Soweto is located in the suburban area of ​​Johannesburg, it is not only the best known township in South Africa but also where several pages of the country's history were written.

Although the term township is commonly used, this is not exactly correct to define Soweto: the term township identified the areas where non-whites were segregated during the apartheid period, often they were territories with shacks and makeshift shelters; but Soweto is much more than this and has largely left its sad past behind.

Soweto is a suburban agglomeration where different realities and different social classes coexist; there are many neighborhoods, each with its own specific history and contemporary reality.

Soweto is a suburban area with ​​a thousand contrasts: here there is a wealthy social class, music and movie stars, but also people who have nothing and still live in the few areas that are defined as irregular settlements; two Peace Nobel Prices lived in Soweto, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, but it is also one of the areas in South Africa with the highest rate of murders and rapes; here the middle class is growing more and more but also the unemployment rate is increasing and, in some age groups, it reaches 50%.

Why visiting Soweto

Visiting Soweto, talking to the people who live here, who are always available and smiling with visitors, is a priceless experience; hearing their stories about their daily life and their past is truly an experience not to be missed.

In Soweto you can retrace the stages of the recent history of South Africa, the history of Soweto is the mirror of what happened in the rest of the country in the twentieth century, Soweto and its inhabitants have always been at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights and to oppose the apartheid regime.

It can be said that a travel itinerary in South Africa cannot be complete without a visit to Soweto if you really want to understand the soul of this wonderful country.

What to see and what to visit in Soweto

Soweto is undoubtedly worth a visit and there are many points of interest for a visitor, the places in Soweto not to be missed are:

  • Vilakazi Street

  • Mandela House Museum
  • Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum
  • Orlando Towers
  • Regina Mundi Church
  • The irregular settlements
  • Freedom Square or Walter Sisulu Square and the Kliptown Museum
  • FNB Stadium 
  • Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital


Visit to Vilakazi Street in Soweto

Vilakazi Street is arguably the best known street in Orlando West and all of Soweto and this is where most visitors can be met.

The reason for its fame is very simple: Nelson Mandela lived here for several years before being incarcerated, now what was his home has been transformed into the Mandela House Museum.

Furthermore, a few meters from what used to be Mandela's house, there is also the house of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who, together with Mandela, played a fundamental role in the fight against apartheid.

Desmond Tutu still lives in this house with his wife Leah when he is in Johannesburg and it is sometimes possible to meet him as he wanders the streets of Orlando West.

The house of Archbishop Tutu is a historical heritage of Johannesburg, on the surrounding wall there is a blue plaque, useful for identifying the house; Tutu's house, still being a private residence, is not open to the public.

Both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts in the fight against apartheid, so Vilakazi Street is one of the few streets in the world that can boast two Nobel Prizes; this information is proudly and relentlessly repeated by all local guides.

Net of this record, it is still very interesting to go to Vilakazi Street: in addition to Mandela's house, that has been transformed into a museum, along the street there are several local restaurants, including Nambitha and Sakhumzi, some handicraft shops, studios of Soweto TV, Soweto's only community television channel, and several street artists who perform Zulu tribal dances and more to try to make money, given the high unemployment rate that plagues Soweto.

Not far from Nelson Mandela's former home is the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum, another must-see during a visit to Soweto.

Vilakazi Street is named after Dr Benedict Wallet Vilakazi (1906 - 1947), a poet, novelist and intellectual who wrote using several indigenous languages; he also gave a valuable contribution to compiling a dictionary of the Zulu language, isiZulu, and he endeavored to render some tribal languages ​​in written form that, until then, were only oral.

Visit to Mandela House Museum in Soweto

The Mandela House Museum is the house where Nelson Mandela lived from 1946 with his first wife Evelyn and, later, with his second wife Winnie, before being jailed in 1962; Mandela returned here in 1990, after being released from prison, but soon moved elsewhere for security reasons.

Mandela's home is located in Soweto, in the Orlando West neighborhood, on Vilakazi Street at 8115, on the corner with Ngakane Street.

In 1997 Mandela donated the house to the Soweto Heritage Trust, that he himself founded; the house was opened to the public and has since then been one of the most visited destinations in South Africa.

The Mandela House Museum was declared a national monument in 1999 and inside it collects many objects and testimonies of the private life of Mandela and his wife Winnie when they lived here.

The house is a red brick cube and was built in 1945, inside it still houses the furniture and several original objects that belonged to Mandela and his wife Winnie, including several photographs; there are also some quotes attributed to Mandela and, on a wall, the boxing world champion belt donated to Mandela by Sugar Ray Leonard makes a fine show.

On the façade of the house, the burn marks of some Molotov bombs that were thrown at the house are still visible, while the bullet holes are still present on the walls.

In 2007, the Soweto Heritage Trust decided that Mandela's house needed a renovation, both in terms of structure and objects contained within; furthermore, at the time there were no useful services and information for visitors to fully experience the visit.

A new visitor center was built, a highly qualified museum curator was hired and all the staff received adequate training; in March 2009 the Mandela House Museum reopened to the public.

The Mandela House Museum is very interesting to visit, in addition to discovering many aspects of the more private life of the first black president of South Africa, it also allows you to understand how the middle class lived during the apartheid period.

Learn more about the Mandela House Museum

Visit to the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum in Soweto

The Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum is located in the Orlando West neighborhood of Soweto, it is both a memorial and a museum dedicated to the Soweto Clashes where several hundred students who were peacefully demonstrating against the apartheid government lost their lives.

On June 16, 1976, not far from where the museum and the memorial are now located, school children took to the streets to demonstrate against the adoption of the Afrikaans language in schools as the only language; the police fired to stop the demonstration and this triggered an urban guerrilla war.

Hector Pieterson was a 12-year-old boy who participated in the demonstration and who was killed by police shooting on June 16; Hector was immortalized by Sam Nzima in a historical photograph, who went around the world, while another boy carries him in his arms and, together with Hector's sister, seeks in vain for help.

Following the Soweto Clashes and the disclosure of Hector Pieterson's photography outside the borders of South Africa, the world became aware of what was happening and many states, companies and individuals began to boycott and distance themselves from South Africa.

The memorial consists of a fountain that represents the blood shed in the clashes but also the hope for the future; in the fountain there is a blow-up of the photograph showing the lifeless body of Hector Pieterson carried in the arms.

The museum, not far from the memorial, is spread over two floors and tells, with the help of photographs, videos, newspapers of the time and objects, the facts of the Soweto clashes but also the brutality of the apartheid regime in those dark years of South Africa.

Some images and films are very raw and it is impossible to remain indifferent in front of so much violence.

The Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum opened in 2002 and is located on Khumalo Street, near the place where Hector Pieterson was killed.

June 16 is now Youth Day in South Africa.

Further information about the Soweto Clashes

Visit to the Orlando Towers in Soweto

The two Orlando Towers are one of the landmarks of Soweto and are visible from far away; in recent years they have been restored and have become a true open-air piece of art.

A stop near the Orlando Towers is a must to immortalize and admire the design of their latest mural; but the Orlando Towers also house a braai bar and, from the bridge that connects them, it is possible to do bungee jumping.

These were the towers of the Orlando Power Station, the coal-fired power station that was built in this area after World War II and that provided electricity to the city of Johannesburg for about 50 years.

In reality, the project to build the new power plant here dates back to 1935; it was necessary to meet the growing demand for electricity from the city of Johannesburg and the inability of the City Generating Station downtown to provide the adequate amount of energy.

The place to build the power plant was chosen based on the availability of water, essential for cooling, and of the railway, to easily transport coal to the power plant.

The construction of the plant began in 1939 but the completion of the works was delayed due to the outbreak of the Second World War so the last phase of the construction was completed only in 1955, while the Orlando Towers, the two cooling towers, were completed in 1951.

Until 1990 a steam locomotive was used to tow the coal loaded wagons destined for the power plant; in 1998 the railway station was decommissioned following the closure of the power plant.

The Orlando Towers and the power plant remained abandoned and forgotten until 2006, when their transformation into an entertainment venue and business center began, but the main building collapsed in 2014.

Fortunately, the two towers experienced a very different fate: the First National Bank commissioned graphic designer Janine Kleinschmidt to make their restyling leaving the artist full freedom, the only requirement that was imposed was to insert the bank logo in a way that it was clearly visible.

It took 250 liters of paint and 6 months to varnish the two gigantic towers but the result was surprising; the artist sought inspiration by wandering around Soweto and trying to immortalize its trendier soul, but also scenes from everyday life.

On the Orlando Tower inspirational phrases were painted alongside Soweto's most famous personalities, such as Mandela and Yvonne Chaka Chaka and common inhabitants portrayed in everyday scenes.

The result was wonderful, an immense work of art that is admired even beyond the borders of South Africa.

In the following years, other sponsors, such as Vodacom South Africa and Soweto Gold beer, have repainted the Orlando Towers, that have thus become one of the largest advertising spaces in the world.

Visit to the Regina Mundi Church in Soweto

The Regina Mundi Church is located in Orlando East, it is the largest Catholic church in South Africa and has a capacity of 2,000 people, but it is not visited for this reason nor for its architecture that, to be honest, is nothing special; the reason why this church is always included in a visit to Soweto is because it played a central role in the fight against apartheid.

During the Soweto Clashes of 1976 the police fired first at the facade of the church and then entered throwing tear gas and then firing as some demonstrators took refuge here; the marks of the bullets are still visible on the facade and inside the church.

In this church the members of the ANC met clandestinely to discuss the moves to be taken against the apartheid government during the period in which blacks were forbidden to assemble; the Regina Mundi Church was the perfect place to hide carbonare meetings by pretending to celebrate mass or attend prayer meetings.

At the end of the apartheid regime, the Regina Mundi Church was one of the headquarters of the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation.

It is possible to enter the church by paying the entrance fee, but inside there is very little to see.

regina mundi soweto south africa

Visit to an irregular settlement in Soweto

There are still several irregular settlements in Soweto, but what are irregular settlements or unregular settlement or informal settlement?

An irregular settlement identifies an area where shacks and makeshift houses were built, often in sheet metal or wood; these houses do not have electricity, running water and sewage connections and this is because, as the name suggests, they are irregular.

In the irregular settlements live the poorest people who usually do not have a job and many immigrants from neighboring countries who came to South Africa in search for fortune.

It is very interesting to visit an irregular settlement and stop and talk with its inhabitants who are kind and smiling and happy with the interest shown for them.

A precaution: if you want to visit an irregular settlement it is necessary to be accompanied by a local guide as these areas can sometimes be unstable, due to the precarious conditions of those who live here, only a local guide is updated on the situations.

The local guide is almost always an inhabitant of the irregular settlement; he leads visitors inside along narrow dirt paths that, following an irregular route, run along the various shacks.

Not having running water, the inhabitants of an irregular settlement use some manual pumps to extract the water they need from the subsoil; this water will be used for cooking, for drinking and also for washing.

The shacks do not have a bathroom and the inhabitants are forced to use the few chemical toilets or pit latrines found in the settlement.

Even the electricity is not present, so the inhabitants create irregular connections to the electricity grid, with the result that everywhere there are masses of wires going in every direction.

You can also visit some shacks that often consist of a single room where an entire family lives.

In irregular settlements, people live as members of the same family and help one another, a bit like in the past it happened inside a village; living in these places is not easy at all, a lesson that would be useful for many more fortunate people.

soweto south africa

Visit to Freedom Square or Walter Sisulu Square in Soweto

In Soweto in the heart of the Kliptown district is Freedom Square or Walter Sisulu Square or Sisulu Square on Dedication; this large square is where the Congress of People gathered on June 26, 1955 to sign the Freedom Charter.

The Congress of People was a group of people belonging to different political movements of different races, all united by the desire to fight apartheid and obtain the recognition of individual rights, freedom and a society not based on racial distinction; the Freedom Charter contains within it the intentions of the congress.

The Freedom Charter has always been a cornerstone of the ANC and the drafting of the new Constitution of South Africa in 1996 was based on it.

Freedom Square has been declared a historic monument and is dedicated to Walter Sisulu, a political activist who fought against apartheid and a member of the ANC; for this reason, like other activists, he spent several years in prison.

In practice, the square is a large open-air museum that tells visitors and passers-by how the Freedom Charter was written in a choral way by thousands of South Africans of all races.

At the center of the square there is a large conical tower made of bricks, inside is the entire Freedom Charter and its principles engraved in bronze.

Visit to the Kliptown Museum in Soweto

The Kliptown Museum is located in the Kliptown neighborhood of Soweto on top of Freedom Square or Sisulu Square of Dedication; the museum was built in a building that was once used as a tool warehouse.

The Kliptown Museum building is small in size but the exhibition is well crafted and innovative, thus allowing the visitor to experience the history of the Freedom Charter and the historic Congress of the People.

The wire sculptures, portraing activist leaders as well as ordinary people, feature the personal testimonies of those who participated in the signing of the Freedom Charter on June 26, 1955; these statements express the emotion and widespread enthusiasm of that moment.

Here are also exhibited several photographs and videos that tell of the increase in oppression that South Africans had to face every day in the 1950s.

Visit to the FNB Stadium in Soweto

Soweto is home to the Soccer City football stadium, better known as FNB Stadium or First National Bank Stadium.

This sports facility was built in 1987 and inaugurated in 1989, but was renovated and expanded in 2009 bringing its capacity to 94,700 seats, becoming the largest stadium in terms of capacity on the African continent.

The restructuring was carried out on the occasion of the 2010 World Cup that took place in South Africa; here, among others, the inaugural match between Spain and the Netherlands was held here.

The FNB Stadium hosts the football matches of the Kaiser Chiefs Football Club and the South African national football team and the matches of the Rugby team at 15.

Also in this stadium Nelson Mandela gave one of his first speeches after his release in 1990, here he also made his last public appearance on the occasion of the closing ceremony of the Soccer World Cup in 2010; finally, the celebration of the commemoration for his death in 1993 was also held here.

The FNB Stadium has been nicknamed The Calabash because it has the shape of a typical African container, or pot, made from pumpkins; its facade is covered with a series of panels that build a mosaic of warm colors, furthermore at the base of the structure there is a ring of lights that look like the fire that heats the pot.

Visit to Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital

Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital is the largest hospital in South Africa: it has 3,400 beds and 6,760 doctors and nurses and is located in Soweto in the Diepkloof district.

It was built as a military hospital in 1942 for British and Commonwealth soldiers and at the time was called the Imperial Military Hospital; after the World War, King George VI visited here and awarded medals to deserving soldiers.

Subsequently, since the hospital was located in an area inhabited by the black population, it was converted into a civil hospital for the inhabitants of Soweto; from 1948, the hospital took the name of Baragwanath Hospital and later, in 1997, it changed again and adopted the current name: Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital.

The hospital is still in operation and obviously cannot be visited and nothing special can be found inside; but local guides and Soweto locals proudly show this structure to all visitors that in reality, regardless of its size, is not of particular interest.