Soweto’s vibrancy and cultural diversity make it a top tourist attraction.

Andy Stead

Cow Africa branding agency recently filmed material for its client Vodacom in Soweto – South Africa’s largest and most famous township. Although there were a few hitches along the way, the experience was an enriching one for this Cape Town-based collective.

"We chose Soweto because even though we shot on location in Cape Town, Soweto is more representative of what we wanted to show. It’s just so visually rich," says Cow Africa’s account manager Saskia Redivo.

The establishment of Soweto is, like Johannesburg, linked directly to the discovery of gold in 1885. By 1889, Johannesburg was the second largest city after Cape Town in the region today known as South Africa.

More than half the population in Johannesburg at that time was black, living in multi-racial shanty towns near the gold mines.

But, as the mining industry developed, the need for cheap labour grew, as did the desire for tighter control over the growing number of black people in the rapidly expanding urban space.

To maintain a “respectable” distance between black and white settlers – and for authorities to exercise tighter control – many black labourers were moved to an area on the margins of Johannesburg called Klipspruit, which was subsequently renamed Pimville.

The Klipspruit settlement was the beginning of the massive township now known as Soweto.

During the 1930s demand for housing for the large number of black people who had moved to Johannesburg grew to such an extent that another new settlement was built in an area known as Orlando – now incorporated in present-day Soweto.

When Sophiatown was broken up in 1959, its black residents were moved to an area today known as Meadowlands, which is now also part of the massive township.

The name Soweto, an acronym for south western townships, was first used officially in 1963. Following the 1976 uprising in the township, during which pupils protested to being taught in the medium of Afrikaans, the name made headlines worldwide and continued to dominate news in the 1980s and 1990s during periods of political unrest until the first democratic elections in April 1994.

Top film location

Today, Soweto’s vibrancy and cultural diversity makes it a top tourist attraction and an ideal place to dine out, especially on Vilakazi Street. One of South Africa's most famous streets, Vilakazi is the only one in the world to have been home to two Nobel peace prize winners, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and former South African president Nelson Mandela.

Today’s vibey Vilakazi Street precinct is filled with restaurants, public art displays and memorials paying tribute to its unique history.

Soweto has also served as the backdrop for many film and television productions. Most recently, it was used as the authentic location for scenes in the Darrell Roodt feature Winnie starring Jennifer Hudson and Terrance Howard, scheduled for release in 2011.

Despite this, Cow Africa's shoot in Soweto didn’t go quite as planned.

“It rained during part of the day,” says Redivo. “We shot on four different locations, and had to travel between them, with each location being a bit further away than anticipated. We ended up moving the final location, which was not scheduled for Soweto, into Soweto because we would have run out of time otherwise.”

With the exception of the weather, the shoot was a success overall. “I contacted the Gauteng Film Commission a few days prior to the shoot,” says Redivo.

“Unfortunately the usual contact person was on leave, but when I phoned the office, I was put though to someone who could help, and they were very useful in sorting out the permit. The Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department were also very quick in faxing the forms that we had to sign.”

Standout work

UK-based design and communications company Different Kettle of Fish, trading as Cow Africa, calls itself an “ideas business” specialising in digital, activation and public relations.

Cow Africa opened its doors in London in 2000 and in Cape Town in 2006. It says its aim has always been to “create standout work”.

Although Cape Town-based, Cow Africa works with a variety of clients all over South Africa. “We work with Unilever in Durban, and in Johannesburg our main clients are Momentum and Vodacom,” Redivo says.