Mole Expert Hub – Visitor experiences in Soweto and Johannesburg
By Charles Ncube, Meet Your South Africa
Born, bread and buttered in Soweto, Charles Ncube takes tourists around the city of Johannesburg and to his home. He grew up in Soweto during the final years of apartheid and has experienced the dramatic changes since.
Charles is an experienced tour guide and an ambassador for the Meet Your South Africa campaign. In this Expert Hub article, he explains the travel preferences and experiences of international visitors to Soweto and Johannesburg.
What are the top nationalities and age groups visiting Soweto and Johannesburg?
I have a large range of nationalities on my tours, with the majority being Europeans. It’s interesting to see how different themes interest different nationalities. African Americans are often interested in the culture and history of Johannesburg and Soweto. Europeans tend to lean towards nature and wildlife, so the city is usually an add on. However, they do like how both Soweto and Johannesburg can offer experiences with local culture. I’m yet to meet anyone who is not interested in Soweto’s history.
How long do people stay in Soweto? Why is it so popular?
Most tourists spend up to five hours on a tour, although some do spend an entire day. It’s the top tourism spot in the Guateng region, because the history of the whole country can be found in the palm of Soweto. Nelson Mandela lived on Vilakazi Street from 1946 to 1962. Visitors of all nationalities enjoy learning about his life in his old house, which is now a museum. Desmond Tutu also lived here, making it the only street in the world home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners.
Johannesburg used to be a short stop for tourists, often before or after a safari. However, the general mentality is changing and many visitors now take a few days to see the city.
Soweto’s iconic industrial towers
What would you say to people who have a pre-conception of Johannesburg being unsafe?
Crime is not a problem in Johannesburg like it used to be. Gentrification and a number of urban projects have transformed the city, especially places like Maboneng in the inner city. Like all big cities, there are a couple of areas we wouldn’t recommend tourists to visit, but we find that travellers’ experiences are different from their initial perceptions.
Hiring a guide is a great way to get around, as they know exactly where not to go. Local transport such as taxis, Ubers and trains are a safe and secure way to get around. Ubers are very popular in Johannesburg and very available. It’s important to use a qualified registered guide – sometimes visitors use an unqualified guide and complain that they do not meet the level of experience and service they want.
What are the best ways to meet and experience the local people?
There are many tours and programmes which incorporate local experiences and local people. A local guide will know where to take visitors for an authentic experience. I always encourage people on my tours to get into the community and meet local people. In my Soweto tour, I take visitors to explore the township, Vilakazi Street and Mandela House, and the Hector Pieterson Museum. Visitors of all nationalities enjoy meeting local residents and hearing first-hand the story of Soweto.
Which places in Johannesburg are most enjoyed by visitors, and in particular, which experiences appeal to different demographics?
Soweto is the highlight for almost all visitors to Johannesburg. It has become the must do experience for visitors short on time. A Johannesburg city tour fills up the second day. The Cradle of Humankind remains a popular and well liked destination which can be visited in half a day from the city.
Maboneng is a great destination that caters for all age groups, although it is especially well received by millennials. Visitors like its street art, traditional music, art studios and street markets. The Neighbourhood Goods Market in Victoria Yard is also popular with my visitors. It has a buzzing outdoor market, with a range of food stalls, cocktails and crafts. In the same area I recommend Curiosity and Canteen for young people wanting to experience local music. Visitors also like Maboneng as it is very easy to mix and mingle with local people.
Nelson Mandela Square in Sandton
Nelson Mandela Square is an upmarket area popular with senior visitors. It has some great shopping and restaurants. Besides Soweto and Johannesburg tours, young families often visit a theme park and a cultural village 25 mins away from the city centre, where they can experience traditional dancing, clothing, crafts and experiences.
Charles Ncube is an ambassador for Mayibongwe Tours, a tour guide company offering local perspective on the best bits of Johannesburg, Soweto, and surrounding areas. He is also an ambassador for the Meet Your South Africa campaign. This Expert Hub article is produced in association with South Africa Tourism UK.