SOWETO, South Africa The tour van arrives, and the guide sweeps his hand toward a view of squatter camps crowded with rusted tin shacks and open-air markets where AIDS folk remedies are sold in plastic bottles. Along the horizon are middle-class brick homes.
“Welcome to Soweto,” the guide says.
This sprawling township was once synonymous with the struggle by South African blacks against white supremacist rule. Now it’s an important tourist destination alongside the country’s well-known game parks and wineries.
For travelers seeking an authentic South African experience, Soweto’s squatter camps, grassless lots and neighborhood taverns are the places to visit. “Soweto: the good, the bad and the ugly” is how one tour company markets trips.
Even in apartheid times, the local council took visitors on guided tours of the township. Nowadays, a host of companies offer tours and even overnight stays in private homes. In the summer high season December and January about 1,000 tourists a day come through Soweto.
“It’s the cultural experience [that brings people] to interact with the community in Soweto,” said Thami Klassen, chairman of the Soweto Tourism Development Association. “They come to see the struggles of Soweto. … And the message carried across is that Soweto is changing and has changed.”
About 1.5 million people live in Soweto, many of them crowded into tiny houses on dirt patches along twisting, narrow lanes. What started as a collection of settlements for poor black workers is now 58 square miles of metropolis six miles southwest of Johannesburg.
Soweto, short for South Western Townships, was established under an intricate system of segregation that forced blacks to live in townships outside cities to keep them out of sight but close enough to perform cheap labor for whites.
Soweto still bears the scars of its past. About half its adults are unemployed. A soaring HIV infection rate has taken a devastating toll. The spray-painted message “AIDS is real” shares walls with murals of the faces of anti-apartheid heroes.
Crime is real, too, as it is throughout South Africa. Tourists traveling in organized groups are safe, following well-established routes with guides known to the community.
Among the tourist stops is the home of anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela before his incarceration in 1964.
The tour vans also go to the memorial commemorating the Soweto uprising of June 16, 1976, when thousands of black schoolchildren protested apartheid policies. Police opened fire, and about 130 people died in clashes over several days.
The bloodshed was a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle, creating a new generation of activists and turning an international spotlight on the brutality of the white supremacist regime.
It was Soweto’s history that lured Lisa Mortensen, 31, a financial trader from New York making a 15-day tour of South Africa.
“The conditions people live in are worse than I expected,” she said, sitting at a table in a dark neighborhood pub run in a private house, one of the stops on her half-day tour.
She said she was surprised to see the good-neighborliness and proximity of poor and middle-class neighborhoods. “You would not see that in America,” she said.
In the middle-class neighborhood of Diepkloof Extension, Lolo Mabitsena, 63, welcomes guests past her rose garden and into her two-story, five-bedroom brick home the dream house she built five years ago by buying more bricks and tiles whenever she had the money.
Mrs. Mabitsena, a retired school inspector, rents the first-floor bedrooms to guests looking for the experience of a night with a Soweto family.
Mrs. Mabitsena, with her rolling laugh, makes visitors instant family members. She lives in the house with an extended collection of relatives her daughter, two teenage granddaughters, twin nieces and a nephew.
She readily shares her life. Her parents moved to Soweto early in the last century, she said, because “they thought if you work in Johannesburg they would make gold.”
Johannesburg sprang up as a gold-mining town, but the gold was so deep and impure that the mines couldn’t turn a profit without cheap black labor. Like Mrs. Mabitsena’s parents, many blacks were lured from other areas by the prospect of mine jobs.
Her family’s house had no electricity, so Mrs. Mabitsena studied as a child by candlelight. She become a teacher, a principal and finally a school inspector.
Sitting in a living room with ruffled white curtains and deep-pink velour couches, she sips tea with her friends and discusses plans for a funeral. The 4-year-old son of the woman who does her ironing has just died of complications from AIDS. There is no money for a funeral, so Mrs. Mabitsena asks friends to help. She is buying the coffin herself.
Discussion of AIDS stretches into dinner. She serves a traditional evening meal of spinach, fried chicken, pumpkin and “pap,” a staple African dish of cornmeal mush with the consistency of thick mashed potatoes.
Forks and knives are set, but her guests, following her lead, eat with their hands. Mrs. Mabitsena patiently offers advice on how to scoop up the food using a hunk of pap.
Guests come to Mrs. Mabitsena’s home through the office of Jimmy Ntintili, who runs Jimmy’s Face to Face tour company. A man of almost-frenetic enthusiasm for Soweto, he says bringing guests to homes like Mrs. Mabitsena’s helps show “the whole life of Soweto.”
Mr. Ntintili, who once worked as a chef, grew up in Soweto and began his business by informally taking friends on Soweto tours. Now he has a staff of 10, including six tour guides. He offers half-day trips and tours of Soweto’s night life for 210 rand, or about $20. Overnight stays, with dinner, cost 460 rand ($43).
“There is so much potential [in Soweto], but we need to make it happen,” he said.