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Touring the City Within a City

Dispossessed of their land during the 1800s and further reduced to virtual slavery by taxation, thousands of black men were forced to find work in the minefields of eGoli. As more and more settled in inner-city slums, the segregationist government's concerns about the proximity of blacks to white suburbs grew until, in 1930, a solution was found. A farm 18km (11 miles) to the southwest of Johannesburg was designated as the new township, and blacks living in and around the city were served with eviction papers. It would now take 3 hours to get to work. There were as yet no roads, no shops, no parks, no electricity, no running water. Public transport and policing were hopelessly inadequate. Not surprisingly, most people refused to move, but in 1933 the government declared the Slums Clearance Act and forcibly evicted blacks from the inner cities. Defeated, these new homeless moved in, and Soweto, acronym for the South Western Township, was born. In 1944, James Mpanza led a mass occupation of open land near Orlando, the original heart of Soweto, and within 2 years, this, the country's first unofficial squatter camp, housed 40,000 people.

Today rural poverty means that Soweto remains a magnet for millions searching for a better standard of living, and South Africa's densest city-within-a-city is home to soccer heroes and politicos, record producers and shebeen queens, multimillionaires and the unemployed, murderers and Nobel Peace Prize winners. As the country prepares to host the 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup, nowhere is development more essential than in Soweto, widely considered the emotional heart of Jozi. Local government has promised to stop pumping money into developments in the north and give focus to the upgrade of facilities and transport for the estimated 3.5 million people of Soweto (although those in the know say it's closer to 5 million). Here, Soccer City, a massive new stadium where the opening game of the tournament is to be held, is under construction, while an ugly power station that's been standing defunct since the 1980s will be converted into a museum fashioned on London's Tate Gallery; apparently, visitors will be able to bungee-jump from the massive cooling towers. More good news is that while 16,000 trees were planted here in 2006, another 300,000 are scheduled for planting in time for the World Cup. And as Soweto's earning capacity grows, so do its spending channels; September 2007 saw the opening of Maponya Mall (named after the developer Richard Maponya, Soweto's first millionaire and highly respected businessman), where a whole new generation of glam-setters can fork out their hard-earned cash on global brands and Westernized fast food. While shack dwellers are steadily being relocated to more substantial brick abodes, properties in upmarket Diepkloof Extension 1 (colloquially known as Diepkloof "Exclusive" or "Expensive") include mansions worth R3.5 million; as you drive through the neighborhoods admiring the kitsch side of Soweto chic (plenty of face-brick topped by unwieldy satellite dishes, not to mention a mélange of pink, orange, and salmon-colored structures), you'll notice perfectly manicured gardens and the occasional BMW. Although many houses are now protected by security companies, it's tough community justice that seems to keep crime at bay; so terrifying is the prospect of being punished by community vigilantism that petty burglars have been known to turn themselves over to official police.

Despite all the healthy reports, very few white South Africans venture here for pleasure, despite the warm welcome Sowetans are famous for and the fact that the few umlungu (whitey) inhabitants of Soweto say they feel safer here than in the suburbs. That's not to say crime is not still a potential threat; for safety and real insight, Soweto is best visited accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, who will not only give a real sense of its history, but help you understand its ongoing evolution. Most operators cover similar ground: the Mandela Museum, where Madiba once lived; a stop at the Hector Pieterson Memorial; a drive down Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Prize winners; Freedom Square, where the ANC's Freedom Charter was proclaimed to thousands in 1956; and the Regina Mundi Church, the "Parliament of Soweto," where the bullet-marked walls are witness to ex-security-police brutality. The best tour I've had was with Bongani Ndlovu of Soweto.co.za (also their website address, where you can book your full-day tour; tel. 011/326-1700); intelligent, highly knowledgeable, and great fun to tour with, Ndlovu should be requested specifically. A full-day tour, with a pickup in Rosebank, costs R660 and includes lunch at Wandie's, a drink at a shebeen, and all museum charges. If you're up for a party, ask about nighttime shebeen tours, usually limited to weekends. (Note that this operator is highly involved in community projects, so your ticket fee will help change lives.) Another operator offering personalized experiences in half-day format is Imbizo Tours (tel. 011/838-2667 or 083/700-9098; www.imbizotours.co.za). Caveat: The downside of driving around in a bus armed with a camera is the sense that you are treating people like animals in a reserve. For this reason, you are encouraged to get out of the vehicle and talk to the people on the street. It is, after all, a sense of community that distinguishes Soweto life from that in Jo'burg or Tshwane.

Tshwane's Architectural Draws: Then and Now

In 1938, the secretive Afrikaner Broederbond (brotherhood) organized a symbolic reenactment of the Great Trek and sent a team of ox wagons from Cape Town to Pretoria (now Tshwane) to celebrate its centenary. By the time the wagons reached Pretoria, more than 200,000 Afrikaners had joined, all of whom camped at Monument Hill, where the foundation stones for a monument were laid. Ten years later, the Voortrekker Monument (tel. 012/325-7885; www.voortrekkermon.org.za; daily 8am-5pm; R32 adults, R10 children, R13 per vehicle) was completed, and the Afrikaner Nationalist Party swept to power. This massive granite structure, sometimes compared irreverently to a large Art Deco toaster, is quite something and dominates the skyline at the southern entrance to Tshwane. Commemorating the Great Trek, particularly the Battle of Blood River, fought on December 16, 1838, the monument remains hallowed ground for many Afrikaners. Every year on that date, exactly at noon, a ray of sunlight lights up a central plaque that reads WE FOR YOU SOUTH AFRICA. The we refers, of course, to Afrikaners -- in the marble frieze surrounding the lower hall depicting the Trek and Battle, you will find no carvings of the many black slaves who aided the Boers in their victory. The museum below has memorabilia relating to the Great Trek. Most interesting is the "female" version of the monument frieze -- huge tapestries depicting a romanticized version of the Great Trek's social events; they are the perfect foil to the Afrikaner men: ladies plaiting threads while the men wrest with stone in the monument. With the best views of South Africa's administrative and diplomatic capital, the more classical Union Buildings, Meintjieskop Ridge, Arcadia (tel. 012/325-2000), are probably the best-known creation of prolific British Imperial architect Sir Herbert Baker. The buildings -- the administrative headquarters of the South African government, and office of the president since 1913 -- are generally considered his finest achievement. The office-block wings are said to represent the British and Afrikaner people, linked in reconciliation by the curved amphitheater. Again, African "natives" were not represented, nor allowed to enter the buildings (except to clean). So the visitor can just image the scenes of huge emotional jubilation in the gardens and buildings on 1994 as South Africans witnessed the inauguration of Mandela, and African praise-singers in traditional garb exorcised the ghosts of the past. Visitors can walk along Government Avenue, the road that traverses the facade, but only those on official business may enter.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.