The conglomeration of townships known as Soweto has a history of more than a century, although its component parts have different historical timelines.

These diverse timelines reflect and represent the growth and expansion of this landscape over time. Consequently, there are different views about when Soweto was founded.

Soweto, the name and township, is widely known and identifiable, partly as a result of the leading role the sprawling township played in the student uprising that broke out in 1976 and as part of the township struggles across the country. It has over the years been a home to many household names in politics, education, sports, literature and the performing arts. But most importantly home to millions of ordinary people who have humanised it over the years and made it tick.

Its history is traced back to the mass migration to the goldfields to prospect for gold in the reef from 1886. This led to the rise of locations like “Kaffir” and “Coolie” Location and Brickfields in Newtown in the inner city. In the outskirts of the city Kliptown was established in 1903 at a distance estimated to be 25 kilometres south of the city centre. It is in this far-flung area that the further expansion of the townships in the south of Johannesburg would follow. During the interwar years, and prompted by the Native Urban Areas Act of 1923, new areas were included such as Pimville and Orlando Township. In the aftermath of the Sofasonke squatter movement, the white authorities massively expanded the township during the 1950s and 1960s, making Soweto the largest township in the country.

Despite its prominence, Soweto’s history has not been chronicled in depth. The existing scholarship of the township has been limited to a few salient themes. Understandably, there is a well-established body of scholarship on the student uprising of 1976 and liberation struggles (for example the work of Sifiso Mxolisi Ndlovu, Ali Hlongwane, Noor Nieftagodien, Monique Marks, Emily Bridger, Julian Brown).

Research on local areas has received scant attention (including that of Phil Bonner & Lauren Segal; Noor Nieftagodien & Sally Gaule), while there is a relatively small, but growing interest in biographies of political and cultural luminaries (see Chabani Manganye’s Exile and Homecoming: a biography of Es’kia Mphahlele; Ali Hlongwane, Lion of Azania: A Biography; Rolf Solberg, Bra Gib Father of South Africa’s Township Theatre and My Life Godfrey Moloi The Godfather of Soweto).

Adam Roberts and Joe Thloloe’s edited collection, Soweto Inside Out Stories about Africa’s famous township is probably the most wide-ranging non-academic book on SOWETO featuring 47 contributors.  Class in Soweto (Alexander, et al), produced important Sociological analyses of the meanings of class in the township but had little to say about its layered history, while Crankshaw and Bond’s studies have focused attention on key developmental aspects, particularly housing.