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Soweto's second life as a tourist magnet

Thuso Khumalo, SowetoApril 22, 2014

Soweto is one of South Africa's oldest townships. Formerly home to Nelson Mandela and the center of anti-apartheid protests in 1976, it now attracts tourists from all over the world.

Soweto Südafrika Kunstmarkt
Image: DW/T. Khumalo

The township of Soweto was created for blacks by South Africa's oppressive apartheid government in 1963. Under apartheid, South Africans were classified as 'black','colored' (or mixed race), 'Asian' or 'white'. Today, seen from a distance, Soweto looks old and unremarkable. The old style houses and slum areas would in normal circumstances make it a no-go area for most people. However, the legacy left by apartheid has turned it into a tourist magnet.

Apartheid Museum

Outside the township, on the road from Johannesburg of which Soweto is now officially a suburb, is the Apartheid Museum which was opened in 2001. Here visitors see the history of apartheid in all its brutality, presented through pictures, videos, audio installations and symbols portraying a system that equated blacks with dogs and massively curtailed their rights. Apartheid was introduced as an official policy in South Africa in 1948.

The permanent exhibition includes pictures and videos showing blacks being evicted from the towns and regions of their birth, others working like slaves on farms and in mines while white South Africans dined and partied.

A double portrait of an elderly, smiling Nelson Mandela
Visitors to Soweto head for Nelson Mandela's house, now a museumImage: DW

Discriminatory signs like "Europeans Only" and "Dogs and Blacks Not Allowed" bring home to visitors the ugly face of South Africa during the apartheid era.

Deus Mwale, a Zambian national, recently attended a workshop in South Africa together with people from other African countries. Before they returned home, the group paid a visit to the Apartheid Museum and Soweto.

"We are excited that this evil system is now over. It is good that this history is preserved so that such a thing is not repeated," Mwale told DW.

Mandela's house now a museum

The group's first destination in Soweto was Vilakazi Street, formerly home to two Nobel Peace Prize laureates and apartheid struggle icons, Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tourists from all over the world regularly descend on this street to see Mandela's house which has now been turned into a museum.

Reacting to the onslaught of visitors, some residents of Vilakazi Street have converted their houses into restaurants and bars. Artists line the street selling all sorts of artifacts ranging from painted fabric, portraits, landscape drawings, sculpture to beads and wire works.

"We are targeting those people coming from abroad who come to Soweto to see Mandela's house. Those who buy from us include people from Europe and from some African countries," says Sam Muderedzwa, a self-proclaimed craftwork artist.

A traditionally dressed dance group performing in the street
This dance theater group entertains visitors to Vilakazi StreetImage: DW/T. Khumalo

Pitso Moshe, whose Ditautsa Koma Dance Theater Group makes a living by performing for tourists along Vilakazi Street, says the international interest in Soweto has provided the group with a lifeline. "If it wasn't for Mandela's house and that of Desmond Tutu, no one would care to come and see what is happening at Vilakazi Street," Moshe believes.

George Maluleke has turned his home into a bar specialising in traditional beer. It's popular with tourists and provides Maluleke with a welcome source of income. "It's a privilege for me to have all these whites coming to drink beer and eat meals at my bar. I am benefiting a lot from the tourism in this township," Maluleke said, speaking for many of the township's residents.

Remembering Hector Pieterson

Not far from Vilakazi Street is the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum. It is named in honor of a young boy who was killed at the age of 13 when police opened fire on unarmed protesting students during the Soweto uprising against apartheid in 1976. The museum was opened in 2002 close to the spot where Hector was killed. Alongside the museum is an arts and crafts market where many tourists purchase mementos of their visit.

A market stall full of brightly colored artworks and trinkets
Market stalls laden with brightly-colored goods provide a strong contrast to the tragic stories told in the museumsImage: DW/T. Khumalo

Katlego Mphuti, a guide at the Apartheid Museum, says for people interested in South Africa's history and the legacy of apartheid, visiting Soweto is a must.

Tourism researcher Gugu Dladla says the township's apartheid past has finally brought some benefits for residents. "Soweto used to be known for a high rate of crime, but tourism has changed the face of the township. People are now getting jobs, and selling all sorts of things to make a living."