Until recently, most tours of Johannesburg steered clear of Soweto. Happily, that ignominy has ended with the official recognition accorded to certain monuments and important spaces in the 200km2 area.
A must-see, now preserved as a place of significance, is the house occupied since around 1934 by the “Father of Soweto”, James ‘Sofasonke’ Mpanza at Hlatywayo Street in Orlando. Mpanza was a larger-than-life character, who converted to Christianity and became a preacher while doing time for fraud and murder.
Released after a pardon to mark the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1927, he taught in Pretoria and like thousands of other blacks, later moved to Johannesburg. Towards the end of World War II, blacks in Johannesburg suffered from an acute shortage of housing. The government, mines and other industries employing them had failed to make any provision for them.
In 1944, thanks to his stature as a reformed man, Mpanza was able to organise a squat by 8, 000 followers on municipal land. After clashes with the police left two dead, but failed to move the squatters, municipal resistance crumbled. An emergency camp was declared on which 991 families would be sheltered.
In 1946 another 30, 000 people congregated in a squat west of Orlando. The municipality immediately declared a new emergency camp named Moroka. These camps were meant to be used for only five years, but when they were razed in 1955 to make way for more formal, serviced structures, Moroka and Jabavu housed
89, 000 residents.
Also in 1955, a dusty field in Kliptown, the oldest settled part of Soweto, was the venue of an unprecedented Congress of the People. It was attended by about 3, 000 members of organisations resisting the white supremacist government. The Congress adopted the Freedom Charter, a list of demands canvassed from blacks across the country and synthesised into the final document by various leaders.
In 2005, 50 years after the adoption of the Freedom Charter, then-President Thabo Mbeki lit a flame of freedom at the venue of the Congress. The ceremony marked the opening of the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication. In the square stands a memorial to the document, 10 large triangular concrete slabs on which the principles of the Freedom Charter are etched.
Mandela House is another popular tourist stop in Soweto. Officially the Nelson Mandela National Museum, this is the house on Vilakazi Street in Orlando West where Mandela lived from 1946 to 1962. Together with Tutu House – a property belonging the family of Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu – this gives Vilakazi Street the distinction of being the only street in the world to have been home to two Nobel laureates.