It’s impossible to understand Johannesburg — its chequered history and the dynamism of the present day — without visiting Soweto township

“Travellers are surprised by what they see,” says my charismatic guide, Charles Ncube. “Yes, life in Soweto can be tough. We have three classes: low, very low, and very, very low,” he jokes. “But it’s a proud, positive place. Everyone is building a better future. The footballers and celebrities who make it big, now they stay. It’s the place to be!”

The sprawling, low-rise township on the city’s southwestern periphery is home to a staggering 1.3 million people. Under Apartheid, Soweto was an address synonymous with forced habitation and deprivation, but today it’s a very different picture: this township is a driver of Johannesburg’s diversity and dynamism.

A different perspective
It’s perfectly safe to walk unguided around the main tourist sights, so set out on foot. “Some locals find tour buses offensive. Get out and explore! We’re not going to bite. This isn’t safari,” Charles says. His top tip: sign up for a tour offered by a local business. Lebo’s Backpackers offers neighbourhood tours by bike or bright yellow tuk tuk. But the best township view is only for the brave: in 2008, a 328ft-high suspension bridge was strung between Orlando Towers for bungee jumpers. There’s rock climbing and the world’s highest SCAD freefall inside the disused power plant, too.

Welcome to Vilakazi Street
Orlando West’s lively artery is the only street in the world to have had two Nobel Peace Prize winners as residents. Mandela House museum, the home of South Africa’s first black president from 1947 until just after his release from Robben Island in 1990, is must-see: full of memorabilia, it shines a light on Madiba’s early family life. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s former home, a block away, is marked by a plaque. Vilakazi is full of restaurants, costumed dancers, and stalls selling Mandela merchandise and clothes in bright shweshwe fabrics. But for the best of Soweto fashion, check out the Box Shop, which showcases up-and-coming local designers. Nearby, at the intersection with Moema Street, the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum commemorates the tragic events of the Soweto uprising. Hector, a 12-year-old schoolboy, was among the first shot dead on 16 June 1976 when police opened fire on a student march. “It put Soweto on the map,” Charles explains. To hear stories of Soweto under apartheid, gather round the campfire in Lebo’s Backpackers on the last Thursday of every month when locals share memories with travellers.

Eating local
Sakhumzi Restaurant on Vilakazi Street began life as a shebeen (illegal bar) and was formalised into a restaurant in 2001. Its menu offers a solid introduction to township dishes, including grilled lamb, mogodu (tripe), the pap corn dish of umqa, and pot stews. The quintessential township eating experience is, however, a shisa nyama — an open-fire barbecue. At Chaf Pozi, at the foot of the Orlando Towers, diners choose their cuts of meat then watch them sizzle on the grill while enjoying DJs and live township music. To drink, try South Africa’s first township beer, Soweto Gold — then later, tour the microbrewery that makes it, set just off Vilakazi Street. There are plenty of informal places to eat, too. Look out for hole-in-the-wall shops selling deep-fried ‘fat cakes’ and the homemade township ‘beer’ umqombothi, an earthy, sour brew. Charles explains: “We drink it after a long day, at traditional events, or when we’re communing with the ancestors. And Soweto is the best place in Johannesburg to find it.”

The sound of Soweto
One of the best venues for live music in Johannesburg is Pata Pata, in the trendy Maboneng neighbourhood, which draws on the concept of township shebeens to showcase local drummers, performers and singers in a low-lit, informal restaurant setting. The venue takes its name from a song by the singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba, who began her career in Johannesburg’s township shebeens. Another of her songs, Soweto Blues, released in 1977, is an important cultural text, written in the aftermath of the student uprising.



New direct flights from the UK have put Durban on the map as South Africa’s gateway city. But its host of new openings offer plenty of reason to stick around

South Africa’s undersung beachfront city is finally having its moment in the sun; although, with some 320 days of blue skies a year, it’s arguably had a fair few of those already. For the price of a return ticket with British Airways (direct from £599), travellers can plant a parasol on the Golden Mile and discover the up-and-coming charms of this port city. In just a few years, Durban’s shabby Station Drive Precinct has blossomed with offbeat boutique shops; a flurry of new openings has reinvigorated its Florida Road high street; and a multimillion-pound regeneration is breathing new life into the dilapidated Point Waterfront. Durban’s always been hot; now it’s finding its cool.

The lunch spot: Falafel Fundi
For Middle Eastern soul food with a Durban fusion twist, order a pillowy Indian roti wrap with crunchy, colourful salads and homemade falafel in Saar Ben Hamoo’s new cafe. The charismatic chef gained a devoted following with his market stall, and put down permanent roots on the Florida Road last year, thanking his family’s falafel recipe for his success.

The tour: Beset Durban
Four friends, one mission: to get Durbanites to fall in love with their own city. The gang organises a free monthly tour of an overlooked part of Durban, using local experts and their unique brand of pizzazz to bring local history to life. Sign up to the mailing list to learn more. Fitness fanatics can also joint the Beset team on their 5km runs along the promenade each Monday at 5.30am.

The hidden gem: The Chairman
A diamond in the rough, this fancy jazz bar stands amid ruins on the most rundown block of the Point neighbourhood. Owner Ndabo Langa has cultivated the moody vibe of a speakeasy: plush armchairs, eclectic light fittings, taxidermy, and come weekends, the best live bands and DJs around.

The ’hood: Station Drive
Homegrown creatives have transformed this once-crummy warehouse district into a hive of hipster enterprise. There’s lots to discover in this part of town, but a special mentions go to bar-cum-microbrewery Station 43, and Momenti Gelato, whose ‘lab’ sells ice cream flavours made with local ingredients like Golden Turmeric Coconut. Visit on the first Thursday of the month, when galleries, shops and bars stay open late and throng with people looking for a good time, or for the weekly Morning Trade market on Sundays in The Plan.


South Africa has over 1,600 miles of coast, from its border with Namibia in the west to its Indian Ocean border with Mozambique in the east. We pick out the best beaches en route

End of the trail: Nature’s Valley, Western Cape
This resort and village is a Garden Route favourite, overlooking the clear blue Indian Ocean, with the postcard-perfect Groot River Lagoon and Tsitsikamma foothills at its rear. It’s also the terminus of the five-day Otter Trail, which starts at Storms River Mouth and winds for 27 miles through gallery forest, fynbos and wildflower meadows. When completed, it’s customary for hikers to tie a walking boot to a branch of a village tree.

Paddle with penguins: Boulders Beach, Cape Town
See endangered African penguins at their colony in Simon’s Town. The three pristine beaches are sheltered from wind and waves by the eponymous boulders, so it’s great for kids. Penguins glide around in the shallows — just watch out for their razor-sharp beaks.

River meets ocean: Kenton-on-Sea, Eastern Cape
Set between the mouths of the Bushmans and Kariega Rivers, this Sunshine Coast town is home to a reserve that attracts copious bird species. In summer, the rivers are a veritable playground, with water skiing, fishing, kite surfing and horse-riding all on offer. Kariega Beach and Middle Beach are wild and undeveloped, with rock formations and pools at low tide. Wilder and more remote, Shelley Beach is a short hike across the dunes.

Under milkwood: Mdumbi Beach, Eastern Cape
Seven miles from the Wild Coast’s beloved Coffee Bay, little-known Mdumbi is a hidden Transkei region treasure. It’s an unspoilt spot, protected by milkwood trees and often empty but for the odd bobbing surfer. Living in mudbrick houses around Mdumbi are the Pondo people, who offer fishing and braai (barbecue) trips on the Mdumbi River, as well as village tours.

Escape the crowds: Llandudno Beach, Cape Town
Like nearby Clifton 4th Beach, Llandudno has Blue Flag status but attracts a fraction of the crowds (it’s fiddly to find with scant parking). Persevere — its striking boulders, powdery sand and lush backdrop make it ideal for secluded sunbathing. Follow the footpath beneath the Twelve Apostles to the sheltered Sandy Bay — Cape Town’s only (albeit unofficial) nudist beach.

Swim with the fishes: Sodwana Bay, KwaZulu-Natal
South Africa’s finest scuba diving site lies within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park on the Elephant Coast, a shoreline stretching for 110 from the Mozambique border in the north to St Lucia village in the south. The reefs just offshore are home to around 1,200 fish species (10 times the size, the Great Barrier Reef has approximately 1,800), with turtles, whales and sharks all seasonal visitors.

Surfing (U)SA: Jeffreys Bay, Eastern Cape
An hour’s drive west of Port Elizabeth, the town of Jeffreys Bay is one of the world’s premier surf spots. The 6ft barrels rolling in on Supertubes Beach can be fierce and the locals territorial, so beginners prefer gentler Dolphin Beach. The bay’s après-surf bars and hippy handicraft shops are a draw, too.

Retro seaside getaway: Golden Mile, Durban
Durban has one of the world’s finest urban beaches, backed by seaside attractions including quaint Mini Town, a model village full of city landmarks, and Fun World, a faded amusement park with spinning rides and an original aerial cableway from the 1970s. Adding some glamour at the northern end of the strip is art deco Suncoast Casino, which underwent a facelift last year, and is illuminated by neon at night.

Whale of a time: Grotto Beach, Western Cape
Wide, tranquil and running unbroken for 11 miles along the Atlantic coast, this is a stellar whale-watching spot. It’s common to see humpbacks and southern right whales breaching and spouting near the shore from the comfort of a beach towel, especially between July and December. From Grotto Beach, head into Hermanus for a cruise to see these creatures up close, or head out on a three-hour coastal hike to De Kelders.

Diamonds aren’t forever: Port Nolloth, Northern Cape
For many years, the cliffs around Port Nolloth yielded diamonds; today, the sleepy town gets its money from rock lobster fishing, and there are some characterful mariners to be met in the local pubs. Over a spit lies McDougall’s Bay, a rugged beach with frigid Atlantic waters that’s popular with windsurfers. December is a good time to visit: the water is at its warmest and, on the last day of the year, the old-timey Sand Festival takes place, kicking off with a beauty competition and ending with fireworks.

The full collection of articles from the Unsung South Africa April 2019 cover story can be viewed online at

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