Kliptown, Soweto

If you would like to venture off the normal tourist route of Johannesburg, you might want to consider a visit to Kliptown, southwest of Johannesburg. Kliptown was proclaimed a township in 1903, when it was used as a dumping ground for inhabitants of a "slum" in central Johannesburg which was destroyed. Kliptown is thus the oldest part of Soweto; many residents refer to it as "the mother of Soweto" and "a town amongst towns". Historically it was a freehold area outside of the Johannesburg municipal boundaries, which meant that to some extent Kliptown was able to slip under the radar of the apartheid state. It has always been a vibrant, multicultural, multiracial community with a strong sense of autonomy and its own identity - in this way it could be compared to areas such as District Six in Cape Town or Sophiatown in Johannesburg, except that while these areas were razed to the ground, Kliptown still stands today.

Because it was outside the urban boundaries of apartheid Johannesburg, Kliptown wasa logical choice for the famous Congress of the People in 1955. At the Congress, the Freedom Charter was adopted by delegates from all walks of life and all over South Africa. This simple but powerful document, the text of which can be found here, was the founding document at the heart of the liberation movement's philosophy, and is also considered to be the basis for the South African constitution - arguably one of the most liberal in the world. Freedom Square, where the signing of the charter took place, has been developed into a heritage precinct known as Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, which includes informational borads about the charter, a small museum, a monument to the Freedom Charter, and a Gauteng Tourism Office.

Most half-day bus tours of Soweto will make a stop at Walter Sisulu Square, where you will be herded off the bus, given time to take a photo of the monument, and then put back on the bus to your next destination. Although the square is worth a visit, there is so much more to Kliptown, and many more interesting stories about its history and people. One should also keep in mind that many people in Kliptown do not feel that the square serves the needs of the community, which still struggles with issues of poverty, unemployment and lack of service delivery.

Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY) is a youth centre just across the railway line from the Square, run by and for the youth of Kliptown. The Centre, founded by Bob Nameng in 1988, is a haven for children and young adults from Kliptown and further afield. At the Centre,young people participate in arts, sports and educational programmes - if you are lucky enough you might catch one of the kids' powerful theatre or dance productions in the dusty parking lot outside the centre's office. If you'd like to see something of the "real" South Africa, beyond the tourist trail, a visit to SKY and to the rest of Kliptown is definitely recommended. Bob and his team of young tour guides will welcome you warmly and take you on a walk around the neighbourhood, where you can see the rift between the well-developed Freedom Square and the poverty of the surrounding community for yourself. However, you can expect to leave Kliptown feeling inspired and peaceful, having experienced the warm welcome and unique character of a powerful, vibrant community which is in many ways unique in the South African landscape.

To get to Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication: 

Take the M1 south out of Johannesburg. Follow the signs towards Bloemfontein, until you see a sign for the R553 to Eldorado Park; turn off here, you are now on the Golden Highway towards Soweto. Stay on this road for about 10km or so. Watch out for some big blue warehouses on your right; once you've passed these, look out for a green BP petrol station on your left. As you approach the BP you will see a sign pointing right towards Union Road; take this right turn. Go straight, you will go through Eldorado Park and past a big lake on your right. You will come to a traffic light just before a circle, where you will see tall concrete bollards in front of you; this is the edge of Walter Sisulu Square. Take a right at the circle and then take the first left, where you will find parking spaces. The Square can be visited at any time but the museum is only open weekdays from 10:00 to 15:00. The tower monument is always open. 

To get to SKY (recommended to call ahead and let them know you are interested in a visit: see the link above for contact details)

Follow the same directions as for Walter Sisulu Square above. When you get to the traffic lights/ circle and see the concrete bollards, take a right, but instead of turning off to park at the Square, keep straight until you get ot another circle (keep an eye out for minibust taxis which tend to stop suddenly on the left hand side of the road!). At this circle turn left. You will pass some red and white flats on your left and go over a bridge. As soon as you have crossed the bridge, there is a road turning right - it's easy to miss so keep an eye out, if the road cuves away to the left you have missed it.  (There is a scrapyard here so you will often see people dragging trolleys towards this road). Take this right turn, which will take you towards the train station; the road curves all the way around to the right, just keep following it. At this point the road turns into a dirt road, keep straight, you will enter the informal settlement. The road is very bad and there are always pedestrians and children around, so drive very carefully. You are now on Station Road. About 100m down the road you will see a green fence and a sign reading "Kliptown Youth" - this is SKY. You will also recognize it by the colourful murals of flowers. Turn right into the gate and park (your car will be safe - you might even come outside later to find that it has been mysteriously cleaned!). The purple building to the left is the SKY office, where there will always be someone willing to welcome you.

A note about safety: many visitors are afraid of entering the informal settlement. Crime rates in the area are high, but the writer of this article (who is a white woman) has never had any problems visiting SKY or in the surrounding community. You shouldn't have any problems driving to the SKY office. You will also be completely safe walking around the community with a local host. Don't let your fear hold you back from a truly different and inspirational experience that may well be the highlight of your time in Joburg!