8 reasons Soweto is the best thing to do in Johannesburg
It’s no longer just ‘that’ township; but a place full of hopes, dreams, poverty and contradictions. Here’s the what and the where of modern Soweto, writes Steve Madgwick.
Soweto was once the centre of a human rights struggle that the world watched live on television. It was a place that tourists and white South Africans would not only not want to go to, but were indeed not allowed to go to, by law. Today, regardless of your colour or creed, Soweto is the best thing you can do on a visit to Johannesburg.
As part of the post-apartheid ‘Rainbow Nation’, it is still a split metaphor; a symbol of poverty but also, increasingly, hope – a poster child for the new South Africa. It’s a cultural lesson with a vibrant polarity: you can bungee jump or see how the other more-than-half really live.
A bicycle, walking, bus or even tuk tuk tour of Soweto gives you a small, safe and rewarding taste of the way a huge percentage of South Africans live: in townships.
1. Vilakazi Street: the Peace Prize parade
The main reason you’ll want to head to Vilakazi Street is to see House 8115 in Orlando West, the former home, now museum, of mega-hero Nelson Mandela. The unassuming dwelling was Mandela’s base until he was forced underground, as the struggle against apartheid intensified.
Just up the road you can stand outside the house of another apartheid-era hero, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This makes Vilakazi the only street in the world where two Nobel laureates lived at the same time (for a period of just 11 days, the time it took for Mandela to move out after being released from prison in 1990). Did you know? Mandela actually had two houses in Soweto, the little-visited second one is in Orlando East.
While you're in Vilakazi Street, don't miss the Hector Pieterson Museum for some context into just how bad the darkest years of Apartheid were in Soweto.
2. Orlando Towers: a bungee-jump solution
What do you do with two monstrous decommissioned power station cooling towers? Orlando Towers has always been a Soweto landmark, but now for a different reason. You can bungee jump (100 metres) from a bridge suspended between the two towers (colourfully muralled with heroes such as the Soweto String Quartet); do a ‘leap of faith’ inside them or forward rappel down their exterior.
Afterwards (not before), order a traditional shisa nyama (Zulu for ‘burn the meat’) or braai at on-site restaurant Chaf-Pozi. Select your meat (chicken wings, local sausage, beef and pork) by weight for the barbecue, then add traditional accompaniments such as pap (maize porridge), spinach and chakalaka (spicy vegetable relish).
Eat with your hands for absolute authenticity. There’s also a bar here that pumps later in the evening and you can book tours here too.
3. Shanty life: the squatter’s perspective
Despite the Soweto success stories, this place is still home to some of South Africa’s most deprived communities. Walking, bus and cycle tours of Soweto usually include a guided walk through shanty towns like Nomzamo Park (AKA: Winnie Mandela squatter park, established 1991).
The local guide will show you around a tightly-packed rabbit warren of tiny wood and tin shacks (that in Nomzamo’s case house between 7000 and 10,000 people), which have running water but few other government services. The average child here walks 45 minutes to school.
The tours at first feel a little zoo-like and obtrusive, but nothing gives you more perspective on just how stratified South African society still is. Expect to see six or seven people living in a small, dirt-floor shack.
The tiny spaza shops lie at the heart of community’s commerce, selling the basics: paraffin for stoves, eggs, fish, beans and single cigarettes. And if you’re peckish, women walk around selling sheep heads ($2.50 for a half). The crime in these neighbourhoods can be surprisingly low because of the close proximity of the houses and the shared spirit.
4. Umqombothi: drinking the local culture
On a tour, inevitably, you will end up partaking in an umqombothi or two (a traditional beer made of sorghum and maize meal) in a shebeen (formerly illegal local pub, which brings a new meaning to the word ‘rustic’ – check out The Shack on Vilakazi Street).
You just don’t drink the beer, you must get on your knees and ceremonially swig it from a drinking vessel known as a calabash. Traditionally, the women of the township would brew the concoction and serve it on their knees, making sure not to make eye contact with the drinker.
It is only usually served on ‘special occasions’ and drunk ‘for the ancestors’. Welcoming tourists now seems to be included in these occasions. 'Don't drink and walk on the road, you may be killed' is the warning splashed across the legally produced version (yes, Soweto is awash with home brew). But don’t worry, umqombothi is comparatively low in alcohol – one or two per cent.
5. Check out ‘Beverly Hills’
Once considered one of the most deprived areas in all of South Africa, there is money flowing into Soweto from the new waves of prosperous South African businessmen and women. Over the past two decades, successful Sowetons have been moving to neighbourhoods such as the Diepkloof Extension and building two-storey, double-garaged homes like the rest of wealthy South Africa.
Soweto’s ‘Beverly Hills’ houses success stories from the soccer club chairman to local business owners. But instead of resenting the elite, many Sowetons look up to and try to emulate their successes. Soweto facilities are slowly catching up with waves of rand and include, so far, a (public) golf course and country club.
6. Sleepover: Yes, you can stay in Soweto
You don’t have to dip in and dip out of the township if you want a more personal experience. There are no five-star stays in Soweto just yet but there are a couple of hotels already, plenty of B&B and guesthouse options (especially around Vilakazi Street), plus a well-resourced and comfy backpackers. And, yes, you can even get wi-fi in some.
7. Chiefs v Pirates: when the country still watches Soweto
There are 16 teams in South Africa’s elite PSL (Premier Soccer League), but a huge percentage of the country supports just two teams, both of them in Soweto. Forget rugby and cricket, nothing makes South Africa stand (noisily) still like a local derby between superstars the Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates.
The design of the Kaizer Chiefs’ home ground, FNB Stadium (AKA Soccer City), which hosted the 2010 World Cup final, was based on the traditional drinking vessel known as the calabash. The capacity of the ground is 95,000.
8. Is it a town(ship) or city?
Although Soweto is part of Johannesburg, it has truly sprawled into almost a city in itself – now about 150 kilometres squared. The official population is around 1.3 million, but estimates seem to start at about double that, especially if you take into account the sprawling shanty towns, which indeed you should.
To put the township in perspective, Soweto is home to the 170-acre, 3400-bed, Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, the largest in the southern hemisphere and the third largest hospital in the world.
More details: For Soweto tours, check out Buju Tours and Cycle in Soweto
International roaming: Tips, hacks and how to find the best deals
The days of excessive bill shock from international roaming charges when travelling should be behind us, thanks to global roaming products like Optus and Telstra data packs. Today there are many ways to save money on using your phone overseas. Quentin Long reveals which global roaming product is right for you in our Essential Guide to International Roaming.
What is international roaming?
International roaming is using your mobile phone in another country. It can also be called global roaming.
What are your international roaming options?
There are six different ways you can use your mobile phone when travelling overseas. Which method is best for you depends on a number of things, such as, are you on a plan with your current provider or pay as you go, and how do you plan to use your phone overseas? The six ways to use your phone when travelling are:
Purchase a travel pass or pack from your contracted telco partner – only available to those on a plan
Purchase a pre-paid travel pack from your pre-paid supplier
Purchase a specific travel SIM card from a non-telco company
Buy a local SIM card when you arrive
Only connect via wi-fi and turn off global roaming
Just use your phone – under no circumstances in this advisable
For the purposes of the article, I am going to ignore number six as it is truly not an option, unless you want to take out another mortgage.
International roaming travel packs for contracted phone users
These are a great solution for the traveller who is going to be calling home and using their email and internet a lot.
As a business owner with a small family I need to call home a lot so it is the best solution for me. The major telco companies each offer a slightly different version. Here is our take.
Telstra international roaming
Perhaps the best value of all the large telcos. You pay $10 per day whilst travelling (New Zealand is even cheaper) with unlimited texts and calls to anywhere in the world and a healthy data allowance of 75MB per day. Telstra roaming is the best on offer in Australia for high usage international roaming traveller.
Optus international roaming
Optus roaming is very similar to Telstra in a $10 per day charge (again cheaper for New Zealand) with a less generous data allowance of 50MB per day.
Vodafone international roaming
Just to confuse matters, Vodafone loves to spruik its $5-a-day global roaming.
The catch is your usage whilst overseas is part of your plan call, text and data inclusions. So if you are calling home from your overseas destination it is an international call that will be billed as if you were making a call to an international destination from Australia. This is unlike the Optus pack and Telstra data pass where it is unlimited calls and texts.
The upside is Vodafone roaming in New Zealand is free, but there are fewer countries on the list (most of Europe, Asia and North America are covered).
Virgin Mobile international roaming
Virgin doesn’t offer a travel pass or pack but only data packs – see the pre-paid analysis below.
Pre-paid mobile plans
Pre-paid usually charge on a per-minute basis and offer a data pack you can purchase.
Telstra international roaming pre-paid
Telstra’s data packs for pre-paid mobile users start at 100MB for $29 ($0.29c per MB). Telstra’s per-minute pricing is horrible: $3.00 for the US and $2.00 for the UK.
Optus international roaming pre-paid
Optus doesn’t offer data packs but its charges are more reasonable; US and UK calls are charged at $1 a minute and $0.50 per MB for data.
Vodafone international roaming pre-paid
Vodafone offers a data-and-calls or data-only recharge package. The basic calls-and-data package is $25 for 100MB ($0.40c per MB) including 30 minutes of calls and 30 text messages. The basic data-only package is $25 for 200MB ($0.20c per MB).
Virgin mobile international roaming pre-paid
Virgin has very cheap data packs, starting at $25 for 300MB ($0.12 per MB) and the call rates are very cheap at $0.50 per minute in the US and UK.
Pre-paid travel SIM cards like Woolworths Global Roaming and TravelSIM
There are a number of these in the market, Woolworths Global Roaming SIM and TravelSIM to name a few. They are clunky to activate and use. You must also have your phone unlocked to use these SIM cards before use (call your telco provider).
Once purchased, you register the SIM online and enter a 19-digit PIN and then set up your details and payments etc. You will then be given a unique phone number.
To make a call these SIMs use a call-back service. You dial the number, using the international prefix, and are then disconnected. You receive a call that connects you to the number you dialled. Like I said, clunky.
When I used TravelSIM a couple of years ago, calls were routed through Estonia for its cheap rates. It was not reliable in connecting calls and it had time limit on calls. I was cut off mid interview with an Australian radio station twice in 20 minutes - not great.
However, calls can be cheap when compared to most of the pre-paid alternatives. Woolworths Global Roaming SIM, for example, charges $0.55 a minute and $0.45 per MB when using the SIM in the US and $0.18 a call and data at $0.25 MB in the UK.
Dependent on where you are travelling and your planned usage, this may be the best option for those on pre-paid plans.
Purchase a SIM when you arrive
This is typically the cheapest option for data and local calls. Again make sure your phone is unlocked. The big downside is that you cannot make calls to international destinations (like Australia) without incurring huge charges.
The other warning is that if you are travelling through several countries you will be continually purchasing a new SIM and changing your number.
Only using wi-fi
Perhaps the cheapest of all. If you don’t need to be in contact with home at all hours and need to check emails or posting to social media from the exact spot, then this is perhaps your best option.
Simply turn off global roaming on your phone and wait to find a free wi-fi hot spot and only use IP telephony services such as Skype, Viber and Facebook Messenger.
Thankfully, most accommodation providers offer free wi-fi these days. And don’t forget, McDonald’s and Starbucks are famous for their free wi-fi. Just don’t eat a burger or drink a terrible coffee every time you log on; that could have far worse side-effects than not updating your social feed.
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