Close to the ground.

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.

Hector Peiterson Museum

Hector Peiterson Museum is named after the 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police during the 1976 Soweto uprising, which took place just a few blocks from where the museum stands today. An image of a man carrying the lifeless Hector Pieterson, his sister running beside him, became a symbol of the struggle against oppression after it was published around the world. The museum commemorates the 556 students who were killed during the uprising and has photos and exhibits that tell the story of the events that led up to the June 16 uprising and the aftermath that followed - including an account of the day from Hector's sister.

Mandela House Museum

Mandela House Museum is the original Mandela family house with much of the original furnishings. This was the site of many meetings that led to the 1976 Soweto uprising. Today the house is a modern museum that displays the history of the Mandela family's move to Orlando West, complete with touch button audio recordings from Winnie Mandela and the daughters.

Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu's Private Home

Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu's Private Home is not open to the public, but is a short walk from the Nelson Mandela House Museum.

Bungee Jump, Climb or Abseil

Bungee Jump, Climb or Abseil from the Orlando Cooling Towers which cooled the power plant that supplied electricity to Johannesburg during Apartheid, when Soweto still didn't have any power.

Kliptown Youth Foundation

Kliptown Youth Foundation provides food, education support, arts opportunities, sports activities and housing for some of Kliptown's youth. Visitors are welcome to come to the youth center any time to get a tour of the community or spend some time working with the children.

Credo Mutwa Cultural Village

Credo Mutwa Cultural Village was built by the somewhat influential artists and healer, Credo Mutwa in 1974, but later vandalized after Mutwa made controversial statements about the 1976 Soweto uprising. Although afterward renovated, it is currently in a dilapidated state. The cultural village contains a previously used traditional healing clinic, four-headed statues and displays on traditional burial practices. Some of Mutwa's followers (including those who give the village tours) believe that one of his statues from 1979 proves that he predicted the coming of HIV in Africa and that another one of his paintings (of the same year) represents his prediction of the planes crashing into the New York World Trade Center on 9/11. Right next to the cultural village is the Oppenheimer Tower. In 1957, Sir Earnest Oppenheimer, chairman of the Anglo-American Corporation, helped organize a loan to build 14,000 houses for Sowetans. To show their thanks to Mr. Oppenheimer they built the Oppenheimer Tower, partially from the remains of the nearby power station. The tower has 49 steps which represent Soweto's then 49 districts.

Regina Mundi Church

Regina Mundi Church is a stained glass window church and place where many gathered for political meetings during Apartheid. It is also the site of many police raids. Mass is held Sunday from 7-8am and 9-10am and every other day between 8-9am. When mass is not in session you can enter the church and, on the balcony in the back, view a photo exhibit of the events of the June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprising. For a guided tour (fee: a small donation) stop at the building beside the church between 9am-5pm and ask for a tour.


Jimmy's Face to Face Tours

Jimmy's Face to Face Tours gained its popularity from running Soweto tours back in the 1980s and has since grown into a larger operation.

Soweto Bicycle Tours

Soweto Bicycle Tours is a popular way to take in a Soweto tour a little closer to the ground. The tour allows you to interact with Sowetans and includes lunch and a drink at a shebeen.

On Another Level Tours

On Another Level Tours is a one man show run by Oliver Njoko. He is an enthusiastic Sowetan who knows the history of the area and can take you off the beaten path for a good time in his hometown. He is also a registered South African tour guide.

Maponya Mall

Maponya Mall is the largest mall in Soweto with a number of stores including Pick 'n Pay, Woolworths, Mr. Price, a cinema and branches of every major bank in South Africa.

Jabulani Mall

Jabulani Mall has all of the stores of the typical South African mall including a Shoprite, Game, Woolworths, a number of fast food joints and ABSA, Standard Bank, and FNB ATMs.


Shoprite is somewhat centrally located and a landmark often referenced when giving street directions.

Lebo's Soweto Backpackers

Lebo's Soweto Backpackers is the first and currently the only backpackers in Soweto and has a distinctly Soweto feel. There is a bamboo-enclosed area in front with chairs to lounge in, foosball, an honesty bar and a small fire every night with chickens perched on tree branches above the warming blaze. The backpackers also offers bicycle tours or can arrange for a local to accompany you anywhere around town - including night tours of Soweto's popular night spots.

Thuto's B&B

Thuto's B&B is located 40m from the Nelson Mandela House Museum and is hands down the top B&B in Soweto. The gracious host, Anastacia, who was born and grew up in this house, has welcomed numerous local and foreign politicians into her home. There are four en-suite rooms with antique furniture and large bathrooms.

Dakalo B&B

Dakalo B&B is an established 3-star, three room B&B inside a family home with a garden and braai area in the back.

Neo's B&B

Neo's B&B has been welcoming guests from around the world into its three vibrantly colored rooms since 2001 and though you feel like you're passing through someone's house, it's one of the area's nicer B&Bs. Neo is a gracious host who is happy to suggest places to visit in the area or make you comfortable in the outdoor shaded lapa in back.

The Rose B&B

The Rose B&B is a small three-room guest house owned by a family with young children. It needs some renovations, but they are happy to show you around and can take you on walking tours around the area.

Vha Venda Hills B&B

Vha Venda Hills B&B is run out of a family home. It was unclear at the time of review whether or not they were undergoing renovations, but expect things to be messy and chaotic. It does have five basic clean rooms and owns a tour company that can provide transportation.

Soweto Hotel

Soweto Hotel recently changed its name from Holiday Inn, and while still owned by that chain, its new name is more fitting with the hotel's efforts to affiliate itself with the area's history. The hotel has 48 rooms, some with balconies overlooking Freedom Square, and each with a different photograph of an ANC leader hung above beds covered in traditional Soweto blankets and maize bag pillowcases. The hotel also has a jazz restaurant inside.

The Mandela Family Restaurant

The Mandela Family Restaurant is owned by Nelson Mandela's first wife Winnie and serves up a classic Soweto bunny chow with chips, processed meat, garlic and cheese, as well as breakfast sandwiches, burgers and fish & chips. You'll get basic, standard fare here.


Wandie's is a cloth-napkin long-time favorite for those visiting Soweto. The walls of the original building are covered with the money and business cards of visitors from all over the world as well as a few signed photos of visiting celebrities. The ceiling is covered with short notes and signatures from past guests. Aside from breakfast, the food is buffet only with lamb and beef curry, mogodu (tripe), chicken, and an array of sides, salads and desserts.


Nambitha is owned by the grandson of Dr. Vilakazi (after whom the street is named), who was instrumental in paving the way for blacks to enter higher education. They serve traditional southern African cuisine of ox tail, lamb shanks, ribs, mogodu (tripe) and amasi (sour milk), and offer a large wine list.


Sakhumzi is a small, quiet restaurant on the main pedestrian drag with good traditional food, a large buffet and soft jazz music. However it is also a popular lunch spot for large Soweto tourist buses and has a big tented seating area outside to accommodate these crowds.


Masakeng is a restaurant and pub named after the sacks that were used to build shanty homes when people were first forcibly resettled in Soweto. The menu is short but the food is good: beef, chicken, lamb or fish with pap or chips, and a large buffet on Sunday and Monday.

Number One Restaurant

Number One Restaurant is a great quick eats option if you're in the area. You can enjoy a kota (chips and processed meat sandwich) and a coke inside one of the small rooms or for take away.

There are a handful of places to grab a drink around the tourist friendly Vilakazi St, but they also tend to be fairly tame in terms of Soweto nightlife. If you're interested in a bit more excitement, ask a local to take you out for the night. It shouldn't be difficult to find someone willing to do so. For a trustworthy local who knows Soweto nightlife call Oliver at On Another Level Tours (082-291-3683)

The Shack

The Shack is one of the few remaining shebeens in town and a place where both jovial locals and tourists can share a conversation over a cold one. It is an experience worth incorporating into your time spent around Vilakazi St. They sell both bottled beer as well as traditional beer-in-a-box and mixed drinks, and have a small food stand in the front yard.


Panyaza is a wild and bumping open air night spot enclosed by three buildings. It is one of the more popular places to be on Sunday afternoon and is an all-out party by Sunday evening. Inside is a bar that sells bottles of booze, mixers and beer by the six-pack, and a DJ that keeps the crowd moving. You can also order up some food on the braai at anytime, day or night.


Ozone is one of Soweto's few formal nightclubs. It's a meatmarket, so expect a pulsing crowd and DJ. The venue is small with two bars, an elevated dance floor in the middle and a glass-walled VIP room behind the dance floor. The owner is one of only a few white proprietors in the area and has a reputation for being extremely rude to patrons.