Soweto soul: Explore South Africa's historic township by bike
Visiting Johannesburg’s contentious sister city, Soweto, isn’t the easiest thing to do. Held back by apartheid, poverty still reigns across much of its 150 square kilometres. Jumping on a local bike tour allows travellers to experience township life without a filter. At times happy, sad, challenging and chaotic, it’s an afternoon you’ll never forget.
Mon 5 Dec 2016
Soweto (South West Townships) sits just outside Johannesburg, its population drawn to the city from all over the country in the gold mining boom of the late 19th century but then shunted 27kms down the road after bubonic plague swept through in 1904. The poorest were moved out into incredibly basic townships that became Soweto. The nearby hills subtly glitter with traces of gold, they’re the slag heaps from the world’s largest gold reserve.
Soweto is for many a symbol of apartheid (the government policy of separatism). For decades the townships that made up Soweto became the linchpin of the rebellion and were home to the Black Consciousness Movement (lead by Steve Biko). Thanks to its diverse population, it was said if Soweto sneezed, the whole country stopped.
With over a million inhabitants, this huge sprawl of matchbox houses (named for their uniform four room style) and shacks is home to 11 languages and even has its own language, a mix of all eleven.
Soweto’s been football crazy over a hundred years. It’s home to both the Kaiser Chiefs and Orlando Pirates teams and everyone is firmly in one camp or another. In 2010, the FNB stadium which sits on the edge of the township, held the FIFA World Cup final to a deafening chorus of vuvuzelas.
Sadly in June 1976, the Soweto Uprising (instigated after a government decree to teach students in Afrikaans rather than using native languages) became a deadly riot. Police opened fire on the 10,000 or so students protesting and 23 people died. You can visit the small Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Orlando West, named after the youngest student killed.
Since 1994, Soweto’s population has been able trade on the streets (as long as their stalls aren’t permanent) and you’ll find food, clothes, homewares laid out on blankets in some streets while trinkets are for sale on others.
While Soweto might have a colourful and complex history, there are plenty of people who move back to the area for the community feel. The shanty towns are here but so is the odd millionaire.
Soweto Backpackers bike tours has been run by locals for the last decade, ensuring that the profits go back into the township. Join a small group on a two or four hour tour that takes in the hills, the backstreets, the good and the bad.
There's no getting away from feeling slightly uncomfortable touring Soweto's poorest streets camera in hand but you'll meet plenty of kids who want to say hi.
Bright colours clash against the shanty housing, there's always somewhere to stop to buy local snacks and fruit.
Tiny restaurants barbeque cow heart, tripe and other innards before serving it sliced on wooden boards, piles of salt in one corner and hot spice in the other.
Soweto is the only place with a street where two Nobel Peace Prize winners have lived. Named the ‘Beverley Hills of Soweto’ drop by to see Desmond Tutu’s place as well as Nelson Mandela’s house. He lived there from 1946 until the 1990s and it’s now a museum.
Winnie Mandela’s house is also round the corner. It was built in 1982 with donations from a few famous friends including Jane Fonda and Colonel Gaddafi (surely the only time you’ll see those names in the same sentence).