Most people only know a few key facts about Soweto: It is a sprawling township located at the edge of Johannesburg, and it was the site of a violent uprising in 1976 that helped to bring international attention to the struggle against apartheid. But there’s so much more to know — Soweto has a fascinating history and is home to a diverse array of people of all income levels and ethnicities. Here are 10 things you didn’t know about Soweto, South Africa.
Sources:, , South Africa Census 2008, Official Website of the City of Johannesburg, ,
This article originally appeared in AFKInsider.com.
It started as a temporary settlement for gold field workers
When black South Africans migrated to Gauteng to work in gold mines in the late 1880s, they initially settled in the center of Johannesburg. However they were soon evicted by city and state authorities and transplanted to hostels and other accommodations in the outskirts of town. Soweto was one.
When The Population Grew, The Residents Organized
The people began to organize during James Sofasonke Mpanza’s squatters movement of 1944. During this time, residents began an organized occupation of vacant land in the area, as more informal settlements sprang up to meet the growing lack of housing in the area. It became known as Soweto in 1963, an acronym that represents the first two letters of the words then used to designate the sprawling area known as the South Western Townships. The area encompasses the former farms of Doornkop, Klipriviersoog, Diepkloof, Klipspruit, and Vogelstruisfontein.
Soweto became an independent municipality in 1983
In 1983, Soweto shifted from being governed by the Johannesburg council to electing its own black councilors, in line with the Black Local Authorities Act passed by the apartheid government. The move was not popular among residents, however, as councilors were not given the financial resources to adequately address housing and infrastructure issues, and were seen as puppets of the apartheid government. Elections were often boycotted, and little voter turnout was seen during this time.
Employment was not allowed within the township
Under apartheid-era laws, employment was not allowed within Soweto. Residents had to commute to other parts of the city, but an unofficial marketplace sprang up in Soweto. Though this is changing, many people still continue to commute, and public transportation such as Metrorail operates commuter trains between Soweto and central Johannesburg.
An estimated 40% of Johannesburg’s residents live in Soweto
According to the 2008 census, the population of Soweto is approximately 1.3 million people. The area is defined as just over 200 square kilometers with nearly 6,400 residents per square kilometer. Accurate demographic statistics are difficult to gather, however, given the shifting nature of the community and the lack of a consistent way to define what constitutes a household.
Soweto ballooned in size between 2001 and 2011
In 2001, the official boundaries of Soweto comprised 106.44 square kilometers, and a population of 858,644, or more than 8,000 people per square kilometer. In 2011 the area was 200 km sq and the population was 1.25 million. Though the inhabitants per km sq went down to 6,357, conditions are still cramped and overcrowded.
Soweto is credited as the birthplace of Kwaito and Kasi Rap
Kwaito and Kasi Rap are styles of hip-hop music unique to South Africa, blending different elements of house, American hip-hop and rap, and traditional African styles of music. Kwaito and Kasi have become popular among black South Africans, and have been sampled by international artists as well.
Residents are poor, but collectively have buying power
Though many parts of Soweto rank among the poorest in the region, Soweto residents have a combined buying power of R4.3 billion. This has led the Johannesburg City Council to invest more heavily in Soweto, providing more infrastructure for the township such as street lights and paved roads, as well as malls, hotels, and entertainment centers.
Soweto has become Johannesburg’s No. 1 tourist attraction
Thanks to its many important landmarks and key historical sites, many tourists have flocked to the township over the years. Nelson Mandela’s former home, transformed into the Mandela House Museum, is a big draw, along with the Hector Pietersen Museum, the Orlando Stadium (home of the Kaizer Chiefs football club) and lots of nightlife opportunities.
Soweto has its own media industry
While many media outlets in the greater Johannesburg area cover Soweto, the township has several home-grown media enterprises that are dedicated to township coverage. Soweto TV, a community TV channel, offers local news to residents, while the township’s newspaper, “The Sowetan,” has a readership of more than 1.6 million.