Kliptown, one of the oldest districts in Soweto, is an area steeped in history – violent, restorative, sad and uplifting. It was in Kliptown that the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955, an event that is remembered in a small museum on the area’s central square. Many of South Africa’s most important anti-apartheid leaders spent time in this part of Soweto.
The township of Kliptown was laid out in 1891 on a portion of the Klipspruit farm, named after the klipspruit (rocky stream) that runs through it. By 1903, an informal settlement of makeshift shacks had been established, and over the years Kliptown grew apace, with Indian, black and coloured families building homes in the area.
Although the area is very poor, the old-fashioned architecture of early Kliptown is still visible and many buildings bear blue plaques testifying to the prominent activists who once lived there.
Kliptown is most famously known as the site where more than 3 000 people attended what became known as the Congress of the People in 1955 to adopt the Freedom Charter, a document in which oppressed South Africans formulated ideas of a society free from apartheid. Despite a police blockade barring the area, people came from far and wide to see the Freedom Charter signed in June of 1955. On the second day of the congress police violently disrupted the meeting and many prominent activists were arrested.
This historically significant event is remembered in the small but worthwhile Kliptown Open Air Museum on Walter Sisulu Square.
Today, the population of Kliptown stands at roughly 45 000, and the area where the delegates met in 1955 is now a huge civic square surrounded by marketplaces, offices, and the upmarket Soweto Hotel & Conference Centre. At the centre of the square stands a conical monument to the Freedom Charter, which you can go inside to see the many principles of the charter carved in bronze tablets. Decorating the square there are also a number of artworks that are symbolic of the area’s history, such as the 10 giant pillars which represents the 10 pillars of the Freedom Charter.