Arguably one of the most famous suburban thoroughfares in South Africa, Vilakazi Street in Soweto is an integral part of the country’s rich and – at times – troubled history.
The street was named after the late Zulu poet, novelist and linguist Dr Benedict Wallet Vilakazi, who in 1935 became the first black African of the then Union of South Africa to teach at a “white” university and, in 1946, the first black South African to receive a doctorate in literature from the University of the Witwatersrand.
In 2016, Vilakazi was posthumously honoured with South Africa’s prestigious Order of Ikhamanga (Gold) – an award recognising the profound impact he had on South African literature.
2. Rich history
Vilakazi Street is best known for the fact that it has been home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners – both the late former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu have lived there.
It has become a major tourist destination in Soweto. Now a city in its own right, the township was established in the 1940s, when activist James Mpanza led 20 000 squatters to occupy vacant council land near the Orlando area.
In 1959, the township expanded further when black residents from Sophiatown were forcibly relocated there after their homes in the vibrant Johannesburg neighbourhood were destroyed by the apartheid government of the day.
Mandela lived in Vilakazi Street with his first wife, Evelyn Mase, and later with his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. He briefly returned to the house for 11 days on his release from prison in 1990.
Archbishop Emeritus Tutu has also owned his house in Vilakazi Street for many years. While part of Johannesburg’s historical heritage, the house is not open to the public since the Tutu family still uses it as a residence.
Mandela’s simple three-bedroomed house has been converted into the Mandela House museum, which opened in 1997 and draws many local and international visitors.
3. Heritage hub
The Vilakazi Street precinct, which is about a kilometre long, was designed to conserve the historical importance of the area. Before its transformation, the area was a typical township lined with low-cost housing. Today, it is a heritage, cultural and economic hub.
Architectural and urban design have been used to conjure up the past and recreate the street’s heritage in a contemporary way. Essentially a living museum, the precinct showcases the past struggle and legacy of Soweto, and the spirit of its people.
A few blocks from Vilakazi Street is the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, built to commemorate the 1976 Soweto Uprising, when about 20 000 Soweto school children marched against the forced use of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in local schools. The police reacted brutally, killing many young protesters.
Together, the memorial and museum commemorate those students who died in the uprisings, and celebrate the students’ role in the struggle for freedom.
4. New legacy
The Johannesburg Development Agency upgraded Vilakazi Street in 2009-10, ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The new tourist-friendly precinct boasted pedestrian paths on the pavements, new streetlights, trees and benches, concrete pillars and street art.
The opening ceremony and first game of the tournament was held in Soweto at the FNB Stadium, fixing the eyes of the world on this historic township, including Vilakazi Street. For the first time, the precinct filled up with visitors from Africa and further afield.
“I’m from Nigeria and it was a dream to bring my dad here from Nigeria for the 2010 World Cup opening game,” says banker and football enthusiast Abby Adeleke, a frequent visitor to the precinct.
“Vilakazi embodies so much of South Africa’s history and vibrant culture. It’s such a unique thing for a precinct such as this to carry such a tough history, but also offer such an exciting lifestyle experience for tourists and its residents.”
Lined with restaurants, informal eateries, arts and outlets for fashion and crafts, the street has become a prime area for Soweto’s growing middle class who enjoys the exciting lifestyle experience the precinct has to offer.
5. Culture centre
Vilakazi Street is at the centre of a cultural melting pot, with the many languages spoken on the street including Zulu, Xhosa and Sesotho, along with tongues from across the continent.
“We come here almost every weekend just to enjoy good food and the great street culture,” said restaurant patron Sizwe Sithole, who dreams to one day start his own business in the area.
“Something about this place speaks to a sense of belonging for me as a young black South African who grew up in a township under apartheid rule. Vilakazi is a great reminder of where we come from and what is possible.”
Thato Morwa agrees. “I’m from Soweto. I feel like I’ve literally watched my township and particularly Vilakazi Street rise above its struggles, which is how I would describe the people of Soweto and the people of South Africa as a whole, actually.”
Morwa says, as an entrepreneur, he has invested in some of the businesses in the area and sees great potential for further growth. “My family bought a house here and we turned it into a restaurant. The business is doing well and I believe it can still do better."
“Vilakazi is just a starting point – this township has great potential for businesses big and small. This is where it starts, it is the hub – but we can expand further and we must. The elders have started us off. Now we as young people must grow the legacy started here on Vilakazi Street.”
6. Art and identity
Vilakazi Street has a vibrant offering of public art. Visitors are greeted by the eye-catching installation of eight grey hands spelling out “Vilakazi” in sign language, and few visitors leave the precinct without taking pictures of this large work.
Other art in the precinct include two murals – one a June 1976 Soweto Uprising scene depicting police officers and their vans; the other of school children carrying placards.
The paving and benches along the street are adorned with mosaics, and on the corner of Vilakazi and Ngakane streets, there’s a row of painted bollards that add to the authentic feel of the precinct.
The artworks in the area commemorate and celebrate icons of the struggle and the young people who sacrificed much to bring about a turning point in South Africa, according to the Johannesburg Development Agency.
7. Great vibe
The aptly named Restaurant Vilakazi offers local and Mediterranean fare. Looking for good traditional dishes such as mogodu (tripe) or umleqwa (traditional steamed chicken)? This is your spot.
Brainchild of Miles Kubheka, the upmarket Vuyo’s Restaurant was inspired by a local beer advertisement, telling the story of a township entrepreneur who made it big selling boerewors rolls.
Just like the beer-ad character, Kubheka started out selling boerewors rolls from a mobile truck, continued to pursue his love for food and a great atmosphere, and eventually opened Vuyo’s. “Vilakazi was the best place for me to open such a place,” he says. “There’s always business opportunities here and each outlet offers something different to visitors.”
Thrive Café offers good food and a chilled vibe. “There are many great restaurants here that cater for a township experience. This place has more of a modern feel, which is a nice touch,” according to Zinhle Sodwana, a regular. The beauty of Vilakazi is that it caters for everyone’s tastes, she adds.
The Wine Bar not only offers an eclectic menu, but also has a cigar lounge, well-stocked wine cellar and even a selection of French champagnes.
Once you’ve had your fill, you’ll be spoilt for choice with entertainment in Vilakazi. Traditional and street dancers visit all the restaurants, entertaining guests as they enjoy their food and drinks.
Live musicians and big DJ acts also perform at the different establishments, keeping the precinct buzzing at all times.
If you’re looking for cultural immersion, head to Vilakazi Street to sample traditional food, cultural performances and experiences, and to share stories with the locals.
Sakhumzi Restaurant offers a hearty traditional menu and vibrant atmosphere. Opened in 2001, the eatery is one of the most well known on Vilakazi Street.
Khulani Vilakazi honours his famous grandfather Dr Vilakazi’s memory at Nambitha restaurant, opened in 1999. If you’re looking for amazing sticky wings or a hearty Sunday lunch, this is your perfect spot.
Nexdor (next door to Sakhumzi Restaurant!) is a family restaurant founded by brothers Brian and Thato Mdluli and a childhood friend.
“The business brings in local and international customers aged from 23 to 60 for a great meal and vibrant experience,” says Brian Mdluli. The restaurant name is a fusion of “next” and “door” and written this way to reflect local kasi speak.
The eatery serves hearty food and specialises in grills, and the drinks menu includes spirits, a solid wine list and local ciders and beers. As part of their commitment to uplifting and supporting their birthplace, the owners try to source all their products from local suppliers in Soweto.
Mdluli explains that he grew up in Soweto and that his family has done a lot to help develop the township. “Business here is growing and the competition is becoming stronger as new ventures in the restaurant industry come about to cater to the crowds of people we see on Vilakazi Street daily,” he says.
He also sees the precinct as a business hub. “I often hold business meetings here – it’s a great atmosphere to work in. I would like to do more to have business facilities introduced here.”
8. Take a tour
There’s plenty more to see in the precinct and around Soweto. One convenient option is to hop on the City Sightseeing red bus Soweto extension minibus tour, starting at Gold Reef City and allowing you to hop off, and back on again, when you’re ready, at any of the major sights.
For a fun filled experience, the Soweto Outdoor Adventures is packed with exciting activities to keep your adrenaline pumping as you explore Soweto.
Soweto Backpackers offers bicycle tours, another exciting way to explore Vilakazi Street and surrounds. Choose from a number of different excursions, including the two-hour tour of historic sites and the four-hour half-day cycling adventure around the township, providing insight into its history, the student uprisings, the fight against apartheid, and more.
The latter tour stops off at different food outlets and shebeens, and ends with a traditional beer tasting and African storytelling.
There is also a full-day, eight-hour tour of all the township’s historic landmarks, as well as less well-known spots. Visitors get the full experience – from the reality of life in a squatter camp to seeing how much Soweto has grown and developed over the decades.
End your adventure by picking up a memento of your visit from one of the many vendors and shops along Vilakazi Street selling art, craft, traditional clothing and souvenirs.
This way, you will keep the memory of your visit to this special place alive.