The township of Kliptown (which forms the southern part of the larger township of Soweto) was first laid out in 1891 on a portion of the Klipspruit farm and grew rapidly in its early years, with a multicultural community of Indian, black and coloured families all finding space on Kliptown’s streets.
Since its earliest days Kliptown was a hub for traders, its busy streets full of market stalls, hawkers and wholesalers, and today the streets around the centre of Kliptown near Walter Sisulu Square are still notable for their many streetside traders. The neo-classical architecture of early Kliptown can still be glimpsed in some of the neighbourhood’s older buildings and you’ll spot a number of blue plaques marking the former homes of prominent activists. While Kliptown is one of Soweto’s poorest neighbourhoods, it is also one of the most fascinating areas to visit because of its rich history.
The Congress of the People
Kliptown is best known as the location for the 1955 Congress of the People. On June 26, 1955, 3,000 representatives of all South African racial and ethnic groups, gathered in the centre of Kliptown, on what is now the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication, to draw up the Freedom Charter. Under the opening line “The People Shall Govern!” it laid out the principles for a democratic country in which all South Africans would be entitled equal rights. Delegates, old and young and from all walks of life, were invited to discuss the document in Kliptown including prominent activists such as Nelson Mandela who it is said arrived disguised as a milkman to avoid the police. On the second day of the congress the charter was adopted as the manifesto of the anti-apartheid movement and shortly after the meeting was closed down by heavily armed police. The apartheid government subsequently banned the ANC party, accusing them of plotting to commit treason and scores of delegates were harassed and arrested. More than forty years later when apartheid was finally abolished the Freedom Charter became the basis for the new Constitution of South Africa.
The Kliptown Museum is housed in an old hardware store on the edge of Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication and tells the story of the Freedom Charter and the Congress of the People through creative and informative displays that include sculptures, personal testimonies, photographs and news clippings from that time. After visiting the museum, walk across the square to see the tower-shaped monument to the Freedom Charter. Inside the tower the principles of the Freedom Charter are etched in brass. Around the square you’ll also spot other public artworks that pay tribute to the historic significance of this place.
Take a tour
One of the best ways to learn more about Kliptown’s unique history and culture is on a guided tour. Local guide Ntokozo Dube (or TK) of TKD Tours lives in the area and leads visitors on walking tours of Kliptown that take you beyond the most famous sights and into the community. On a walking tour you’ll have the chance to visit local NGOs and artisan workshops, talk to traditional healers and street food hawkers, see local historical landmarks such as the home of Charlotte Maxeke, the first black South African woman to receive a bachelor’s degree (in 1901), and get a sense of daily life in this unique neighbourhood. Lebo’s Soweto Backpackers and Bicycle Tours also organise special cycling tours of Kliptown.
Stay over at the Soweto Hotel
Stay over at the four star Soweto Hotel and Conference Centre that looks out over Kliptown’s Walter Sisulu Square. The hotel decor pays homage to the South African icons who spent time in Soweto with photographs of struggle leaders such as Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela hanging on the walls and the quirky rooms are decorated with artworks made by local craftspeople, while the blankets on the beds are made from traditional fabrics. Meals are served in the hotel’s Jazz Maniacs restaurant where you can also order the signature ‘‘kliptini’’ cocktail.