Soweto may sound like an African name, but the word was originally an acronym for “South Western Townships”. A cluster of townships sprawling across a vast area 20 kilometres south-west of Johannesburg, Soweto was, from the start, a product of segregationist planning.
It was back in 1904 that Klipspruit, the oldest of a cluster of townships that constitute present day Soweto, was established. The township was created to house mainly black labourers, who worked in mines and other industries in the city, away from the city centre. The inner city was later to be reserved for white occupation as the policy of segregation took root.
In the 1950s, more black people were relocated there from “black spots” in inner city Johannesburg – black neighborhoods which the apartheid government then reserved for whites.
It was not until 1963 that the acronym “Soweto” was adopted, following a four-year public competition on an appropriate name for the sprawling township.
Soweto’s growth was phenomenal – but unplanned. Despite government attempts to curb the influx of black workers to the cities, waves of migrant workers moved from the countryside and neighbouring countries to look for employment in the fast-growing city of gold.
The perennial problems of Soweto have, since its inception, included poor housing, overcrowding, high unemployment and poor infrastructure. This has seen settlements of shacks made of corrugated iron sheets becoming part of the Soweto landscape.
Apartheid planning did not provide much in terms of infrastructure, and it is only in recent years that the democratic government has spearheaded moves to plant trees, develop parks, and provide electricity and running water to the township.
Soweto is a melting pot of South African cultures and has developed its own sub-cultures – especially for the young. Afro-American influence runs deep, but is adapted to local conditions. In their speech, dress and gait, Sowetans exude a sense of cosmopolitan sophistication.