When my sister in law was visiting last October, she wanted to see Soweto, so instead of signing up for another costly tour (and perhaps having to wait again for hours for the correct van to show up) I decided we could just as well visit on our own.
We were not disappointed. Our first stop was Mandela House (188.8.131.52 S/184.108.40.206 E, phone 011 936 7754, Mon-Fri 9-5, Sat-Sun 9:30-4:30, if you are a South African resident make sure you mention it as the admissions price is discounted), then the Hector Pieterson Museum (8288 Maseko Street, Orlando West, Soweto, 011 536 0611, open daily 10-5) which due to extremely hungry kids I had missed last time. I’m glad I got to see it. It’s a bit repetitive, but its scenes of what happened June 16, 1976 are unforgettable. It was easy to find parking everywhere we went, and I even had my car cleaned for R40 in the process. It sorely needed it from our trip a few days earlier to Pilanesberg National Park
In my mind, any concern of safety when going into Soweto is misguided. It is just like driving to any other place. Yes, there are probably corners you want to avoid – we didn’t visit the Elias Motsoaledi Squatter Camp this time. But images we might carry in our mind of armored cars patrolling Soweto because it was so dangerous are safely buried in the past. When you first enter South Africa, you will invariably be warned to never get lost and never stop for directions, and while this might be true for some places, it is not so in Soweto. When my navigation system had no clue where to find Regina Mundi Church (it has no clue about a lot of things – are you listening, people at Audi?), at which we wanted to take a quick peek on our way home, the street vendors at Hector Pieterson proved a wonderful resource to direct us there. Not one, or even two, but three flocked to my window, all topping each other with well-meaning explanations and gesticulations, all very different from one another and not entirely clear, but in summary their joint effort delivered us there safely.
Another must-see destination, though not technically in Soweto, is the Apartheid Museum (Northern Parkway & Gold Reef Rd, across from Gold Reef City, 011 309 4700, Tue-Sun 10-5, closed Mon). The order of displays is a bit haphazard, and I almost found the large Mandela exhibit – though very informative especially on Mandela’s early life, which I didn’t know that much about – a bit distracting, as it left us with too little time for the rest. But it was very educational nonetheless, and not vindictive, as could very well be the case. In fact, I found myself feeling a bit understanding of the Apartheid government after our visit there. When Nelson Mandela was arrested, he had received guerilla training in other African countries with communist leanings and had steered the ANC towards the reality of armed struggle. It is easy to look at the turn of events in hindsight and see him as the great man he turned out to be, but back then he did engage in dangerous sabotage and terrorist activities. I give the Apartheid Museum credit for not merely whitewashing over those facts.
For an account of our previous Soweto tour with an official tour operator, click here.