History of Soweto

Published on 20th February 2007

Soweto is the most populous black urban residential area in South Africa with a population of over one million (2001).  It is an urban area in the City of Johannesburg, in Gauteng, South Africa. The name Soweto was originally an acronym for "SOuth WEstern TOwnships", a cluster of townships sprawling across a vast area 20 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg.

The history of Soweto was boosted by the increasing eviction of black Africans by city and state authorities. Black Africans had been drawn to work on the gold mines that sprang up after 1886. From the start they were accommodated in separate areas on the outskirts of Johannesburg, such as Brickfields (Newtown).  

Following an outbreak of plague in 1904, British-controlled authorities removed black African and Indian residents of Brickfields to Klipspruit (Kliptown). Two further townships were laid out to the east and the west of Johannesburg in 1918. Townships to the south west of Johannesburg followed, starting with Pimville (1934; a renamed part of Klipspruit) and Orlando (1935). This was the beginning of racial separation that continued later in the apartheid regime.

Industrialization during World War II drew thousands of black workers to the Reef. They were also propelled by the implementation of legislation that rendered many rural black Africans landless. Informal settlements developed to meet the growing lack of housing.

In 1963, the name Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnship) was officially adopted for the sprawling township that now occupied what had been the farms of Doornkop, Klipriviersoog, Diepkloof, Klipspruit and Vogelstruisfontein. 

Soweto became an independent municipality with elected black councilors in 1983, in line with the Black Local Authorities Act. Previously the townships were governed by the Johannesburg council, but from the 1970s the state took control. 

Soweto resistance to apartheid emerged in various forms during the 1980s: Educational and economic boycotts and student bodies were organized. As alternatives to state-imposed structures, street committees were formed, and civic organizations were established.

Soweto became part of the Southern Metropolitan Transitional Local Council in 1985 and in 2002 it was incorporated into the City of Johannesburg. Its population is overwhelmingly black. All eleven of the country's official languages are spoken, and the main linguistic groups in descending order of size are Zulu, Sotho, Tswana, Swati, and Tsonga. 

Households in the outlying areas to the northwest and southeast are for the lower incomes, while those in southwestern areas tend to have higher incomes. The economic development of Soweto was severely shortened by the apartheid state providing limited infrastructure and preventing residents from creating their own businesses. By 1976 Soweto had only two cinemas and two hotels. Only 20% of the houses had electricity. In 1977, the restrictions on economic activities were lifted leading to the growth of the taxi industry as an alternative to Soweto's inadequate bus and train transport systems. 

In 1994, Sowetans earned on average almost six and a half times less than their counterparts in wealthier areas of Johannesburg. Sowetans contribute less than 2% to Johannesburg's rates. There are however signs indicating economic improvement. The Johannesburg city council began to provide more street lights and to pave roads. Private initiatives to tap Sowetans combined spending power of R4,3 billion were also planned, including the construction of Protea Mall, and the planned development of Mponya Mall, an up market hotel in Kliptown, and the Orlando Ekhaya entertainment centre. Soweto has also become a center for nightlife and culture. 

Places of interest in Soweto include: The Nelson Mandela Museum, Arch Bishop Tutu's House, Hector Pieterson Museum, the powerful Apartheid Museum and Regina Mundi Catholic Church.




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