Soweto, heartbeat of the nationInfused with the history of the struggle against apartheid and abuzz with the energy of the city of gold, Soweto is a must-see for tourists who are looking for more than sun, sea and the big five. With heritage sites, restaurants, shebeens and budget accommodation options aplenty, Soweto is well worth visiting, whether on a day tour or for a longer period to experience the real Soweto – a place of friendship, vibrancy and contrasts. Soweto is the most populous black urban residential area in the country, with Census 2001 putting its population at close to a million. Thanks to its proximity to Johannesburg, the economic hub of the country, it is also the most metropolitan township in the country - setting trends in politics, fashion, music, dance and language.
The making of SowetoSoweto may sound like an African name, but the word was originally an acronym for "South Western Townships". A cluster of townships sprawling across a vast area 20 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg, Soweto was, from the start, a product of segregationist planning. It was back in 1904 that Klipspruit, the oldest of a cluster of townships that constitute present day Soweto, was established. The township was created to house mainly black labourers, who worked in mines and other industries in the city, away from the city centre. The inner city was later to be reserved for white occupation as the policy of segregation took root. In the 1950s, more black people were relocated there from "black spots" in inner city Johannesburg - black neighbourhoods which the apartheid government then reserved for whites. It was not until 1963 that the acronym "Soweto" was adopted, following a four-year public competition on an appropriate name for the sprawling township. Soweto's growth was phenomenal - but unplanned. Despite government attempts to curb the influx of black workers to the cities, waves of migrant workers moved from the countryside and neighbouring countries to look for employment in the fast-growing city of gold. The perennial problems of Soweto have, since its inception, included poor housing, overcrowding, high unemployment and poor infrastructure. This has seen settlements of shacks made of corrugated iron sheets becoming part of the Soweto landscape. Apartheid planning did not provide much in terms of infrastructure, and it is only in recent years that the democratic government has spearheaded moves to plant trees, develop parks, and provide electricity and running water to the township. Soweto is a melting pot of South African cultures and has developed its own sub-cultures - especially for the young. Afro-American influence runs deep, but is adapted to local conditions. In their speech, dress and gait, Sowetans exude a sense of cosmopolitan sophistication.
Rich political historySoweto's rich political history has guaranteed it a place on the world map. Those who know very little else about South Africa are often familiar with the word "Soweto" and the township's significance in the struggle against apartheid.
Mansions and 'match-box' housesSoweto is a place of contrasts: rows of tin shanties abut luxurious mansions; piles of garbage and pitted roads offset green fields and rustic streams. Soweto has the same vibrant, racy feel of Johannesburg, of which it is an integral part. Despite the high unemployment rate there is a cheerful energy, a bustle of activity, with informal traders plying their wares on every corner. From the footbridge of the world-renowned Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, one has a panoramic view of Soweto. In the immediate vicinity of the bridge many people mill around - hawkers peddling a variety of goods, shoppers looking for bargains, and of course the ever-present commuters hurrying to board taxis. Further afield, the barrenness that comprises much of the old Soweto comes into view - the small brown houses of Old Diepkloof and Orlando townships, in stark contrast to the colourful shades and tree-lined streets of the newer parts like Diepkloof Extension, home to the relatively affluent. In Diepkloof the grey, four-roomed dwellings, cynically called "matchbox houses" by locals, abound. These are the original dwellings constructed to accommodate the first black migrants to the city. Although they are small, locals take pride in their houses, and put much effort into making them habitable and cosy. In contrast to these symbols of poverty, there are the various "extensions" that have been established to accommodate the relatively affluent. One example is Pimville Extension, home to the emerging black middle class. The suburb boasts beautiful houses, the roads are good, playgrounds and schools are in mint condition.
Migrant hostels, squatter campsSoweto offers plenty of other less aesthetically pleasing sights for the visitor. For instance, there are the hostels: monstrous, prison-like buildings designed to shelter male migrant workers from the rural areas and neighbouring countries. These workers were used as cheap labour, and their stay in the city was considered temporary; historically, they always lived on the fringes of Soweto communities. The new government is busy converting the hostels into family units, but they remain unbending in their ugliness. Then there are the squatter camp communities, euphemistically called "informal settlements", where poverty is palpable. These camps are home to many of the unemployed, who use corrugated iron sheets to build shelters. Despite their poverty, these shackdwellers have managed to build a strong sense of community. They remain in Johannesburg in search of the elusive "gold".
A place to partyRecent years have seen Soweto become a site of massive development projects and a major tourist attraction in the country. For those looking for a night out in the ghetto, Soweto offers some popular joints for relaxation. There are plenty of venues that offer a relaxed atmosphere, pleasant music (both dance and ballads) and a jolly good time. Perhaps the most popular of these joints is Wandie's Place in Dube. It is a cosy restaurant-bar-lounge popular with tourists and it offers great service. Other taverns in the area are Pallazo Distella in Dube, Club 707, a restaurant and bar or Ubuntu Kraal, both in Orlando West. You may prefer to visit one of the popular shebeens of the township. Shebeens are local drinking joints. They have survived the attempts of the authorities to shut them down and the condemnation from the pulpits of local churches to become thriving informal social centres patronized by local socialites. Some of the better known shebeens are: Tyson's in Pimville, Vardos in Mapetla, The Rock in Rockville, Boyce in Diepkloof, and Cornish in White City. SAinfo reporter
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