Soweto : historical contrast and influence

There are some places in Johannesburg where every traveller should go. Soweto represents one of them. Well-known as a symbol of the anti-Apartheid, this former district is located on the southwest of Johannesburg at 20 minutes by car. With about 1–1.5 million inhabitants in the past recent years, it’s the biggest township in South Africa.

A poor district in Soweto — Image by : Camille Bour

Known as an unsafe and very poor place, I went to visit with Josephine, a guide who has been living there for a long time. Indeed, it seemed important to have someone who was able to explain the history and the reality of this place from a local point of view.

Map of Soweto — Image by : Google Maps

Before going, I was a bit scared. I had a negative representation of this place : poverty, violence, small houses made of recyclable material or people begging for money. I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable by seeing me as an European tourist, exploring one of the poorest area of the country. I did feel guilty but I really wanted to see it. And when the guide said « people in Soweto are happy to have visitors. Soweto has been ignoring by international countries for so long », I therefore realised it was worth it.

A lot of empty lands surrounded by slums in Soweto - Image by : Camille Bour

Soweto was created in the late 19th century when black South Africans were sent away from the city centre to work in mines and other industries. During the 20th century, Soweto’s growth was massive. « A lot of people from the neighbouring countries such as Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana came to find better opportunities » explained Josephine.

That isn’t a cliché that Soweto is a poor area. There are indeed a lot of housing problems, unemployment, poor infrastructure and overcrowding. The apartheid had an impact on the well being of the population. In recent years, the government has been trying to improve the living conditions by providing running water and electricity but it’s still not sufficient.

Young people in a street in Soweto — Image by : Camille Bour

Poverty has brought violence through drugs and alcohol problem. But the guide stays optimistic : « luckily, every year more people are getting a job which reduces crime, begging and improve the living conditions ».

« People in Soweto are proud of themselves »

Soweto is surprising. History had made this place particularly interesting. Culture is the heartbeat. Soweto isn’t only a slum, it’s also a place where a lot of different people from different background live despite the geographical separation between poor and rich people. As the guide explained, there is also a place called by the locals the « Beverly Hills of Soweto ». Despite its name, it does not look like as luxurious as in California but the South African middle-class working in the city centre appreciate the area. Part of this social class, she said « people in Soweto are proud of themselves, proud of owning a property ».

South African middle-class housing in Soweto — Image by : Camille Bour

Finally, out beyond ideas of a dangerous, poor and dirty place, Soweto appears to be a place influenced by its historical background which is trying its best to keep its charms as well as to improve its living conditions.

A street market in Soweto — Image by : Camille Bour