Bungee jumping at Orlando Towers, Soweto, Johannesburg

South Africa Travel: Soweto, Johannesburg

As I mentioned in my last travel post on Johannesburg, South Africa, I bought a 2-day bus & Soweto combo ticket from City Sightseeing Joburg.

That ticket allowed me to travel around Johannesburg on the City Sightseeing Joburg bus for two days and, on one of those days, jump into a smaller van to tour Soweto.

What I Thought About Soweto and South Africa Before Getting There

As a black African child raised in the ’80s, for the longest time, my strongest association with South Africa was apartheid.

I remember my father, when I was barely six years old, refusing to buy me a can of Schweppes Indian Tonic because the top of the can read “Keep South Africa Clean".

He explained to me that he did not buy South African products because of something called apartheid.

Confused, as you can imagine a six year old would be, I asked him what apartheid was.

Right there in the store, my father explained to me, for the first time, that the South African government of the day had policies that were racist towards black people (and as I later learned, towards other non-white people too).

As I grew older, I learned more about South Africa and began to understand a little better, though I must admit I continued to be unclear for quite a while about what the situation in South Africa really was.

I would see disturbing images of South Africa on the evening news, and often these disturbing images would be of a place called Soweto.

Soweto, Soweto, Soweto, I kept hearing.

With time, I pieced together that Soweto was a black township in South Africa central to the fight against apartheid.

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A bench for non-whites in Apartheid South Africa

Into the nineties and beyond, things changed and I began to associate Soweto and South Africa with things other than apartheid.

Instead of the freedom-fighting Soweto I had become accustomed to seeing on the news, my strongest association with the township became Vilakazi Street, famous for being the only street in the world to be home to two Nobel Laureates: Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.

How I dreamed of one day visiting Vilakazi Street! I often imagined what it would look like and hoped that one day I’d be so lucky as to travel there and see it for myself.

Unexpected Travel to Johannesburg

How happy do you think I was then when I realized that I’d soon be visiting Johannesburg, where Soweto is located?

Ecstatic!…Except, I had also heard many crime-related stories about Johannesburg which made, for instance, my Mercedes-driving black South African friends-of-friends leave their cars in their posh suburbs and ride together in a minivan whenever they wanted to dine in Soweto.

If they, who were local, had to take such precautions, how was I, a foreigner, going to be able to do this on my own?

Minivans on the road in Soweto, a common form of travel in South Africa

Luckily, the City Sightseeing Joburg tour that I was planning to go on had a Soweto Tour extension.

All I would have to do was ride the City Sightseeing Joburg bus to Gold Reef City, and with the same ticket, hop on to a van that would take me safely around Soweto.

The City Sightseeing Joburg Soweto Tour Extension

So that’s what I did.

After quick refreshments at Gold Reef City Casino, my travel companion and I, along with two other women on the tour, jumped into a small red van with the words SO WE TOO emblazoned on its side and made our way to Soweto.

The City Sightseeing Joburg SO WE TOO red bus caught from Gold Reef City in front of Bara sign

We had to travel a distance to get to Soweto.

What caught my attention most as we made our way there was the vast stretch of empty land between where we’d come from and where we were going to.

Immediately, I began thinking about just how much the resettlement into townships was meant to separate races.

Black South Africans were not just moved to an area “of their own"; they were moved to an area of their own far away.

My mind kept racing with such thoughts as our guide Lindani gave us more information.

Our first point of interest was Soccer City, the largest stadium in Africa, where the opening ceremony and final game of the 2010 FIFA World Cup took place.

A short while later, our van stopped at a sign that read “Welcome to Soweto”: we were at the entrance of Soweto in Diepkloof.

We got out to take pictures, to prove we’d been there in person, and then our tour began in earnest.

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Soccer City by night

As we drove around Soweto, I saw one-storey houses, which I was told are referred to locally as matchbox houses because of their size.

These four-bedroom low-cost matchbox houses were originally built by the government.

To be honest, they looked like lower middle class housing that I had seen in many other African cities.

This in no way matched the picture of Soweto that I had in my mind (I expected tin shacks and shanty towns—stupid I know…blame the media!).

Very soon, we passed a busy area filled with lots of activity.

To our left stood the third largest hospital in the world, the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital; to our right was the Baragwanath Taxi Rank, one of Johannesburg’s busiest.

Quickly (but carefully), we made our way through the crowd.

Our next stop was at two tall brightly painted buildings that I was told are iconic of Soweto, the 100-meter tall Orlando Towers.

Formerly the cooling towers of a now-decommissioned power plant, the Orlando Towers hover above the Soweto skyline and are now a location for extreme sports (I will have to travel back to Johannesburg one day so I can bungee jump from there!)

Bungee jumping at Orlando Towers, Soweto

We drove on past the Orlando Stadium (mostly used for football matches) and stopped at the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum.

Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum

Hector Pieterson, who died at the age of 13, was among one of the first fatalities of the 1976 Soweto uprising.

He was killed when police opened fire on a student demonstration protesting a new law instating Afrikaans as a medium of instruction.

As we stood there, not far from the corner where Hector was killed, listening to our guide tell us what occurred on that fateful day, I got a glimpse of how horrific life in apartheid South Africa must have been for Sowetans.

Vilakazi Street

I left that stop with a heavy heart, but nothing was going to dampen the pleasure of being on Vilakazi Street, which was right around the corner and our next stop.

The first place we came to on Vilakazi street was Nelson Mandela’s former home.

Vilakazi Street Written on the curb

Currently a museum, Mandela House is open to the public though an entry fee is charged to go inside.

Before I started my tour of Soweto, I hadn’t realized that the two-hour City Sightseeing Joburg Soweto Tour extension would only allow for perfunctory stops at each point of interest.

If I had, I would have planned enough time in Soweto to actually visit the main attraction at each stop, which would have been easy enough given the way the tour is structured.

All it would have taken would have been staying at a stop until the next scheduled bus came along.

This portion of the tour, like the rest of the City Sightseeing Joburg tour, is hop-on, hop-off.

My travel companion and I took pictures to commemorate the fact that we’d been there, and then we got back into the van for the rest of the tour.

We didn’t stop at Archbishop Tutu’s house because it’s still a private residence and is not open to the public.

Still, at least I can say: I have been to Vilakazi Street and I have seen both houses for which it is famous!

Tutu House Plaque

The last two stops we made before returning to Gold Reef City were both in Kliptown.

The first was Walter Sisulu Square where in 1955 the Freedom Charter was signed, and the second was on the side of the road near a shanty town where I saw the abject poverty that I thought would characterize so much more of Soweto (I am glad I was wrong!).

After those two stops, our tour was complete and we made our way back to Gold Reef City.

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It’s rare, in my life, for me to visit a place and find that I had such great misconceptions about it—I like to think of myself as a generally informed person.

Soweto, I must admit, was nothing like I had expected it to be.

Much larger than I had imagined, Soweto is truly a city within a city, with so much to see.

If you, like me, happen to be in Johannesburg and are determined to visit Soweto but are not sure how, then I highly recommend City Sightseeing Joburg’s Soweto Tour extension.

Remember you can join the greater tour from the Gautrain Park Station or from Gold Reef City.

If you do, please let me know what you think.

Until the next time,

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Photo Credits: Tracy Hunter; KNewman1; Michael Denne; ToursinSouthAfrica.com; George Groutas; South African Tourism; Getty Images; Stop Having A Boring Life

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