Soweto (short for South Western Townships) is South Africa’s largest township. It is historically characterized by poor individuals living in corrugated, tin shanty-style shacks amidst various levels of crime. However, today Soweto is home to people from all levels of the socio-economic range and most of the city is quite safe. While it is becoming a tourist destination in itself, too many visitors spend days only 30 minutes away
in Joburg and miss out on experiencing Soweto and learning about the role it played in the anti-Apartheid struggle. If you are limited in time, a day tour is a great way to see the city, but spending a night or two allows for more time to interact with locals and experience more of the rich culture and history that Soweto has to offer.
Soweto has been the stage for racial segregation and black liberation since the establishment of Kliptown. In 1904, the ruling British colonial authorities used an outbreak of bubonic plague in Johannesburg as an opportunity to rid the inner-city of its “slums” – neighborhoods of black and coloured residents. The inner city “Coolie Location” (present-day Newtown) was burned to the ground and its residents were removed from the city and relocated to Kliptown, a settlement some 20 kilometers to the south of Johannesburg. It was around this initial settlement that Soweto developed.
Sprawling squatter settlements emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, fed by increasing racial segregation, the displacement of inner city residents and urban migration that accompanied industrialization. In the 1930s the municipal government established Orlando, near Kliptown, as a site for the construction of black housing developments for the growing black population; however, the project lacked resources and no emphasis was put on the development of community facilities. Though lacking in infrastructure and services, the settlements around Kliptown and Orlando were well organized by community leaders such as James Mpanza.
The increasingly restrictive Apartheid laws, limiting the movement and location of black and coloured residents, led to a renewed influx of people to Soweto. Beginning in 1955, over 60,000 people living in the western parts of Johannesburg - including Sophiatown, which was home to many musicians, journalists and intellectuals - were violently removed from their homes in a massive military-style eradication campaign, and relocated to Soweto. It was during these years that the African National Congress (ANC) laid the foundations for its renewed campaign for black liberation. The Congress of the People was held in Kliptown, Soweto in 1955, from which the Freedom Charter was born.
After the outlawing of the ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1960 and the imprisonment or exile of many of its leaders, the black liberation movement faced many setbacks in the 1960s. The economic recession of the 1970s, coupled with rising unemployment, poor services and overcrowding in Soweto laid the foundations for the radicalization of the emerging second generation of Soweto residents. Disenfranchised youths joined gangs, and crime and police oppression flourished.
The 1976 Soweto uprising marked a turning point not only in the militarization of the black liberation movement, but also in the international perception of the South African regime, as images of violence and police oppression spread throughout the world. Continued violence in the townships led to a declaration of a state of emergency in 1985. Throughout the remainder of the 1980s a state of emergency would be declared numerous times. In the late 1980s, “petty apartheid” measures were repealed in attempts to appease the population, but the eventual dismantling of the Apartheid state had become inevitable.