Day tour in Jo’burg – Soweto, Apartheid museum and more

Johannesburg Travel Blog

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Our arrival at Soweto

When first planning our arrival in Africa we had always made sure we had a few days up our sleeve before the Intrepid tour began, so now it was just a case of figuring out what to do with them J

While sitting around the braii fire in our dazed state the previous evening, the lodge owner Christina had described a day tour we could do that took in Soweto and the Apartheid museum, and I knew friends had always described a trip to Soweto as a very worthwhile, if confronting, thing to do.

The moving sight of rows of shacks in Soweto

So this had all been organised overnight and we were greeted in the morning by our incredibly friendly driver Zak.  His friendliness and passion really took this tour leaps and bounds beyond what we’d expected so a big thanks to Zak!

The initial stages of the tour saw us drive out between these big piles of dirt that Zak referred to as ‘mine-dumps’.  Apparently this big piles were the dirt that had been taken out of gold mines when this area was dominated by gold mining.  Now there were going to the trouble of reprocessing this dirt to try to get everything they could out of it, they really want some gold don’t they!

After not too long we saw the ‘Welcome to Soweto’ sign and had our first glimpses of the extent of the poverty, just rows and rows of tin shacks as far as the eye can see, with either no electricity or cables strung up to get electricity from one point in the camp.

The heart-wrenching "Gun-free zone" in front of the playing kids
  However, the big contrast here was that if you look on the other side of the road, you see suburban houses that wouldn’t be out of place in any suburb of Australia.

Zak had some fascinating stories though, indicating that the presence of some of the suburban houses could be explained by the choice people had made, having managed to get away from Soweto, they then decided to come back because they missed the sense of community spirit.  He indicated that one of the religions common around here involved ancestor ceremonies and an occasional animal sacrifice. He said that people knew that in Soweto they could do this and people would understand.

Next Zak took us to an area of Soweto where we were essentially in amongst the shacks.  Admittedly it seems strange, and not quite right, to be treating this area where people live as a tourist attraction however the guides stressed that this was being encouraged as it provided a source of income that would help the people.

Augustine shows the kids of Soweto photos of themselves on his camera :)
  We were introduced to a local guide who’s name I missed, but had a big, long overcoat that seemed a bit unnecessary on an otherwise quite warm day.   He walked us down a dusty road amongst  the shacks.  There is a lot of colour around, with people painting their tin walls and rooves blues and purples to brighten the world a little.  It was heart-breaking to walk past a school with kids playing on the colourful equipment out the front, with a prominent ‘Gun-free zone’ sign front and centre.  There was an awkward moment where the guide encouraged us to go in to one of the locals shacks, we did so and stood in a cramped room that effectively was the family’s house, with a little gas cooker boiling up cabbage and pap ( a maize like meal very common in Africa).  We were all a little lost for words, what exactly do you ask in this situation ??

We certainly felt that we had been given a real experience seeing Soweto, but we piled back in to the van and headed on to the Hector Pietersen memorial At age 13, Hector Pieterson,  was one of the first students to be killed during the 1976 Student Uprising in Soweto.

Many of the Soweto buildings try to add a splash of colour
He has since become a symbol of youth resistance to apartheid.  You should definitely visit this if you’re doing the Soweto tour.

Following this it was on to the Regina Mundu church. Apparently protesting students were fired at by police on their way to Orlando Stadium in 1976, which is when Hector Pietersen (and many others were killed). They went for sanctuary in Regina Mundi church, but then police stormed the church, firing live ammunition and injuring many. The broken marble alter, the bullet holes in the ceilings and the damaged figure of Christ all show signs of the lack of restraint shown by police that day.  On a lighter note, the guide also stopped at the front of the church asking one of the girls on the tour to step forward on the stairs to this particular spot, at which point he told her “you’ve just walked in Mandela’s footsteps” J He actually referred to him as Madiba, the name commonly used for Mandela in South Africa, and described some old footage of Mandela basically doing a ‘chicken dance’ which has come to be known as the “Madiba shuffle” J We were quite taken by a few of the souvenirs (or curios) available here so we bought a great tiled mosaic photo frame, and Laura bought a Zulu coloured bracelet (which we decided must have anti-malarial properties)

We felt like we’d already seen quite a lot but the afternoon was young and we were dropped at the Apartheid museum to spend a few hours.

Laura walking down the dusty Soweto road
  Again with the contrasts, the one thing I didn’t expect to see right next door to the Apartheid museum was an amusement park, but sure enough you look in one direction ��" incredibly important museum, and in the other direction ��" rollercoasters and ferris wheels J  The Apartheid museum was very moving, and gave a really good sense of South Africa’s history, I highly recommend trying to get there while in Jo’burg.

The tour was finishing up, the last stop wasn’t really a stop at all, but rather a slow drive through the centre of Jo’burg (since you don’t really want to get out and walk on your own).  Apparently, if something is looking suspicious it’s not unheard of to keep your car rolling as you approach a red light, and just run through it if you think things are too dodgy!

On the drive back from the tour we met Mark, a doctor from Dunedin in New Zealand, who had worked in Zambia for around 3 months.

These people went for purple on to brigten up their shack
  He said he had been dealing with some illnesses which he hadn’t been able to find in any medical textbooks, that seems a little bit harder than Grey’s Anatomy!  When we told him we were heading for Vic Falls he kindly gave us his Zambian SIM card in case we wanted to send some messages, thanks for that Mark!  Zak also kindly stopped at a shop on the way back where we picked up a South African SIM card (again the shop people were really friendly) so we now had our mobile phone needs covered in 2 of the 3 countries we were heading for J  There was a brief delay as the Spaniards Jose and Augustine on our tour had been missing their quality coffee but eventually we were on our way.

Back at camp we met the always busy Lodge manager Terry and had our first taste of delicious potjie (pronounced Poykey) for dinner.

apparently the Orland Pirates are the football team of choice here :)
    We were incredibly happy with what we’d managed to see on our first day in Africa, I highly recommend this tour if you get the chance, and I recommend you ask for Zak :)

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Our arrival at Soweto
Our arrival at Soweto
The moving sight of rows of shacks…
The moving sight of rows of shack…
The heart-wrenching Gun-free zone…
The heart-wrenching "Gun-free zon…
Augustine shows the kids of Soweto…
Augustine shows the kids of Sowet…
Many of the Soweto buildings try t…
Many of the Soweto buildings try …
Laura walking down the dusty Sowet…
Laura walking down the dusty Sowe…
These people went for purple on to…
These people went for purple on t…
apparently the Orland Pirates are …
apparently the Orland Pirates are…
Our tour guide - the incredibly fr…
Our tour guide - the incredibly f…
Occasionally had to overtake a slo…
Occasionally had to overtake a sl…
Kids playing in Soweto
Kids playing in Soweto
Soweto kid says goodbye
Soweto kid says goodbye
Mural at the Regina Mundu Memorial…
Mural at the Regina Mundu Memoria…
Hector Pieterson memorial
Hector Pieterson memorial