Activity: Soweto and Informal Settlement Tour, Johannesburg, South Africa.


While Johannesburg is one of the larger cities in the southern portion of Africa, it’s not always known as a terrific place to visit. While I had been through several times in the past, on this trip I spent some time actually getting to see some of it’s sights that it is known for. This included an excellent tour through Soweto and a visit to the Klipton Informal Settlement.

This post is one chapter on our trip to South Africa, a Safari in the Maasai Mara in Kenya and Mauritius. This trip was redeemed through Air Canada’s Aeroplan and through Starwood Preferred Guest (Marriott Bonvoy) and Hyatt Gold Passport. For more information on how this trip was booked, please see our trip introduction here. For other parts of the trip, please see this index.

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Activity: Soweto and Informal Settlement Tour, Johannesburg, South Africa

Johannesburg has a reputation of being a “get in and get out” city, with few tourists stopping over on the way to Cape Town or their safari’s in Kruger National Park. The real reason that we wanted to visit Johannesburg this trip was that I had heard that tours were being offered of Soweto and the opportunity to see how some of the people have to live in Johannesburg. 

We booked our tour through Themba Day Tours, specifically the full day Soweto and Apartheid Museum Tour. We received excellent service through Themba and we’d highly recommend them to anyone. They are among the highest rated tour on Trip Advisor with over one thousand reviews. We booked with them online and were picked up and dropped off from the Hyatt Regency Johannesburg in a semi private van.

Visiting the Apartheid Museum:

Our tour took us to the Apartheid Museum. Segregation starts as soon as you get your ticket – you’re assigned a race right away and have to use different entrances. 

The Apartheid Museum
The Start of Museum Segregation
Separate Entrances for Visitors
Walking through the entry of the Apartheid Museum

The museum was well documented given that the end of Apartheid was not too long ago. The museum (which doesn’t allow photos) was rich in multi media and contained interesting facts on apartheid. It complimented the Robben Island Tour that we took earlier in the trip. It’s a must see if you happen to find yourself in Johannesburg. If you’re doing this yourself, I’d recommend allowing at least 3 hours for a visit. 

Getting into Soweto:

From the Apartheid Museum, we and were driven through Johannesburg under the Jacaranda Trees over to Soweto.

It’s worth noting that Soweto is a very large area of many different demographics and levels of wealth. There is a rising middle class here and a sense of prestige now with calling Soweto home. 

On Local Highways with the Orlando Towers in the Background
Soweto Neighbourhood Welcome Signs
Local Graffiti

The majority of local transport in Johannesburg and South Africa is by mini bus (shared vans). The locals use an intricate finger pointing system in order to tell the driver where they want to go. 

Local destinations using sign language

Arriving to the neighbourhood of Soweto, we proceeded on foot to our next attraction. You can see the government row housing in the background of this photograph, in this upscale neighbourhood.

Upscale Homes with a background of government housing

Visiting a Local Shebeen:

Our comprehensive tour took us to visit a “shebeen” in Soweto. A Shebeen was the underground drinking establishments used during Apartheid by the blacks. They are usually found in the backs of houses, with secret passage ways out in the event they were raided by the police. They now are local drinking hang outs.

A Local Shebeen
The Shebeen Entrance

Local signs set out the rules of the house…

A Gun Free Zone

The Shebeen had the usual entertainment as one would expect from a local hang out location.

Inside a Shebeen

We were given the opportunity to try the local beer. At the time of our visit, it was sold in milk cartons for 10R ($1 USD) for a two litre container. It was similar to UHT milk that required no refrigeration. It is mixed to mix the chemicals to make the beer frothy. It is normally shared in a communal bowl (as pictured).

Local Beer traditionally presented in a communal bowl

The public warning sign on the side of the beer carton says it all about the realities of South Africa…

Local Brew

We also drove past the Orlando Towers and spent some time near the Hector Peiterson museum.

Views of the Orlando Towers
The murals of the Orlando Towers
Buildings of Johannesburg

Visiting the Kilpton Informal Settlement in Soweto:

The informal settlements are often connected to apartheid in South Africa. An informal settlement represents illegal housing that has surfaced on what is usually municipal land. While an argument can be made that visiting an informal settlement can be a bit of exploitive tourism, I take a view that through education and sustainable tourism, the world can be a better place through understanding of issues that affect all walks of life. Themba Day Tours makes a contribution to each Informal Settlement they visit, and they spread the wealth so that no one settlement is treated better than any other. They are small steps but worthwhile ones when you consider the magnitude of the conditions facing these residents.

Our driver, Patrick gave us a basic explanation of the workings of the informal settlements (or shanty / slum to the rest of us).This was by far the most moving part of the tour. Our guide Patrick, met up with a local guide who was our escort into the Klipton Informal Settlement in Soweto. 

It was a heart wrenching experience. Getting out of the van at the informal settlement, an instant smell came over us – there’s no other way to describe it other than the smell of raw sewage and decaying waste. The smell was strong enough to the point were some of the women on our tour were starting to feel sick. 

Kilpton Informal Settlement
Houses on the Hill
Local Street Life

As we were led into the settlement, it was apparent that none of the units had working plumbing or proper draining. Some had improvised electricity for lighting. It didn’t take to long to find raw waste / used water flowing through the settlement in make shift drains. 

Water and Waste Run Off in the Walkway
Local Streets
Local Houses
Local Residents

There is typically no running water in the informal settlements in each home. Water was made available through communal water pumps that have been installed by the government. The government, for hygienic reasons, has started to maintain the slums by installing portable pit toilets on a 1:20 person ratio and by removing trash. Clothes washing was done by hand. 

Potable Water and Washing Stations
Local Washing – communal and outdoors
Main Walkways

Inside Informal Settlement Houses:

As we were led into a residence, our guide described the living conditions. The buildings are made with any available improvised materials. The structures have no heat and are often too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. The buildings contain no cooking elements or refrigeration of course, so all food purchased has to be consumed right away.

A local neighborhood

Each unit sleeps eight people, with five elders on the elevated bed, and three of the young adults on the floor. I recalled back to that sign in the South African Airways Saubouna in flight magazine and finally understood what they meant when they asked for “no sleeping on the floor”. Eight people share this space.

Informal Settlement Sleeping Quarters
Dining Quarters

The government “allows” people to reside in the Informal Settlements for free while they wait for subsidized housing. Our local guide had already been on the waiting list for 5 years. 

It was quite heart wrenching to see children living in this environment. Most were thankfully in school, but some younger ones were at home. 

Local Residents watching us visitors
The curiosity of visitors

As we left, we had a deep pit in our throats. It was one of the few times were I felt like emptying my wallet and just handing over the $40 USD that was in there. I really didn’t need it compared to the lives of these people whom are obviously just struggling to get by. Not a single person asked me for money while I was there. 

Patrick indicated to us that Themba Tours had arrangements with informal settlements to bring in tourists in a sustainable manner. The arrangement offers a donation to the settlement, in exchange for safety of the visitors. The arrangements are varied across several settlements so that one settlement does not profit over another. Despite the dangers of Johannesburg, I didn’t feel any risk or security concerns throughout our day and our visit.

My thoughts on the Soweto and Apartheid Museum Tour:

An argument can be made that it’s exploitive to conduct voyeuristic tours through shanties for tourists gawking at the misfortunes of others. However, as a participant, I felt a better understanding of the challenges that informal settlement citizens face, in addition to the opportunities that present themselves to Non Governmental Organizations and charities that are operating throughout Africa. At Klipton, these people didn’t have enough food to eat at night, let along a roof over their head or comfortable living arrangements. By way of comparison, my biggest worry was waiting for the photocopier to warm up at work…

I decided at the end of the tour where to make my chartible donation for the year when I got home.

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