South Africa is an incredible destination, but most itineraries don't spend much time in Johannesburg, and ignore Soweto completely. If you ask me, that's a huge mistake. If you visit South Africa, but don't pay attention to how South Africans have dealt with the legacy of the Apartheid Era, you're missing out on a rich lesson in history In some ways, South Africa has come farther in terms of race relations in just a couple of decades since Apartheid than the United States has in more than 150 years since the end of slavery. But in other respects, they still have so much more to do.
That's why, on a recent family trip to South Africa, we built in a full day in Johannesburg to tour Soweto, one of the black townships that still stands as a reminder of Apartheid. There are certainly some nice--even tony--neighborhoods in Soweto, but many residents of the sprawling township still live in tin shacks, crammed several to a room, sometimes without running water, plumbing or electricity.
Rather than viewing Soweto from the window of our van, we actually went to a community where they've invited visitors to come into the neighborhood and see how the residents actually live. We walked through the neighborhood with our guide, who explained how the area had changed over the years, since the end of Apartheid. A family invited us in to their (very small) home, while preparing a meal on the small stove that also served as the heat source for their two room home with tin walls. She explained where folks slept, how many of them there were, and we got to meet her gorgeous infant son.
As we walked through the streets, there were lots of kids who were very eager to speak to us, and though a couple of them asked for money, our local tour guide from the neighborhood insisted that we not encourage that behavior. The community had decided to ask for tips to their tour guide collective as an entrepreneurial venture and they didn't want the kids up-ending that core principle. I met a beautiful and whip-smart young girl who talked to me about her school, and how she aspired to be an English teacher someday. When the kids followed us back to the main road where our van was parked, my 16-year-old niece bought a big bag of oranges from the fruit stand, and passed them out to some of the kids, as a "thank you" for spending time with us and sharing their lives.
We also visited the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, which commemorated the student protests that took place in 1976. Students were protesting compulsory education in the Afrikaans language--which they considered the language of their oppressors--when a 12-year-old black student, Hector Pieterson was shot and killed by the police. An iconic news photo of his body being carried by a fellow student turned the world's attention to the cruel brutality of Apartheid. The monument and small museum are really worthwhile.
A driving tour of Soweto took us past Winnie Mandela's house, as well as to visit Mandela House, which was where Nelson Mandela lived before his imprisonment on Robben Island. In the 90's, after being released he returned to the small, one-story brick house. Now, however, the house is a sort of museum, telling the story of his life and sharing his legacy of human rights, reconciliation, and democracy.
But to really learn about the history and legacy of Apartheid we went to the incredible and emotional Apartheid Museum. Visiting the museum is a very linear experience. After you buy your ticket, you're given a card that designates your race. That card determines which gate you can use to enter the museum. Then, once inside, the museum leads you on a path that starts with the rise of the Apartheid system, following through a series of multi-media exhibitions (including one about political executions that might not be appropriate for younger children). It's a very emotional experience. By the time you get to the resistance and ultimately the demise of Apartheid and reconciliation, you might feel like your emotions have been exhausted. But it's the best way to understand the brutal inhumanity of the system of segregation that dominated South African history in the 20th Century.
There's so much to see and do in South Africa--between the incredible safaris, the wine country, the gorgeous landscapes and the cosmopolitan vibe of Cape Town. But when you visit this incredible country, think about starting your journey in Johannesburg and Soweto. Framing your trip with these remarkable experiences will really add value to all of the fun and adventure that's before you on the next legs of your journey.
Want to take an incredible trip to South Africa that includes Johannesburg and Soweto? Huckleberry Travel can put together the trip of a lifetime that includes tons of unique experiences you might otherwise miss. Contact us for more information about our travel consultation services.