Urban complex (pop., 2001: 896,995), northeastern Republic of South Africa. It adjoins Johannesburg on the southwest, and its name is an acronym derived from South-Western Townships. It was originally set aside by the South African white government for residence by blacks. The townships constituting Soweto grew out of shantytowns that arose with the arrival of black labourers from rural areas, especially between the World Wars. There is little industrial development; most of Soweto's residents commute to Johannesburg for employment. It is the country's largest black urban complex, and its residents were active in the protests that helped bring an end to apartheid by 1991.
Learn more about Soweto with a free trial on Britannica.com.
The history of African townships south west of Johannesburg that would later form Soweto was propelled by the increasing eviction of Africans by city and state authorities. 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) In 1904 British-controlled city authorities removed African and Indian residents of Brickfields to an "evacuation camp" at Klipspruit municipal sewage farm (not Kliptown, a separate township ) outside the Johannesburg municipal boundary, following a reported outbreak of plague 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)
Industrialisation 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 Africans landless. Informal settlements developed to meet the growing lack of housing. The Sofasonke movement of James Mpanza in 1944 organised the occupation of vacant land in the area, at what became known as Masakeng (Orlando West). Partly as a result of Mpanza's actions, the city council was forced to set up emergency camps in Orlando (1944), Moroka, and Central Western Jabavu (1946)
Soweto's only hospital came courtesy of World War II. The Royal Imperial Hospital, Baragwanath, was built in what today is Diepkloof in 1941 for convalescing British and Commonwealth soldiers John Albert Baragwanath owned a hostel, The Wayside Inn, from the late 19th century near the hospital's current location Field Marshall Jan Smuts noted during the opening ceremonies that the facility would be used for the area's black population after the war. In 1947 King George VI visited and presented medals to the troops there From this start grew Baragwanath Hospital (as it became known after 1948), reputedly the world's largest hospital In 1997 another name change followed, with the sprawling facility now known as Hani-Baragwanath Hospital, in honour of the African National Congress leader who was assassinated in 1993 by white extremists
After the Afrikaner-dominated National Party gained power in 1948 and began to implement apartheid, the pace of forced removals and the creation of townships outside legally-designated white areas increased. The Johannesburg council established new townships to the southwest for black Africans evicted from the city's freehold areas of Martindale, Sophiatown, and Alexandra. Some townships were basic site and service plots (Tladi, Zondi, Dhlamini, Chiawelo, Senaoane, 1954), while at Dube middle class residents built their own houses. The first hostel to accommodate migrant workers evicted from the inner city in 1955 was built at Dube. The following year houses were built in the newly proclaimed townships of Meadowlands and Diepkloof
In 1956 townships were laid out for particular ethnic groups as part of the state's strategy to sift black Africans into groupings that would later form the building blocks of the so-called "independent homelands." Spurred by a donation of R6-million to the state by Sir Ernest Oppenheimer in 1956 for housing in the area, Naledi, Mapetla, Tladi, Moletsane and Phiri were created to house Sotho and Tswana-speakers. Zulu and Xhosa speakers were accommodated in Dhlamini, Senaoane, Zola, Zondi, Jabulani, Emdeni and White City. Chiawelo was established for Tsonga and Venda-speaking residents
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 came to the world's attention on June 16, 1976 with the Soweto Uprising, when mass protests erupted over the government's policy to enforce education in Afrikaans rather than English. Police opened fire in Orlando West on 10,000 students marching from Naledi High School to Orlando Stadium, and in the events that unfolded, 566 people died The impact of the Soweto protests reverberated through the country and across the world. In their aftermath, economic and cultural sanctions were introduced from abroad. Political activists left the country to train for guerrilla resistance. Soweto and other townships became the stage for violent state repression. Since 1991 this date and the schoolchildren have been commemorated by the International Day of the African Child.
Soweto became an independent municipality with elected black councillors 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's black African councillors were not provided by the apartheid state with the finances to address housing and infrastructural problems. Township residents opposed the black councillors as puppet collaborators who personally benefitted financially from an oppressive regime. Resistance was spurred by the exclusion of blacks from the newly formed tricameral Parliament (which did include Whites, Asians and Coloureds). Municipal elections in black, coloured, and Indian areas were subsequently widely boycotted, returning extremely low voting figures for years. Popular resistance to state structures dates back to the Advisory Boards (1950) that co-opted black residents to advise whites who managed the townships.
In Soweto popular resistance to apartheid emerged in various forms during the 1980s. Educational and economic boycotts were initiated, and student bodies were organised. Street committees were formed, and civic organisations were established as alternatives to state-imposed structures. One of the most well-known "civics" was Soweto's Committee of Ten, started in 1978 in the offices of The Bantu World newspaper. Such actions were strengthened by the call issued by African National Congress's 1985 Kabwe congress in Zambia to make South Africa ungovernable. As the state forbade public gatherings, church buildings like Regina Mundi were sometimes used for political gatherings.
In 1995 Soweto became part of the Southern Metropolitan Transitional Local Council, and in 2002 was incorporated into the City of Johannesburg A series of bomb explosions rocked Soweto in October 2002. The explosions, believed to be the work of the Boeremag, a right wing extremist group, damaged buildings and railway lines, and killed one person.
Soweto's population is predominantly 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, Venda, and Tsonga.
Estimates of how many residential areas make up Soweto itself vary widely. Some say that Soweto comprises 29 townships , others find 32 Still others talk of 34 or even 50 "suburbs." The differences may be due to confusion arising from the merger of adjoining townships (such as Lenasia and Eldorado Park) with those of Soweto into Regions 6 and 10. But the total number also depends on whether the various "extensions" and "zones" are counted separately, or as part of one main suburb. The 2003 Regional Spatial Development Framework arrived at 87 names by counting various extensions (e.g. Chiawelo's 5) and zones (e.g. Pimville's 7) separately. The City of Johannesburg's website groups the zones and extensions together to arrive at 32, but omits Noordgesig and Mmesi Park.
The list below provides the dates when some of Soweto's townships were established, along with the probable origins or meanings of their names, where available:
A full description of the origins of the names of these suburbs can be found at Urban legends - what's in a name?
Many parts of Soweto rank among the poorest in Johannesburg, although individual townships tend to have a mix of wealthier and poorer residents. In general, households in the outlying areas to the northwest and southeast have lower incomes, while those in southwestern areas tend to have higher incomes.
The economic development of Soweto was severely curtailed by the apartheid state, which provided very limited infrastructure and prevented residents from creating their own businesses. Roads remained unpaved, and many residents had to share one tap between four houses, for example. Soweto was meant to exist only as a dormitory town for black Africans who worked in white houses, factories, and industries. The 1957 Natives (Urban Areas) Consolidation Act and its predecessors restricted residents between 1923 to 1976 to seven self-employment categories in Soweto itself. Sowetans could operate general shops, butcheries, eating houses, sell milk or vegetables, or hawk goods. The overall number of such enterprises at any time were strictly controlled. As a result, informal trading developed outside the legally-recognized activities
By 1976 Soweto had only two cinemas and two hotels, and only 83% of houses had electricity. And up to 93% of residents had no running water. Using fire for cooking and heating, resulting in respiratory problems that contributed to high infant mortality rates (54 per 1,000 compared to 18 for whites, 1976 figures
In 1994 Sowetans earned on average almost six and a half times less than their counterparts in wealthier areas of Johannesburg (1994 estimates). Sowetans contribute less than 2% to Johannesburg's rates ). Some Sowetans remain impoverished, and others live in shanty towns with little or no services. About 85% of Kliptown comprises informal housing, for example The Soweto Electricity Crisis Committee argues that Soweto's poor are unable to pay for electricity. The committee believes that the South African government's privatization drives will worsen the situation. Research showed that 62% of residents in Orlando East and Pimville were unemployed or pensioners
There have been signs recently 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 Jabulani Mall , the development of Maponya Mall, an upmarket hotel in Kliptown, and the Orlando Ekhaya entertainment centre. Soweto has also become a center for nightlife and culture.
Soweto is mentioned in pupular anti-apartheid song Gimme Hope Jo'anna by Eddy Grant. The line "While every black mother in Soweto fears the killing of another son" refers to police brutality and during apartheid.
Soweto is credited as one of the founding places for kwaito, which is a style of hip-hop specific to South Africa. This form of music, which combined many elements of house music, American hip-hop, and traditional African music, became a strong force amongst black South Africans. The spread of Soweto in popular culture worked both ways, as American hip-hop artists Hieroglyphics rap about the terrible conditions and changing social order in their song "Soweto," saying that cowardice has ruled this area, but how now the "gems," or black youth, need to express themselves. This appears to be Hieroglyphics attempt to urge a critical, political version of hip-hop in South Africa.
Soweto is said to be one of the major townships where kwaito and South African hip hop music were formed. These music types are associated with Black South African youth who inhabit the ghettos of Soweto. According to Zine Magubane, kwaito and rap music are, quite intentionally, marketed to Black South African youth between the ages of 14 and 20. Magubane draws many connections to the consumerism patterns of African-American and South African youth. She notes that: “There is a segment of Black South African children who demonstrate many of the consumer characteristics displayed by their American counterparts, and they are therefore definitely worth targeting as primary consumers” (Magubane 220). African-American popular culture, manifested through soft drink ads, NBA stars, movies, and rap music, all seem to influence the consumerism patterns of Black youth in Soweto. In essence, Black South African consumer habits are strongly orientated towards American products.
In her article, Is Kwaito South African Hip Hop?, Sharlene Swartz highlights the ways in which the kwaito music industry in South Africa has expanded and acted as a form of Black empowerment by giving Black youth an “economic identity.” The thriving music industry is allows for Black South Africans to participate in an economy that was long inaccessible to them during apartheid ruling. Swartz highlights the impact that Black Africans now have in the music industry when she notes: “The $130 million dollar a year industry is almost entirely black- artists, record labels, production companies, clubs, and Yfm, an almost exclusively kwaito radio station” (Swartz 9).
New York City's indie rock band Vampire Weekend has described their musical sound as "Upper West Side Soweto," as it mixes preppy, well-read indie rock with joyful, Afro-pop-inspired melodies and rhythms.
Mexican group Tijuana No! recorded the song "Soweto" for their first album "No". In reference to the city and the movements.
It is also the name of a song by the rap group Hieroglyphics.
The marches by students in Soweto are briefly mentioned in a novel by Linzi Glass named Ruby Red, which had been nominated for the Carnegie Medal in 2008.
Soweto was the birthplace of:
Current and past residents include:
Films that include Soweto scenes: