On June 16, 1976, a 13-year-old boy named Hector Pieterson was shot and killed by South African police. Of the 575-odd high-school students killed and hundreds more wounded that day, he was the youngest. And he was the first to die.
A press photograph of the dying youth cradled in the arms of lanky 18-year old, Mbuyisa Makhubu, became the defining image from that day – one that became known as the Soweto Uprising. Pieterson was one of thousands of students marching in protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of education in schools at a time when South Africa was bitterly divided along racial lines.
I'm standing outside a memorial named in honour of Pieterson at the beginning of a half-day cycling tour around Soweto, the sprawling black township with an estimated population around the three to four million mark in Johannesburg's southwest. Soweto covers an area of 200 square kilometres. It's too big to ride around in one day so our tour remains in the east where the uprising was staged.
From the memorial, we cycle through quiet backstreets towards Orlando Stadium. There's no doubting this is a working-class neighbourhood, albeit one that's surprisingly well kept. I'd come to Soweto expecting to find shanties – crudely constructed houses made from tin castoffs and plastic sheeting – strung out along gravel roads, from one horizon to the next. What I find instead is simple redbrick and concrete homes with decorative flourishes and manicured gardens. The homes aren't big, but they're well taken care of.
Rising high above them across the railway line that divides Orlando West from its eastern half is the colossal stadium, home ground of powerhouse Premier Division soccer team, the Orlando Pirates. The original stadium – erected in 1959 – was demolished and rebuilt in time to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup opening ceremony, and it was to this former incarnation that the student protesters were marching before police opened fire.
Busy Mooki Street runs along the foot of the stadium and we cycle along it past courthouses, schools and orphanages. This part of Soweto is a real melting pot of life and cultures, where the many different tribes across South Africa live side by side. It was the first area where the government built brick residential housing after a lengthy campaign led by James "Sofasonke" Mpanza, a civil rights activist considered to be the Father of Soweto.
An image of a regal-looking Mpanza on horseback adorns a billboard in a square off Mooki Street, next to the police station – perhaps the most hated site in all of South Africa during the apartheid days. Other billboards illustrate gangsters living it up in prohibition-era nightclubs and of women labouring over batches of bootleg beer. All are time capsules of Soweto's past; though Lerato admits that even now it's not uncommon for parents to make sorghum beer to finance their kids' school fees.
We're up high here, and for the first time, on a rise across a broad valley, Soweto's most distinctive landmark soars above all else. The Orlando Power Station once generated electricity for businesses in Johannesburg's CBD. But not for here, and for that reason the coal-fired station's twin cooling towers served as daily reminders of who ran the country.
The power station was decommissioned in 1998 then later repurposed into a sports and entertainment complex hosting concerts and extreme sports activities attracting visiting backpackers. For $8 each, we ride an antiquated lift to metal walkway bridging the two towers. From our perch 100 metres above the ground, we can see all over Soweto.
Town planning is an ongoing process in this conglomeration of 39 distinct neighbourhoods (Soweto is an anagram for South West Townships). Open fields separate some neighbourhoods, while mounds of dirt from gold mines – old and new – are piled high between others. There are shopping malls and sportsgrounds. And despite greening efforts in recent years, there's nary a tree in sight.
The students never made it to Orlando Stadium on that fateful day in 1976. Instead, police barricaded them in on Vilakazi Street. Sowetans are justifiably proud of this street for it's the only one on earth to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners. For a brief period, immediately after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, both he and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived a few doors up from each other.
Vilakazi Street today is a lively thoroughfare populated by street buskers and market vendors. Restaurants and souvenir outlets cater to a thronging tourist crowd that arrives by the coachload.
I watch one such group empty out of their bus then pile into Mandela House. They re-emerge 15 minutes later to photograph each other in front of the Tutu residence and it makes me glad I chose to see Soweto differently from them. Though there are certainly excursions to Soweto that are more immersive than ours, our pedestrian pace has made it feel like more than just a whistle-stop tour.
South African Airways has daily flights from Australian capital cities to South Africa. Passengers fly via Perth to Johannesburg with same-day connections to 29 destinations on the African continent. See flysaa.com
Rooms at the four-star Maslow hotel in Sandton start from $160 per night; see suninternational.com/maslow
Book half-day (five hours) cycling tours around Soweto through Viator from $145; see viator.com
Mark Daffey travelled with assistance from South African Airways, The Maslow and Viator.