Soweto and the South

An acronym for South Western Townships, Soweto was founded in 1904, when city councilors used an outbreak of bubonic plague as an excuse to move black people outside the town. Today the suburb, which is 20 km (12 miles) south of the city, is home to about a million residents. What it lacks in infrastructure (though it’s been vastly upgraded since the first democratic elections in 1994) it more than makes up for in soul, energy, and history. The largely working-class population knows how to live for today, and Soweto pulsates with people, music, and humor.

Some areas of Soweto that are worth touring include old-town neighborhood Diepkloof, just beyond Orlando West, and its neighbor, the new Diepkloof Extension, which dates from the mid-1970s, when bank loans first became available to black property owners. The difference between the two is startling: the dreary, prefabricated matchbox houses of Diepkloof next to what looks like a middle-class suburb anywhere. In nearby Dube, many of the evicted residents of Sophiatown—a freehold township (where blacks were allowed to own property) west of the city and a melting pot of music, bohemianism, crime, and multiracialism that insulted Afrikaner nationalism—were resettled in 1959, bringing an exciting vibe to the dreary, homogenous dormitory town. The area remains a vibrant suburb, with an exciting mix of people and a festive atmosphere.

Between downtown Johannesburg and Soweto lie several suburbs less affluent than their northern counterparts, including Ormonde, where Gold Reef City and the Apartheid Museum are. Both attractions are well signposted from the N1 highway going both south and north and are easy to find if you have hired a car, but many tour operators do include a stop at the Apartheid Museum in their Soweto tours.

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