A return visit to Johannesburg and I wondered how the vibrant Soweto Township was left off my South Africa must-see list the first time around? A quad bike Soweto Township tour turned out to be an unforgettable experience and hands down one of the best things to do in Johannesburg with kids (or without).
Main MenuExpand menu below
- Roll up to Orlando Towers
- Soweto bungee, adventures and thrills
- Quad bikes and Soweto smiles
- Number 8115, Vilakazi Street
- Soweto Township
- Soweto Location
- Soweto History - the Soweto Uprising
- Soweto Revival
- Hope through song - Soweto Gospel Service on Sundays
- Safety of Soweto Township Tour
- Visit Soweto respectfully
- Soweto celebration - where to eat and drink
- Soweto Shebeens
- Must see Soweto
Roll up to Orlando Towers
It’s just ticked 3pm on a Saturday at Chaf-Pozi a local Soweto Shebeen located at the base of Soweto’s Orlando Towers, an institution for South African beers and braais (BBQ) and a well known Soweto township restaurant and watering hole. Native Hip Hop artist Emtee’s ‘Roll Up’ is pumping and locals are up off their shared bench seats with some seriously smooth moves.
Uninhibited visitors with less coordination are compelled to join in the party atmosphere and there’s no judgement, just smile’s all around. We’re in the heart of vibrant Soweto short for South Western Township and a Johannesburg experience in its own right. I only wished the kids were here to join in on the fun.
Soweto bungee, adventures and thrills
The former coal power station has been transformed into an outdoor sports adventure hub at Orlando Towers, and kids can go paint balling, go karting and rock climbing in the former Soweto Cooling Towers.
The more adventurous try affordable abseiling off one of the towers, inside the tower SCAD free fall is offered where the brave free dive into a net and there’s the very visible 100m bungee jump between the two towers, which won’t break the bank at 550 Rand per person (approximately $55 AUD).
As a responsible mother of two, the Soweto bungee was skipped for a safer activity of lunch. I’ve worked up quite an appetite after a dusty quad-bike tour of Soweto, it had lifted my profound jetlag and I was awake savouring every new sight, unplaceable smells and catchy new beats. Cape Town is 8 hours behind Australia and for new arrivals, feels like opposite-land where day is night. The fact that I was in the very place of the Soweto Student uprising and the hometown of Nelson Mandela awoke all the senses.
Quad bikes and Soweto smiles
Perhaps it was the anonymity behind a helmet, the mini-adventure through an unfamiliar urban landscape, the exhilaration of wind in my hair or the smiling locals, whatever the reason like a daggy tourist, I could not help but high-five every sweet child that allowed me and wave excitedly to the folk walking the streets, whom by the way, never left me hanging without a return wave.
It was a gentle meander through Soweto, with the quad bikes steady in first gear, which allowed for much thought and contemplation. I wondered how many convoys of quad bikes toured the neighbourhood and whether locals were genuinely friendly or rather a front for us gawking tourists? That thought vanished as quickly as the kids appeared, and they gleefully raced after our quad bikes with shouts of “photo, photo!” eager to be snapped and joyous at the opportunity to pose, my kids would’ve loved a play with this cheeky lot.
Although sticking out like a sore thumb in a procession of roaring quad bikes and a fancy camera dangling from my neck, I was never hustled, harassed or had the uneasy tourist feeling. In part, due to our motorcycle guides, who lead the way, stopping traffic at heavy intersections and navigating us through Orlando West the ‘Hollywood part of Soweto’, but mostly the locals were not that interested.
Other than the sheer thrill of a a quad bike tour, another benefit is that you cover more ground in less time, for a gentler immersion into Soweto there are also guided bike tours.
Whilst Soweto is experiencing a rejuvenation the poverty was noticeable, on the hill in the distance was the unmistakable mass of tin shacks, each made of corrugated metal slapped together, no bigger than a garden shed, home for an entire family. Perhaps in other Soweto neighbourhoods, entering less known areas alone or after dark would draw unnecessary attention, but in broad daylight, in a large group and with protective chaperones – we were fine.
Number 8115, Vilakazi Street
In the tourist Soweto neighbourood of Orland West the quad bikes were safely parked in a residential street as the tour headed on foot to Vilakazi Street, home to both Noble Peace Laureates Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, a must-visit stop along with the Hector Pieterson Museum.
Soweto’s most popular tourist attraction is also the most significant and reason why bus loads of visitors want to take a snap of Number 8115, Mandela House. It’s Madiba’s former Soweto home and opportunity to discover Nelson Mandela’s humble beginnings.
That night I returned with Winnie to No. 8115 in Orlando West. It was only then that I knew in my heart I had left prison. For me No. 8115 was the centre point of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.
– Nelson Mandela
Vilakazi Street Restaurants
There are a few simple restaurants in and around Vilkazi Street, one of which is still owned by Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Mandela, across the road from Mandela House.
The overcrowded Township saw a rapid expansion during the apartheid era. The all-white National Party were responsible for segregating Blacks and the Coloured with their forced removals to Johannesburg’s ghetto-like ‘Homelands’.
Sprawling Soweto has an estimated population of one million and located 28 kilometers South West of Johannesburg , 30-40 minutes drive from the CBD.
Those that could afford a deposit on leasehold in Soweto during apartheid, were granted a standard four-roomed 40 square metre ‘Match-box home’ with no rights to own it under apartheid. Single migrant workers were separated by sex and ethnicity into tiny hostel row houses, these together with unplanned tin-shack communities without power or running water, are still home to the poorest in Soweto.
Soweto History – the Soweto Uprising
In the heart of Soweto amongst the most disadvantaged is where the anti-apartheid uprising began, a violent and bloody resistance which involved more than 160 communities. The Soweto Uprising began on June 16, 1976 when South African Police opened fire on a group of unarmed student protesters, opposed to the severe inequality of education and the further introduction of Afrikaans as a medium taught at school.
On June 16, 176 people died, mainly young teens and included 15 year old Hasting Ndlovu the first to be shot dead, 12 year old Hector Pieterson who was captured in an iconic photograph by Sam Nzima, his dying body being carried by another student and Soweto social worker Dr Melville Edelstein who dedicated his life to helping local youth but was mistaken as white authority and stoned to death by an angry mob, immediately after news broke out of the massacre. By the end of the year between 500-700 people had been killed in the revolt, though numbers could be higher.
It’s only being able to kick up the Township dust, traverse the uneven narrow streets and pass the dilapidated homes, do I get a better understanding of the oppression that was forced upon the South African people not so long ago.
Hector Pieterson Memorial for teens rather than pre-school kids
The Hector Pieterson image is very graphic for young kids and better left for teens. Nelson Mandela’s Soweto home is a gentler introduction of the cruel oppression of Apartheid for children.
There’s hope, Soweto’s Diekploof Extension and surrounding areas have a growing population of middle class black self-made millionaires (in rand) calling home. Where people are choosing to stay and rebuild in Soweto rather than move elsewhere.
Soweto’s ‘First Class’ neighbourhoods are lined with large multi-bedroom houses, some even with a swimming pool. Modest compared to Western homes but kept with pride and even a bit of flare. One resident electrician modelled his home in the shape and design of an electricity exchange. Today, the match-box homes are now offered on a ‘rent to own’ basis and some are being proudly extended and renovated.
Hope through song – Soweto Gospel Service on Sundays
Like voices from heaven, the Soweto Gospel Choir is so famous that the official choir aren’t often home, touring internationally combining traditional gospel music with African, Reggae and American popular music.
If in Soweto on Sunday the Grace Bible Church Soweto holds Gospel services located at: 1478 Dlebelendlovu St, Pimville from 9am to 11am and visitors are welcomed to worship, whilst it’s not aimed as a Johannesburg tourist attraction, Soweto bike tours offer a Gospel Service and Bike around Soweto and the Church are use to tourists respectfully paying a visit.
Safety of Soweto Township Tour
The first question most people ask is how safe is Soweto? Today, post-apartheid the general mood is uplifting and despite the confronting surroundings, Soweto for me, never felt unsafe. Men were going about their day-to-day strolling and quietly chatting together, barefoot kids were hugging on street corners and women laughing with one another as they took their wares to market.
Despite the fact that what we were wearing, the quad bikes were were riding and the items we were carrying in our backpacks, cost more than what most of the locals could afford to own, our gargantuan convoy were met only with welcoming salutes or a cheerful toot.
In this town of visible hardships what struck me most was the sense the hope of breaking through the poverty divide and the realisation that happiness is a state of mind rather than our material possessions.
Visit Soweto respectfully
There’s a fine line between poverty tourism where tourists click away at poor people and experiencing a cultural immersion. Regardless of whether it’s a gentle walking tour, bus tour or quad bike tour of Soweto, it’s important to have the right mindset and treat people with respect. Here are some tips on visiting Soweto respectfully:
- Read about the history of Soweto prior to the tour. A few suggestions include: A History of South Africa, Nelson’ Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, Soweto: A History and Soweto 16 June 1976.
- Take a reputable Soweto Township Tour, our Quad Bike Tour was through Soweto Outdoor Adventures. Intrepid also operates a Cycle Soweto Urban Adventure and Soweto Guided Tours are highly rated on TripAdvisor.
- Don’t be afraid to ask your guide questions and interact with locals when the opportunity arises.
- Ask permission for a photo before taking one.
- Buy souvenirs from the local shops, dine and drink at the Shebeens, carry small notes and tip generously and contribute as much as you can to the community. This will help bring a new revenue stream into Soweto and the funds go directly to the local community.
Soweto celebration – where to eat and drink
Back at Chaf Pozi, guests were in high spirits celebrating in song and dance. A DJ plays some local hits and you could tell when the really good songs were on as the crowd collectively roared and groups were seen dabbing and super manning, and they made the moves look so fresh.
Stealing the limelight away from the dancers was a performer on-stage who could swallow a lit cigarette and performed magical floating hat tricks whilst we feasted on a Shiza Nyama feast, a Zulu term for ‘burnt meat’ with platters of flame-grilled beef and chicken wings served with Shakalaka a saucy mixture of tomato and beans, pumpkin and hefty portions of pap pronounced pup resembling mashed taro and it all went down a treat.
Shebeens such as Chaf Pozi are Soweto’s version of a local watering hole, most were unlicensed during the apartheid era offering a sense of community, a bite to eat, live music and a drink of Umqombothi a traditional South African home brew.
This beer is of such national significance the 2010 World Cup Stadium was designed after the traditional bowl it’s served in. The murky brown concoction has a grainy texture and an acquired sour taste and can be purchased in tetra pack version known as Joburg Beer, the commercial version of the beer. The beer was once served in milk cartons during apartheid to hide the brew from white authorities.
On a quiet suburban street, at the back of a residential home, the rustic Shebeen known as The Shack is where I sampled Umqombothi. Like hanging out at a cool neighbours digs, the set up of a few tables, a hot food stand and a pool room where locals are hanging out playing their drums is understated and super cool. As I sipped the sour tasting brew, I could imagine the kids enjoying a little drum session.
Must see Soweto
Looking a little out of place as part of a large tour group a bemused young man with an infectious smile asks “What are you guys doing here?” As I sunk back into the car seat come lounge suite next to him, I replied. “We’re checking out Soweto.” Letting out a belly laugh he introduced himself as Emmanuel and proceeded to shake my hand at the same time as shaking his head. “Welcome! But there many many places to see in Joburg much better than Soweto”.
Sure there was the Lion Park, Botanical Gardens, The Zoo and Montecasino, which Emmanual proceeded to place heads and shoulder over a tour of Soweto. I was not as convinced, there was no place I’d rather be in Joburg than in Soweto. Its fascinating imperfections offered a glimpse into the real South Africa and I wouldn’t trade the sense of community, being able to witness the Township’s steady renewal and the overwhelming sense of hope for anything.
With a reputation for being a high-crime and ‘dangerous’ city, it is easy to leave Johannesburg off a South African Itinerary. For these reasons, I had succumbed to fear on my first visit, only briefly overnighting in Johannesburg before setting off for a Kruger National Park Safari. How wrong I was and thankful for the opportunity for a do-over. Don’t make my silly mistake, when visiting South Africa and spare a little more time to sightsee Johannesburg and take an absolutely unmissable Soweto Township tour.
“Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. YOU can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
– Nelson Mandela
Have you taken a Soweto Township Tour or planning a trip to South Africa? Read more about the Best things to do in South Africa’s Cape Town with Kids or leave a reply below:
I was a guest of South African Tourism as part of the Australian Society of Travel Writers annual Convention, all opinions are my very own.