Soweto: What it's like to visit 25 years after Mandela

A tour through Soweto, showing visitors 'the real South Africa'.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Soweto probably isn't the first place you think about when planning a trip to South Africa, but it's fast becoming a hot-spot for visitors looking to explore and learn more about the country's chequered history.

On a recent trip there, I was shown around by Fellise Malepa, a tour guide proud of the fact he comes from Soweto - a region near Johannesburg synonymous with South Africa's struggles.

Since the abolition of apartheid - the institutionalised racist segregation that the country's leaders introduced in 1948 - this conglomerate of townships has flourished in some parts, while others still battle for the service delivery of simple necessities, like running water, power, and adequate housing.

Soweto was created in the late 1930s by the architects of apartheid in a move to push black people out of Johannesburg.

It's where Nelson Mandela lived for much of his life, and it's where 23 students were killed by police during the 1976 Soweto uprising.

In more recent times, it played host to the 2010 Football World Cup Final; another pivotal moment for South Africa on its road to racial equality. Its history has been unsettled, influential and deeply aligned with that of the country it belongs.

I'd travelled to South Africa to learn more about the country's history and was taken to 'Extension Eleven' in the Mzimhlophe Township, which my guides told me is one of Soweto's townships that hasn't fared as well as others, since apartheid ended.

A tour through Soweto, showing visitors 'the real South Africa'.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Felisse said it's important for tourists to see both sides of Soweto - the good and the bad, the affluent neighbourhoods and struggling communities.

Extension Eleven covers a small village-sized area and comprises of dozens of rows of tin shacks and small convenience stores.

Laundry is draped from fences, drying under the baking sun, while children run barefoot through the streets kicking balls and laughing, blissfully unaware of the fear white people walking through their streets would have brought decades ago. 

Mzimhlope's residents had hoped for more government assistance to prosper in the years since apartheid, yet women are still washing laundry at communal basins, the only water sources in the township, while men struggle to find work. Those lucky enough to be employed are faced with cripplingly low incomes.

As Felisse drove me through the township, we came across a large collection of two-storeyed housing units that look out of place among the tin shacks that surround them.

The large brick homes were built more than five years ago by municipal authorities in an area that could hugely benefit Mzimhlophe's inhabitants, but they remain completely empty.

Locals were excited at the prospect of living here eight years ago in the hope the homes would be donated to the community as part of the redevelopment and construction programme, referred to as 'The Mandela Housing Project'. 

The Mandela Housing Project in Soweto.
Photo credit: Newshub.

However, when they were completed, they were shocked to be told they could rent the homes at a cost they deemed completely unaffordable, while others would miss out because there weren't enough for everyone.

Authorities refuse to lower the costs, so no one lives there to this day. Guides told us that if anyone could afford it in this neighbourhood, they would be seen as 'an enemy of the cause' likely to be outcast, and face repercussions from their community. And so the new housing lays dormant, wasting away, in the middle of this impoverished township.

A short tuk tuk ride takes me to one of Soweto's more prominent townships, West Orlando. Tour guides describe this area as "semi-developed".

A tour through Soweto, showing visitors 'the real South Africa'.
Photo credit: Newshub.

I questioned whether it would be more fitting to call it home for Soweto's middle-class, but our guide didn't like the connotations associated with the term 'class', not wanting to diminish the hardship its residents have also faced.

"It seems middle-class to you, but it has been the same struggle for everyone," they said.

West Orlando was built by the British before apartheid, which is why it appears much more affluent than Mzimlophe, just minutes down the road. Here, residents have running water and power, while the main street has eateries and cashes in on the steady flow of tourists visiting Nelson Mandela's home, which sits on the same street.

Despite Orlando West appearing a more comfortable area of Soweto to live, it too has been heavily involved in the struggles of apartheid. In June 1976, a student revolt near this area led to the shooting of more than 170 people, with 23 students killed.

A plaque and museum have been installed to remember the victims, and to educate international visitors on one of South Africa's darkest days.

Our guides blamed politicians for the stark differences in the quality of life seen through various parts of Soweto - a common theme here on issues of inequality.

Mzimhlophe has traditionally voted for opposition parties, instead of the ruling African National Congress, which recently won the national election in a landslide vote. They say this is why there's been little or no service delivery to the township.

It's a stark reminder that while South Africa has come a long way, its definition of democracy may still need some work.

A traveller visiting Soweto would be forgiven for questioning the warm, kind nature in which locals - especially children - greet tourists. After decades of torturous hardship, many would be forgiven for holding grievances years after apartheid ended here.

Fearful of my naivety, I asked Felisse simply: "Why are they not angry at seeing us here?"

A tour through Soweto, showing visitors 'the real South Africa'.
Photo credit: Newshub.

Part of me felt guilty that the locals had now become tourist attractions and a short visit into their lives would seemingly only benefit a tourist's social media following for some.

Felisse explained the importance of tourism to this area, which shows visitors the real South Africa, while bringing in money to the struggling local economy.

As for any grievances, he said: "There's still a fear from some of the older people when their kids run up to people like you".

Despite that, he said a new generation is embracing visitors from across the world.

"If there was anger, I think you would see it in the kids."