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Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa: One Day in “The Heartbeat of the Nation”

My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” - Bishop Desmond Tutu

Last summer I found myself returning to one of my favorite cities in the world, Johannesburg, South Africa! Rich in history, culture, and the iconic symbol of struggle against apartheid and for human rights, Johannesburg is the place to be immersed in true South African culture.
Jo’burg or Jozi as some prefer to call it, is South Africa’s biggest city and began as a 19th-century gold-mining settlement and is the vibrant heart of South Africa. After years of decline during apartheid, it is a rapidly changing city which is now looking optimistically towards the future. Upon arriving in Johannesburg, we spent the evening in Rosebank, a vibrant and multi- cultural district. This community is the perfect example of how the city is moving toward the future, a successful balance of residential and business districts.
Welcome to Soweto: Freedom, Memories, Monuments & People
The next morning, we set off to take in the sights and sounds of the sprawling Soweto township. Upon our arrival in Soweto, we were met by Ms. Elizabeth, our local guide, who grew up in the West Orlando area of Soweto during apartheid, and still lives there today. She studied French, and became a French teacher in Soweto. Now during her “pension” years, she guides people through Soweto sharing the history and some of her experiences. One of the things Ms. Elizabeth pointed out that is a misconception to most visitors, is that Soweto today is a poor community. But in fact, the community consist of families with mixed-income levels, like communities in the United States.
Visiting Soweto is the best way for visitors to immerse themselves in the heart of South Africa’s freedom struggle while allowing you to experience the vibrant township culture of today. The Apartheid Museum, Mandela's Home, and the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum are must-see destinations in Jozi that offer an enlightening glimpse into this turbulent chapter of South African history.
The Orlando Towers, the distinctive landmark of SOWETO
A Glimpse of Soweto's Important History
Bordering what was once the Johannesburg’s mining belt, SOWETO is the abbreviation for South Western Townships, which was created in the 1930s when the White government started separating Blacks from Whites. Soweto became the largest Black city in South Africa, but until 1976 its population could have status only as temporary residents, serving as a workforce for Johannesburg. It experienced civil unrest during the Apartheid regime. In June 1976, The Soweto Student Uprising was a series of demonstrations, sparked by a ruling that Afrikaans be used in African schools there; what began as a peaceful protest turned into riots when activists were violently suppressed, with 176 striking students killed and more than 1,000 injured. Reforms followed, but riots flared up again in 1985 and continued until the first multiracial elections were held in April 1994. Learn more about the uprising and its significance to South Africa and the world here.
SOWETO School children in 2017
SOWETO School children in 2017
Vilakazi Street: The most renown street in South Africa
Vilakazi Street is the most famous street in Soweto, and the heart of the community. The street is named after Jabu Vilakazi an apartheid activist and Dr. BW Vilakazi an intellectual that was the first black man to teach at the University of Witwatersand. It is said that Vilakazi means “Village House”. The street has the unique distinction of being the only street in the world to have once had as residents two Nobel Laureates. Awarded for the greatest benefit to mankind, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1984) and Nelson Mandela (1993), have both been recognized for advancing peace during the struggle against apartheid, the transition to democracy in the nation of South Africa, and equal rights not only in South Africa, but around the world.
Mandela's Home in SOWETO
Mandela's Home in SOWETO
Vilikazi Street is also the where 12-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot dead, which served as the tipping point of the Soweto student uprising, on June 16, 1976. The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum commemorates those who died in the uprisings and celebrates the student’s role in the struggle for freedom.​ ​

At the Hector Pieterson memorial, there is a wall made of slate stones. Ms. Elizabeth explained that the wall is a tribute to all of the untold stories of people who died during the uprising. Some families told the stories of the ones lost in the struggle for freedom. Her family did not. It was an honor to be in her presence, humbled, and blessed that she allowed me to take her portrait in front of this wall. ​​

The best part about being in Jozi and visiting Soweto, is that there is always an opportunity to meet and listen to the stories of the people and get to know how they lived their lives during apartheid. And discover how their lives are different now after 24 years of democracy! ​
children playing in SOWETO
Soweto Community Immersion with Phaphama Initiatives
The best part of our day was being immersed in the local community by enjoying lunch with a Soweto family and their neighbors! This was a great afternoon of cultural exchange; where we learned the concept of Ubuntu, and engaged in the nuances of etiquette, language, and communication in South African culture. Ubuntu refers to the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all of humanity.
We had a soul stirring afternoon! Jennifer and I really enjoyed getting to know each member of the multi-generational group that welcomed us into their home during lunch! One of the most fun parts of our afternoon together, was our person to person time, getting to know each other and sharing our names, their meanings, and translating them into Zulu. We also learned a few greetings in Zulu and then we all shared a little bit about our partner with the group as a whole. It was a fun way to open the afternoon before enjoying the meal and more conversation! Below is a short video clip of the dance we learned from our new friends.

Connecting and sharing the spirit of Ubuntu in Soweto!
An interesting part of our time together was discussing the struggle for freedom movement from the perspective of each generation; those who grew up during apartheid and those who are “born-free”. And the similarities between the apartheid era in South Africa and the Civil Rights era in the US.
"Born-Frees" of SOWETO
Soweto may be well known around the world, but the community is still a simple one where people live and work every day. Maybe what makes it so great is just that! The simplicity. Proof that out of the most ordinary place can come greatness. All that is needed is for people to come together to take a stand and fight. The thing that I love best about visiting Johannesburg and Soweto, is that there is a feeling of welcome and fitting in, somehow it always feels like home. As long as culture and history are remembered, hope and change can emerge.
Jennifer making friends in Soweto!
If you are interested in learning first-hand about South Africa’s remarkable history, culture and people, we invite you to join us on our South Africa Cities & Safari tour. This trip of a life-time provides opportunities to immerse in the natural beauty and diversity that South Africa offers from cities, and townships, to safari! Learn more about the trip and download the itinerary here.
For Seattle-area folks, learn more on February 24 at our event from 10-11:30:
South Africa Cities and Safari at the Savvy Traveler. Event is free, but please RSVP.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” - Nelson Mandela

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