City Tour: Soweto – they get it right, I got it wrong

Would visiting Soweto equate to poverty porn? I had my concerns that I was buying into a tour that was a wealthy white guy ‘observing’ the life of people living in tough circumstances from a place of privilege.  Every assumption I made was wrong.


The tour, organised and run by SoWeToo, sets out from the Apartheid Museum.  SoWeToo is a small group of entrepreneurial travel guides and tours owned and run by business people in and from Soweto.  You can find out more here.


The City Sightseeing Red Tour links up with SoWeToo.


The smaller tour bus used filled up quickly – everyone eager for a full-on experience!


First stop was the FNB football stadium, shaped like a ‘calabash’ (find out more here) or bottle gourd, which is/was used to store water and beer! You may recognise it from the football FIFA World Cup, which was held in South Africa in 2010.  I remember it more (or at all!) from Nelson Mandela’s funeral – this is where the celebration of his life was held.


The smaller tour van made it easy to pull up in lots of places and hop off.


Next stop was the infamous ‘Welcome to Soweto’ sign.



As we started to get into Soweto, I spotted that there were a lot of goats.  I spoke to the tour driver (in my inimitable style, I forget everyone’s name unless I write it down) as I thought the goat might serve both as a source of milk and of meat.  He corrected me immediately, saying “We are Zulu.  For us, the goat is used for sacrifice”.  I found this article by Xolani Magwaza, who describes the ritual (click here).


Soon, we pushed through traffic to reach the Orlando Towers, which have become a symbol of Soweto.


If you look carefully, you can see that a bridge was built between these decommissioned towers and became home to a bungee jumping experience (more from their website).


Not far from the towers is the Hector Pieterson memorial.  To be honest, I had not been aware of this tragedy and I valued the commentary given by the volunteer tour guide.


In the next two pictures, you can see the picture of Hector Pieterson being carried by his friends, shot in 1976 during a Soweto uprising against apartheid’s brutality, in particular forcing young people to be educated only in Afrikaans (start with this Wikipedia article to learn more). He was just 13.  I found the memorial to be moving.



Close by, we were dropped off on a busy Soweto street, to see where Nelson Mandela had lived! To be honest, we couldn’t see very much and most people were having their picture taken against the wall which showed his name.


About a hundred yards away is Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house, which his family still owns.  It had this small blue plaque and fewer visitors.


Most of the trip was celebratory and reflective, led very much by the tour driver and guide, both from Soweto.  One place that did feel a bit like poverty porn was Noordgesig, (I am open to correction on the spelling), which was one of the original farmsteads where homes were built out of tin by workers.  These steads and other townships became known as the SOuth-WEst TOwnships only in 1963 (hence, Soweto).  I had not worked out that spelling before.

The guide said that some people who now lived in the tin shanties drove fancy cars and had good jobs.  While I’m sure that this describes a number of people, I think it might be a stretch to apply that assumption to all people living in this area.


The next stop was the open-air Kliptown museum, which houses the now infamous Soweto Hotel where Lady Gaga stayed a couple of years back, but more importantly is home to the Freedom Charter (see the tower below).


That really is the hotel in the picture below.


I had just been reading about the Freedom charter and had focused on number 6.


Under the struts of the Soweto Hotel, everyday life carries on, the entrepreneurial spirit of the Sowetans leading to small and large market stalls.


Saying the trip was inspirational would feel too patronising.  I would say I was uplifted by the tour, that it lifted a mirror to my own face and found in my face a set of assumptions about Soweto that were quite wrong.  Yes, this is a place where people have long struggled against oppression which took on brutal proportions.  However, through the everyday, working, driving, singing, waving at one another, a Sowetan spirit seemed evident and that spirit draws you in and beguiles you.  I can’t wait to go back.