considered the “wealthy” section, and it does indeed look very middle class – tidy houses, walled in (but interestingly no barbed wire or high-voltage lines to be seen), and lush, green gardens. Nothing, in my mind, is a more telling sign of wealth than the presence of plants. The greener, the higher the trees, the richer. To those of us who imagined Soweto as more or less a collection of shacks, this side of it comes as a surprise. We drive by a high school, pretty playgrounds, a huge shopping center all steel and glass. But right next to all that, in Kliptown, we see one of Soweto’s uglier sights, the hostels. These are long rows of gray barracks resembling prisons, which were built in the days when migrant workers from the countryside (what people here call “homelands”) arrived in the city to work at the mines and needed temporary housing.

mother and baby in soweto

The most striking contrast is evident when we arrive at our first real stop, the Elias Motsoaledi squatter camp. Lean-to shacks, as far as the eye can see, built from anything that might make a wall or a roof, red, dusty dirt everywhere, not a blade of grass to be seen. Loyd hands us off to another local guide and we begin walking. Zax, clearly alarmed, wants to know if he can stay in the van, but we don’t let him. The younger ones don’t seem to mind, and Sunshine soon has a throng of little boys following her.

We visit a preschool where normally twenty children are crammed into a hut. But today no children are present, except one screaming baby having its diaper changed. I cannot help but notice the swarms of flies and imagine what it must be like in the heat of summer. There is no state funding for this kind of school, we are informed, so I slide the only money I happen to have in my pocket, a R100 note, into the donation box.

We are then invited into someone’s house, trying to squeeze into the kitchen all at the same time. I’m squashed against an ancient refrigerator but soon realize that it is merely used as a cupboard, since there is no electricity. Stoves and lights are fueled with paraffin. Water taps and toilets are outside and have to be shared throughout the community. The bedroom next door features two beds, which somehow is enough for this family of eight. We take some pictures, thank our hostess, make another donation, and retreat.

Noisette quietly informs me that he is running out of money, as he has also donated his largest bill to the preschool. If you are planning a trip into Soweto, make sure that you best bring lots of small bills for all the people who will want your money. No one told us about this, but I’m sure with a little more forethought I could have come up with it myself.

At any rate, Noisette distributes all his coins to the little kids who’ve surrounded him and then we flee back to the parking lot, where our toothless guide asks for a donation of R50 per person for the community. All we have left is one R50 bill, and we are punished with angry stares, but there is nothing we can do. Plus, we feel better for having contributed the largest share to the cause of education, hoping that it will actually be used for the kids.

children in soweto surrounding tourist giving out coins
Whatever money you bring to Soweto you will leave behind

Back in the van, it becomes evident that the kids are getting hungry. I am peppered with “how much longer” and “this is stupid.” I admit I have not properly thought this through. In my mind, there would have been a collection of street hawkers selling the local fare at every stop, but surprisingly this is not so. Plus, we have no more money! There is nothing I can offer other than promises of “soon,” and so we move on to Freedom Square, where the Freedom Charter is engraved in stone under a cupola. It is a collection of principles adopted by the ANC for the new South Africa, a sort of mix between the Declaration of Independence and Preamble to the Constitution, proclaiming “The people shall govern!”, “All shall be equal before the law!” and much more. It is all the more impressive knowing that it was drafted in the 1950s, way before any of this was actually written into law.

We are serenaded by a recorder-wielding local with the South African National Anthem, which brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it, for its beauty and for the sense of improbability of its ever being written – in three languages – in the first place. As more songs follow, we grow more and more uncomfortable for our lack of money to tip him with. So we set out in different directions, Noisette in search of an ATM (“cash converter”) and me to find toilets. We are both successful (imagine, the people in Soweto bank too!) and are soon spending freely again, since there is a seller of local crafts whom the kids have spotted.

regina Mundi church in soweto
Stained glass window in Regina Mundi church
hector Pieterson memorial in soweto
Lasting image of Soweto Uprising

Our next stops are Regina Mundi Church, where many political meetings were held when they were officially banned during Apartheid (and various bullet holes attest to the danger of those very meetings), and the Hector Pieterson Museum, which was erected near the site where Hector Pieterson was shot in 1976. Unfortunately, I only get to take a few pictures outside before I spend our allotted 30 minutes in search for food for the kids, who are by now in open revolt. We venture across the street to find a local restaurant serving kotas, also called bunny chow . This is a pretty strange sandwich stuffed with French fries (yes!) and bologna and pink ketchup which succeeds in filling us up but will not be on my list of “must-have South African foods.” The kids are appeased, however, and I vow to return on my own to learn more about the Soweto Uprising.

nelson Mandela house museum in Soweto
Mandela House

We approach our next and final stop by winding our way through the throngs of a funeral procession, down Vilakazi Street in Orlando West toward Mandela House. This is where Nelson Mandela and his family lived from 1946 into the 1990s. Mandela didn’t really spend much time there himself, if you consider that he spent 27 years of his life in prison, but his second wife, Winnie Mandela, continued to live there on and off with their kids, becoming a prominent political figure in her own right. Nelson Mandela briefly returned after his release from prison in 1990, but soon the public attention became too much and he moved elsewhere.

The house, built of red bricks, survived several fire bombings and shooting attacks during the height of what local blacks call “the struggle.” It is now completely restored into a museum. Amazingly, tiny Vilakazi Street in Soweto boasts to be the home of not just one but two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

nelson Mandela house museum in Soweto
Mandela House


Just around the corner from the Mandela house we conclude our Soweto tour at The Shack, a local shebeen. These are gathering places formerly banned but now regular pubs, where the men would pass around a calabash or wooden bowl of local beer while holding meetings. (Soccer City stadium is modeled after a calabash). We are treated to a taste of it, but a taste is all we need, thank you very much. It is a milky concoction brewed from fermented sorghum, sold in paper cartons with the admonition “Don’t drink and walk on the road, you may be killed”  printed prominently on one side.

Loyd is apparently used to his customers not wanting to linger over the calabash, and very soon we are leaving Soweto behind, heading back to our world of green yards and security fences.

soweto milk carton message
Intersting message on milk carton

All in all, it was a very worthwhile trip. Our guide from Themba Tours was excellent and offered a wealth of information and personal history. I hope that the kids will retain bits and pieces of it, if only to see what privileged lives they lead.

Soweto is definitely not the cesspool of poverty and crime one might imagine, although we did meet people who live in utter poverty. It offers a lot of history and a sense of community seldom found in our suburban estates. We felt completely safe and welcome at all times and I would have no reservations about going back on our own – to explore more of it, to visit people who live there, to attend a cultural event, such as the upcoming Soweto Wine Festival in September, to take books and supplies to the preschool we saw, or, perhaps, to take Zax and Impatience bungee jumping off the Soweto cooling towers!

This article is part of Joburg Expat’s What To Do in Joburg series. You might also like:

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