Before 1948 the area that is now Soweto consisted of shantytowns occupied by blacks from rural areas who came to work in the gold mines around Johannesburg. Demand for labor increased during World War II (1939-1945) and the black population grew rapidly, creating a severe shortage of black housing. To concentrate the growing black population in a segregated neighborhood, the government built tens of thousands of small, cheap houses after 1948, creating the South-Western Townships, or Soweto. The population continued to grow, spurred by the forced relocation of blacks from other areas of metropolitan Johannesburg, migration from rural areas, and natural increase.
Soweto came to the forefront of the antiapartheid struggle in 1976, when a spontaneous and predominantly youthful uprising was sparked by the government’s decision to impose Afrikaans, in place of English, as the language of instruction for half the subjects in township schools. Afrikaans was the primary language of Afrikaners, the white minority who controlled South Africa and had imposed the system of apartheid. The riots subsequently spread to other townships—at least 575 people were killed, almost half of them in Soweto alone. A period of prolonged, politically inspired violence in the townships between 1984 and 1986 was accompanied by an almost total school and rent boycott in Soweto. These events strengthened the resolve of black youths and, by focusing international attention on South Africa, greatly increased pressure on the national government to dismantle apartheid. The rent boycott ended in 1990 only when the government wrote off large amounts of unpaid rent owed by Sowetans.
The 1991 census recorded a population of 596,632 in Soweto, but the actual population is probably about 2 million. Apartheid policies sought to minimize the black population in and around South African cities and regarded blacks as only temporary urban residents. This led to deliberate reductions in Soweto’s housing construction rates in the 1960s and 1970s, resulting in today’s acute housing shortages and overcrowding.
The government also attempted to segregate blacks of different ethnic groups from one another through zoning. With the lifting of apartheid, nearly all segregation ended, except in hostels.
Today Soweto has one of the most ethnically mixed populations in South Africa, with large numbers of Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, and Sotho people, as well as smaller numbers of many other black ethnic groups. Most Sowetans speak some English and Afrikaans as well as their home languages and often one or more other African languages. English is widely used at major gatherings. Many residents are Christians or practice a combination of Christian denominations and traditional African religions.
Soweto, like other black townships, suffered from the inferior "Bantu education" offered blacks under apartheid. School boycotts in Soweto played a significant part in the struggle against apartheid but have left a generation of blacks lacking a secondary education. High schools are overcrowded and often in poor physical condition; few have science laboratories, libraries, or playing fields. There is also a shortage of textbooks, and many teachers are poorly qualified. Since the dismantling of apartheid a small number of black children have been bussed to formerly all-white schools outside of Soweto. Soweto has the largest of the ten Vista University campuses, a township university system founded in the early 1980s.
Poverty, high unemployment, and lack of education have contributed to high rates of crime and violence in Soweto. During the apartheid years the police tended to pursue only crimes that concerned whites, leaving Soweto poorly policed most of the time.
Soweto has made important contributions to the development of new styles of South African jazz, dance, and pop music. In what are called township songs, traditional Zulu and Sotho music meshes with African American rhythm and bluees, jazz, and blues to produce distinctive styles. Many of these songs are protest songs against the former system of apartheid.