“So, how do Sowetans feel about their community becoming a tourist attraction?”
We were standing by the Hector Peterson memorial in the Orlando West township of Soweto near Johannesburg. My only context before we got here was that Soweto was considered poor and was a hotbed of revolution during apartheid. Soweto was certainly not my idea of a popular tourist attraction, especially one with walking tours, biking tours, and bus tours! Yet, there we stood among local and foreign tourists taking pictures of houses made of corrugated metal like we were in a museum.
Which led me to ask our tour guide my earlier question. “Most people here are happy about it,” he said. “They feel like their story will be heard.” This response took me aback, but as I spent more time getting to know South Africa’s history—particularly Joburg’s— his answer started to make sense.
Apartheid was still alive and kicking when I was born. It ended in my lifetime, as it did for most millennials. The wounds are still raw and the history is palpable—despite Mandela, Truth & Reconciliation, and all that good stuff. Soweto is a living monument of a horrific history. Being there was like walking through a living museum, where traces of a recent past could be seen in the invisible divide between Joburg and the Soweto suburb and the painful, yet proud, nationalism could be felt in the voice of our tour guide at the Hector Petersen memorial. Putting Soweto on the map was so important to him that he was working for free in order to one day be a professional tour guide. Our driver, equally passionate, spent a good thirty minutes after our tour to share his stories. The stories of the people we met were not of a distant past but of one they lived through themselves—and they really want the stories to be heard.
Most countries have that city that gets totally bypassed on a way to a better place (Lima, for example, because of Machu Picchu). In South Africa, it’s Johannesburg. Yes, South Africa is great for safaris and Cape Town is just beautiful—neither of those two disappoint. But this traveler’s advice is to make time to look beyond the usual and enjoy everything Johannesburg has to offer.
Here are some tips from us to you on getting the best out of Joburg:
- I hear it’s unsafe, you say. Sure, if you want to wave around your DSLR and are sloppy when you handle cash, you probably have a target on your back. Be sensible, and with a bit of luck, you will be fine 🙂
- Hop on a Red Bus tour! Yes, it is a touristy thing to do but it’s also practical. Joburg is a big city with a traffic problem. With a Red Bus, you can save money and time while hitting all the important historical sites and getting a crash course in the history of the city. You can also add the Soweto tour as an option.
- Off-season or in season? We visited around Christmas time and Joburg completely shuts down between Christmas and New Year, restaurants and all. The good news is, the Red Bus tour is still operational and most museums are still open so you can take it all in without the crowds.
- Don’t underestimate the Apartheid Museum. We LOVED this museum. It’s chock full of information, but it is time consuming. Give yourself 2-3 hours here to get the full experience.
- Hang out with the locals while living on the edge. You can’t miss Soweto’s famous landmark – the cooling towers. But, there’s more to them than a colorful mural. Inside, you can enjoy local fare and even bungee from the top. At your own risk of course.
- Ubers and Gautrains > Taxis. I was pleasantly surprised by the Gautrain service in Joburg. It’s fast, clean, and efficient. Taxis, in our experience, were very expensive but the Ubers (no Lyft unfortunately!) were convenient and the drivers are always fun to talk with on your ride.
- Where to shop: Don’t miss the African Arts and Craft market in Rosebank—an underground maze of ethnic shops perfect for a souvenir (or several) to take back home.
Been to Joburg yourself? Share your opinion of it with us.