Soweto, way more than a township: an identity

Lungile leads the way and with a huge smile on his face he greets basically everyone we come across. “Sawubona! Unjani?” Zulu for hello, how are you. “Ngiyaphila“, I’m fine. “Chap chap“. “So you were born and raised in Johannesburg?” I ask him as I push hard on my pedals, biking uphill under the South African sun. “No!” he answers clearly offended to add with pride: “I was born and raised in Soweto!”

The SOuthWEstern TOwnship is the largest township of South Africa and home to more than 2 million inhabitants: the exact figure is hard to estimate as informal settlements often with illegal aliens come and go, and the local demography challenges the accuracy of the census. For our guide Lungile, taking us through Soweto is way more than telling us about his life story, it is sharing his identity. If Lungile is too young to have lived through the uprisings that started in Soweto in 1976 and eventually lead to the fall of the apartheid in the early 1990’s, he wants to share his pride of being from Soweto with foreigners. Lebo had the perfect job for the young Zulu as a bicycle guide. Several years ago Lebo who was born and raised in the township got this crazy idea to start a hostel in the heart of Soweto. What better way to bridge gaps between cultures while providing job opportunities to the many unemployed kids roaming the streets all day long? Against all odds, his idea became a successful business that he has expanded with the bicycle tours of Soweto in order to open the township to more travellers.

Happy to rest after biking uphill, Lungile points to some light coloured hills on the horizon. “Look at those mountains over there. Those are mine dumps, full with chemicals. On the other side lies Johannesburg, 20 kilometres away: we were moved far behind the hills so that we were not bothering to the white people living in town. We call these hills the blinders or dividers”.

The seeds of Soweto were planted as early as when gold was discovered in 1886 in Johannesburg. Fortune seekers and workers from all over South Africa arrived in numbers and in only four years, Joburg became the second city of the country. Living conditions in the camps were appalling and it did not take long for the bubonic plague to break out in 1904. This was the perfect excuse for the white government to instore the first segregation laws and remove black and coloured people from the city centre to where today’s Soweto stands.

In the early 1930’s, the government had to improve living conditions in the slums, and some matchbox houses were erected: cheaply built, these tiny 2 or 3 bedroom houses with no sewage system nor electricity were packed together and completely disrupted the social structure of African natives. Today, they almost look good compared to the shacks that we are passing by along a dirt track for which a full suspension mountain bike would not be overkill. The water system has barely improved as we notice women elegantly carrying large and heavy water jerry cans on their heads back to their homes from the common tap at a street corner.

While pushing hard on my pedals on a sandy road and avoiding broken beer bottle glass I hear some repetitive sounds. A young man is chopping a cow’s head with an axe in front of a tiny shack, splinters of bone on his chest and on the floor where the skin of the cow lies on the sand, and small pieces of flesh on the table. Looking at our faces, Lungile grins: “You don’t know beef cheeks? Let’s have some, these ones have just been boiled: it is very tender and just delicious with some pap!”  Our young guide is indeed right!

Even if most inhabitants will not admit it out of shame, hunger is a problem in the township. There are several similar shacks as these heads are collected from the slaughter house. A bit further, a local monthly market is busy as the child welfare has just been collected by the parents who could apply for it. The R380 (21€) per kid is spent fast on stalls by which the trash is piling up. Collected only once a month, the offending smells overpower the food scents in the burning heat under the sun.

Another daily struggle of locals like Lungile is to face the remnants of apartheid. “Look at those streetlights, what do they symbolize to you?” he asks. “Safety at night”, I answer. “They were installed to make it easier for the South African defence forces to break us in the 1980’s. The state of emergency lasted for years when we started rebelling against the apartheid here in Soweto.” The unfair regime has left deep scars in the souls of Lungile’s ancestors and himself.

The stigmas of the apartheid also take the shape of the iconic cooling towers. Built between 1939 and 1957 in the township, they provided electricity to Johannesburg when Soweto stayed in the dark. Today the coal power plant is no longer in use and Lungile is proud to make us feel the laid-back atmosphere at the foot of the brightly painted giants. And he is happy as we buy him a “Soweto” beer at the groovy bar Chaf Pozi. The bungee jumping hot spot has become the symbol of the revival of Soweto.

Lungile takes us through some back roads. “Yes, the township is dangerous, but we are all very grateful for travellers to visit us. We can share our identity and show how proud we are of Soweto! If someone dared to come after your camera, it is the people of the area who will go after him, and believe me, he won’t do it again!”

Indeed, violence may be what Soweto is renowned for. As Soweto inhabitants had become politicized, it is not surprising that it is in Soweto that the uprising of black students put the township on the world map in 1976. Standing up against a new law that forced students and teachers to only speak Afrikaans at school, about 6,000 youngsters peacefully marched in rows through the township to protest. The Hector Pieterson memorial commemorates soberly the lives of an estimated 600 kids who got killed by the police that day, like the 13-year old Hector.

“The area where we are now is called Orlando.” Lungile smiles and adds: “Orlando West, because on the other side of the road is Orlando East where we support the Orlando Pirates soccer team. In Orlando West, they support the Kaiser Chiefs, our biggest rival! We have our own stadium in which South Africa organised the 2010 FIFA World Cup Kick-Off Concert.” Lungile points at the stadium as he is biking fast downhill, eager to see some action on the fields! He enthusiastically exclaims: “Alicia Keys, the Black Eyed Peas and Shakira were there!” A few minutes later, we are seated amongst a packed crowd supporting the young talents with a vianna (a R13 (or 0,90€) sandwich with potatoes and sausages that keeps you going for a while!) we share with some kids. Lungile adds more seriously: “We black people don’t really like rugby, poor people must kick a ball… that’s what I’ve been taught.” And as he has hardly finished his sentence, he jumps up and screams of joy as his favourite team has just scored!

Biking through Soweto and interacting with Lungile about his life, struggles, and challenges give a better understanding of how many South African people live. Even more so when we continue our conversations over a few beers in Lebo’s garden. An older man who used to be a teacher during the uprising joins in, a young female writer shares her opinions on today’s politics and we foreigners also share our visions. A visit to Soweto should not be considered as a sightseeing trip through the slums. No, it is a way of educating yourself, connecting with its most hospitable people in order to try and understand how we can build more bridges, learn from the past and look towards a brighter future.

Claire & Marcella

Travel tips:

  • To live this experience and bike through Soweto, refer to Lebo Tours where you can choose between 2, 4 or 8-hour tours (we recommend the full day!).
  • A must visit in Johannesburg is definitely the Apartheid Museum.
  • If Soweto is a famous township, there are so many townships in South Africa. This article might give you another point of view.
  • Can’t get enough of biking and looking for more inspiration and tips? Check here how to explore South Africa by bike!
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.

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2 thoughts on “Soweto, way more than a township: an identity

  1. Pingback: Johannesburg – would you give it a shot? | Best regards from far,

  2. Pingback: 6 Reasons You Should Visit Johannesburg & 1 You Shouldn’t

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