Evidence of Apartheid South Africa can still be seen in the townships in South Africa. Today, it is easy to visit one of these townships to learn more about South Africa’s history and the people who live in these areas. In this article, we consider what a township is, look at the largest townships in South Africa and how you can visit these townships.
What Is a Township?
In South Africa, the township historically referred to an area near a city that was designated for non-white (blacks, coloureds and Indians) people to live during Apartheid. Apartheid lasted from 1948 to the early 1990s. During Apartheid, these non-white people were not allowed to live in the cities but had to live in these designated areas outside the cities according to the Group Areas Act.
You can find townships around the larger South African cities, such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, Pretoria, East London, Bloemfontein and Port Elizabeth. Larger townships also exist in the Vaal Triangle and Pietersburg, but many small towns in South Africa also have townships.
Despite Apartheid ending in the early 1990s, townships still exist in South Africa. In fact, there are many of these townships scattered throughout South Africa’s provinces.
According to the World Bank, almost half of South Africa’s population lives in townships.
These townships are still underdeveloped and subject to racial segregation with limited housing, basic infrastructure and essential services.
When you visit a township, sometimes called an informal settlement or location, you will see people live in accommodation, ranging from large, permanent houses to small temporary shacks. Since the end of Apartheid, service delivery to these areas has improved, and the residents are wealthier, but there is still a long way to go before these areas, and people will have a decent standard of living.
Largest Townships in South Africa
The following is a map of the largest townships in South Africa.
The name Soweto is the abbreviated version of “South Western Townships.” It is one of the most famous townships in South Africa, and you can find it on the southwestern side of Johannesburg in the Gauteng Province.
Soweto was established during Apartheid as an area for black South Africans to live. It is one of the largest townships in South Africa and covers an area of 200.03 square kilometres. More than two million people live in Soweto. This township has a combination of developed suburbs and informal settlements.
Soweto played a pivotal role in ending Apartheid. One of the most famous struggles against Apartheid was the 1976 Soweto Uprising. The Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto is worth visiting to learn more about this and other events from the apartheid era.
Another popular attraction in Soweto is the Soweto Towers, where visitors can bungee jump for an exhilarating experience. Soweto is also the only city in the world where two Nobel Prize Winners lived on the same street. You can visit the Nelson Mandela House and Desmond Tutu House on Vilakazi Street in Soweto.
Here are tour options for visiting Soweto:
- Soweto Township Tour
- Johannesburg and Soweto: Half Day Tour
- Soweto: Guided Bicycle Tour with Lunch
- Soweto: Bike Tour with a Local Tour Guide
- Our Soweto
Botshabelo is the largest township in the Free State Province of South Africa.
Its name means “a place of refuge.”
The apartheid government established the township in 1979 for blacks. It covers an area of 150.98 square kilometres and has a population of over a million people.
The township is on the east of Bloemfontein or Mangaung.
Read more about the attractions of the Free State Province.
Tembisa is one of the largest townships in South Africa. Thembisa is near Kempton Park, Johannesburg, in South Africa’s Gauteng Province. It covers 42.80 square kilometres. More than 400,000 local people live here.
Thembisa’s name is from the Zulu word for “promise.” It was established during the 1950s for black South Africans.
When you visit Thembisa, visit the Winnie Mandela Community Centre.
Another of the largest townships in South Africa is Katlehong. It covers 55.36 square kilometres and has over 407,000 local residents.
Katlehong is another of the townships established during Apartheid. It is located near the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality in Gauteng.
Katlehong has a diverse resident base with a strong sense of community. Despite the socio-economic challenges, there are busy markets and local restaurants here.
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The Umlazi township is located south of Durban. It covers 47.46 square kilometres with a population of more than 410 000 people.
The name comes from “umlaza”, the Zulu word for the sour acid from fermented or sour milk. Locals believe King Shaka refused to drink from the local river when he passed through this area because he said it tasted of “umlaza”.
Umlazi was also established for black residents during the apartheid regime. It has a deep cultural heritage with rich traditions. There are 26 sections in Umlazi with a combination of government-built homes and informal settlements.
There are many community projects in Umlazi aimed at addressing unemployment and poverty.
Read more about the attractions of the KwaZulu-Natal Province.
Soshanguve is another of the largest townships in South Africa. It is located north of Pretoria.
This township’s name is an acronym for Sotho, Shangaan, Nguni and Venda, reflecting the multi-ethnic composition of its population.
It covers 126.77 square kilometres with thousands of African people as residents.
It was initially established for black residents during the apartheid era, but the composition of the residents has diversified over time.
This township has many amenities for its residents, including shopping centres, clinics and schools. Various community initiatives focus on improving residents’ economic challenges because of unemployment, crime and poverty.
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Khayelitsha is a township near the Cape Flats of Cape Town. It is a large township with more than 400 000 residents. Many believe that Khayelitsha is the largest and fastest-growing of South Africa’s townships.
The name Khayelitsha can be translated from Xhosa to English as New Home.
The township covers 38.71 square kilometres. Because of its small size and large population, it is one of the most densely populated townships in South Africa.
Khayelitsha was established during Apartheid for black South Africans.
Some of the biggest challenges faced in Khayelitsha are inadequate housing, high unemployment rates and limited resources.
Here are tours to visit Khayelitsha:
- Cape Town Township Private Tour
- Cape Town Khayelitsha Township Tour
- From Cape Town: Guided Day Trip Around Local Townships
- Cape Town: Half-Day Guided Township Tour
The Mamelodi township is located east of Pretoria. Its name can be translated from Sepedi to English as Mother of Melodies.
It was established during Apartheid for black residents after they were forcibly removed from their homes in the suburb of Lady Selbourne in Pretoria.
Some of the challenges residents face include high unemployment levels, inadequate basic infrastructure, and limited basic services.
Mamelodi covers 45.19 square kilometres. It has more than 330,000 residents.
It has a vibrant culture with many sports, music and arts activities that take place regularly. Mamelodi also has a variety of educational institutions and healthcare facilities.
Landmarks in Mamelodi include the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom Square. Solomon Mahlangu was a South African freedom fighter. He was a member of the African National Congress (ANC’s) militant section, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). He was hanged in 1979 after a murder conviction.
Mitchells Plain is another township outside of Cape Town. It is one of South Africa’s largest residential areas and consists of many smaller suburbs. You can find Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats between Muizenberg and Khayelitsha.
It was established during Apartheid as a residential area for coloured South Africans.
It covers an area of 43.76 square kilometres and has a population of more than 300,000.
Similar to other townships, Mitchell’s Plain’s challenges include crime, inadequate infrastructure and unemployment. Mitchells Plain is known for gangster and drug-related violence.
Mitchell’s Plain has a robust cultural heritage, and the community has started initiatives to address the challenges they are experiencing through education projects, community initiatives and sports programs.
Ibhayi is another of the largest townships in South Africa.
It covers 36.06 square kilometres and has a population of around 220,700.
Ibhaji is located near Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape Province. It is the largest township in the Eastern Cape Province.
The township played a critical role in colonial history and is an important industrial and cultural point.
Near Ibhayi, you can find beautiful beaches and historical attractions.
The community has initiated projects to address challenges such as unemployment and inequality. Various programs focusing on cultural events, sports, and art occur in Ibhayi.
To visit a nearby township in Port Elizabeth, check out this tour of Walmer Township.
Here are the Eastern Cape’s attractions.
Sebokeng is another large township in South Africa.
It is located in the Gauteng Province near Vanderbijlpark in the Vaal Triangle area of South Africa.
Sebokeng was established during Apartheid for black residents. During its history, violent clashes between residents and the police force occurred when residents boycotted rent and service tariffs.
It has a size of 46.45 square kilometres.
Some of the main challenges facing residents include high levels of unemployment, limited basic services and a lack of basic infrastructure.
Another of South Africa’n’s townships is the Imizamo Yethu township in Cape Town.
This is an easy township to visit as it is on the hop-on hop-off bus route in Cape Town. The township is located near Hout Bay in Cape Town.
Take note, the water facilities here are limited. There is almost no sewerage system and few toilets.
Only a few streets have brick houses. Most local residents live in temporary housing, such as shipping containers or shacks. Even shops, churches and other services use these structures.
As with the other Cape Town townships, unemployment is one of the biggest challenges facing people here.
Find out more about the hop-on hop-off bus in Cape Town.
Langa is a township in Cape Town. The word Langa is Xhosa for “sun”.
South Africa’s oldest township was built before Apartheid in South Africa.
Langa was established because of South Africa’s 1923 Urban Areas Act (the “pass laws”). This Act forced black Africans to move to specially designated areas.
Here are some tours to visit Langa:
- Cape Town Township Tour Including Langa Township and Bo-Kaap
- Cape Town Township Private Tour
- Langa Township Half Day Tour
- Township Private Tour
- Township Eco Tour
- Full Day Township & Robben Island Heritage Tour
A tour of the Knysna Township is half a day long. Knysna is located in South Africa’s Garden Route.
During the tour, you will visit a local shop, a hair salon and a repair shop.
This is one of the neater townships in South Africa, as it is more organised than other townships.
The unemployment in this township is among the lowest in South Africa at around 20%, as many residents have started small businesses.
Most houses in this township are old, wooden structures without running water or electricity.
Although the government is building houses, the demand far outweighs the supply.
Locals must pay for electricity, but schools, hospitals and other social services are free.
Find out more details about The Original Knysna Township Tour.
Frequently Asked Questions About Townships in South Africa
Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about South Africa’s townships.
How Many Townships Are There in South Africa?
South Africa has more than five hundred (532) townships today. During Apartheid, these townships were created as separate areas for specific racial groups to live in, but now there are no laws dictating the races that can live in any area in South Africa.
What Are the Most Dangerous Townships in South Africa?
Some of the South African townships listed here regularly appear on the list of the most dangerous places in South Africa. The most dangerous townships appear to be Umlazi and Khayelitsha. Both of these townships have a high number of murders and rapes every year.
If you want to visit these townships, it is best to go on a tour or in a group when visiting.
What Is South Africa’s Oldest Township?
Langa is the oldest township in South Africa. The government established it in 1927. You can find Langa 12 kilometres from Cape Town.