A Meditative Train Ride Through South Africa

Johannesburg carries the heavy weight of over 130 years of history, since its founding during a gold boom in the late 19th century. Much of the income inequality in the county, which is still acutely felt, is due to the aftereffects of the systematic racism of apartheid, which ended in 1994. Decades of work to abolish that system culminated in the swearing-in of Nelson Mandela as the nation’s first black head of state.

If you’re looking to experience the essentials of that history, a visit to Soweto is a must. Just a 25-minute drive from downtown, Soweto (which stands for South Western Township) was a major center of apartheid resistance in the ’70s and ’80s. I went along on a half-day Soweto tour booked through the Curiocity Backpackers hostel (350 rand) with about a dozen other people and found the experience more than worth the effort.

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The Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto, which commemorates the township’s 1976 uprising.

Credit
Joao Silva/The New York Times

Our guide, Semphiwe, was sharp-witted and sharp-tongued, giving us all names in Zulu or Xhosa and ribbing us if we couldn’t pronounce them properly. He was from Soweto, and extremely proud of it, noting that it has over a million residents. And it was the only place, he said, where you could, at one point, find two Nobel Peace Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu) living on one street. “And they say it’s not safe!” he said, feigning exasperation.

We first stopped by Kliptown, one of Soweto’s poorest areas, and the Little Rose Center, a school and youth center. The overwhelming poverty of the shanties and tin-roof shacks of Kliptown was sobering — we spent roughly 30 minutes winding through the mazelike, dirt roads, distinguished only by the odd spray-painted wooden board or the rusted-out iron coils of a mattress.

We also saw the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in the Orlando West neighborhood (admission, 30 rand), which documents the killing of 12-year-old Pieterson by police, a key moment during the 1976 Soweto Uprising; and we saw the Apartheid Museum (85 rand), about 10 miles east of Orlando West, which captures the nuances and the horrors of that system. A significant portion of the museum is dedicated to Mandela, including old letters and personal effects as well as a replica of his tiny cell on Robben Island.

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A view…

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