Sleeping in Soweto

Here’s an idea! I have to stop overnight in Johannesburg, South Africa between flights – yes, the city with a scary violence reputation. So what do I do? Bypass Johannesburg and stay for two nights in Soweto of course. That’s right, in the infamous “townships”.

Stay in a Soweto B&B.

Now this might seem counter-intuitive, but Soweto has a well established network of B&B’s, especially in Orlando West, and they are, well, as safe as houses. They are not surrounded by barbed wire fences and security guards. They are in a place where I can walk down the street to the local pub and wander back again later that night, and feel perfectly safe. And my B&B booking also happily arranges my transfers to/from the airport, only 40 minutes away. Now this definitely doesn’t apply to all parts of the townships, but in this area of Orlando West, the community has been determined to create a safe environment for themselves and for visitors, and they have succeeded.

Orlando West appears to be one of the “up & coming” neighbourhoods in Soweto. The houses are nearly all original “matchbox” houses, so called because they were, literally, a small box. But many have also been renovated, extended, or even replaced. And some have built a row of B&B rooms on the spare land at the back of their section, and created a thriving business. I am staying at Linle’s B&B, and I am accommodated in a near new, very comfortable room with a good ensuite. And they feed me a breakfast of fruit, yoghurt, cereals, juice and a huge fry-up that would rival any of the best B&B’s in the UK. The family are so welcoming and friendly, I can’t recommend them highly enough.

Soweto, Vilakazi St.

Linle’s is just around the corner from Vilakazi Street, the “tourist street” of Soweto, which is the only street in the world which has housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners.

Bishop Desmond Tutu still has a house there, and the Mandela House is now a museum. This is the house Mandela lived in before the final incarceration and immediately after his release. Vilakazi St also has the well known restaurant & bar, Sakhumzi’s, a very pleasant place to wind down on a Sunday evening, under the umbrellas with a cold beer.

Given it’s location I expect it might be full of white tourists and therefore lacking any local atmosphere, but I am pleasantly surprised – there are plenty of tourists, but on this evening I am the only white one. Most are South African tourists from other cities, or visitors from other African nations. And there is a fair smattering of locals too. I am befriended by a group of three friends visiting from CapeTown for the weekend, and two locals who have grown up in Soweto but now live in other suburbs, and we drink too much super dry cider.

Soweto Tours and Attractions.

During the day I take a tour of Soweto in the morning and then spend the afternoon in the new Apartheid Museum which sits between Soweto and Johannesburg. The tour covers a lot of ground, including a few World Cup football stadiums, and the Twin Towers, the stacks next to an old decommisioned power station, painted in beautifully colourful murals. It also covers a fair range of emotional ground, particularly for those old enough to have been aware of or involved in the anti-apartheid movement from far away in our own countries.

I start to get an idea of how diverse Soweto has become. Here is a suburb nicknamed” Hollywood” where there is no sign of the original matchbox houses, and the architecturally designed mansions would not look out of place in any major city around the the world. Just across the stream from here is a much poorer area, where the government is currently rehousing the residents into new, better, bigger homes. But as people move into their new homes, the old shacks, earmarked to be demolished, are immediately filling up, illegally, by new immigrants from other parts of Africa. Its an ongoing problem as the influx of people from rural areas as well as from other countries has increased dramatically in recent years.

Soweto Neighbourhoods.

We stop at a local market (fruit and veges, electronics, clothes, even a “witch doctor” table of herbs and medicines), and also visit a local resident in an original and well maintained “matchbox” house – it’s humbling to realise his ‘two room with outdoor toilet’ is smaller than my bedroom and he has raised an entire extended family in here. It does however now have clean running water, (legal) power supply and a flushing loo, so can be considered “middle class” for the area.

Then the owner points out that the walls and ceiling are asbestos, which is why all the householders keep them heavily painted, to seal them and try to prevent any asbestos escaping into the air! (at this point I have to confess I stop breathing and try to hold my breath until we leave – I fail!)

It is a very different story as we go into Kliptown, one of the oldest and most deprived areas of the townships. It’s an area which seems to have gotten no benefit from the end of apartheid, a true slum, a place easy to put into the “too hard” basket. See here for the separate post I have done on Kliptown (coming soon).

Soweto – History of Apartheid.

Our final stops are a roll call of the anti-apartheid movement – Vilakazi St with Bishop Tutu and the Mandela House museum, and just a couple of blocks away the Hector Pieterson square, memorial, and museum.

These commemorate the 68+ school children – kids – shot dead while protesting over a new rule that required them to take their lessons in Afrikaans. Back in 1976, this atrocity captured the attention of the world and was instrumental is creating worldwide public awareness of apartheid. Be warned, this is a museum that is going to make you want to cry, with it’s extensive tv footage, witness accounts & photographs from the time that bring the events all too well to life.

We get dropped off at the Apartheid museum to browse for the afternoon. This impressive museum is a world class, informative, interactive, multimedia museum covering much of history of South Africa, not just the apartheid years. It needs a good two or three hours to do the museum justice and there is a lovely garden cafe attached for a bit of sustenance.

So go to Soweto, and stay in the middle of some incredible recent history. It is an amazing, stimulating, positive experience – I promise you!