Should you visit the Soweto slums?

Located to the south of Johannesburg is Soweto, South Africa’s most famous township. Historically, Soweto was always at the forefront of the struggle against Apartheid, and was also once home to Nelson Mandela. Many areas are still desperately poor, so the big question is: should you see it or not??

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In recent history, visiting Soweto by yourself would have been a dangerous affair, but it is now possible to visit the main sights independently, and there is surprisingly little crime directed at tourists. The new “Rea Vaya” buses from downtown Joburg that pass near Vilakazi Street offer a good alternative to taking a taxi to Soweto, which are more confusing than dangerous, as it isn’t always easy to work out which part of the township your driver is actually heading for. I was lucky enough to purchase a combo ticket from the City Sightseeing South Africa hop on, hop off buses, which gave me a tour of Joburg and a trip to Soweto for around R500. I got 2 hours in Soweto, but that was enough for me.

Forming a cross with two fingers is the recognized minibus signal indicating that you want to go to “crossroads”, which will bring you to the centre of Soweto. From here you can pick up another taxi to whichever sight you want to visit, though even in a taxi you may be let out on one of the main roads and have to walk a little way to reach your target. The seemingly endless identical streets of small houses can be bewildering but if you do plan to drive yourself here you will find the main tourist destinations such as Vilakazi street well signposted from main roads coming out of Johannesburg.

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Soweto is huge, stretching as far as the eye can see. At first sight, it appears to be an endless jumble of houses and shacks, overshadowed by palls of smoke, though parts of it have the feel of a small rural village. Most of Soweto’s highlights for tourists are actually quite unimpressive, with their fame stemming from historical association. That history, however, is enthralling, not least because for visitors here it means an insight not just into a place mentioned on news bulletins for murder and violence, but also into a way of life that most foreigners rarely encounter.

Whether you would want to come to Soweto or not, I guess depends on your definition of “cultural experience”. After all, a township is not everybody’s idea of a tourist attraction. Indeed, not all residents of the township particularly enjoy tourists peering through their windows! I visited Soweto with a guide, and I wouldn’t want to venture there on my own, despite the statistics telling me that crime is on the wane. I have seen slums in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and decrepit water villages in Brunei Darussalam and Cambodia (which remind me of townships, in a way), and I must say that Soweto is nowhere near as bad as other examples I have seen. For many residents, the quality of life seems pretty good, although in the back of my mind I did wonder if everything was just a ‘show’ for the tourists.

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A visit to Soweto is the single most popular tourist attraction in Johannesburg (not that Joburg is known as a great city for tourism, anyway). I think it is worth using a tour company that mixes the highlights of Soweto with lesser-known sights, as this will increase your cultural experience. Bear in mind, though, that most of these tour operators are keen for you to “meet the people”, leading to you leaving a “donation” or buying local craftwork. While this practice does pump a bit of money directly into the townships, it often leaves visitors feeling pressured and vulnerable – so imagine how much worse you would feel if you didn’t even have a guide to fall back on!

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