Johannesburg has a bad reputation. After the end of apartheid, the crime rate rose dramatically and the city began to be known as the world's crime capital. It's dark personality as an impoverished and lawless place, where walking on the street can entail safety concerns and where mugging and carjacking are real dangers, is often the first thing that come up in conversation with someone who has just visited or is planning a visit. Consequently some visitors get no further than the airport.
But Johannesburg is also the big, beating heart of South Africa and it is here, or around here, where much of the country's tumultuous history unfolded. That was reason enough in our books to visit. Also on our earlier trip to the country two decades ago, we had made a few trips to the "big bad city" (yes, it had that reputation even then), but this time we wanted to stay here and feel its rhythms.
Getting from Pretoria to Johannesburg was a breeze. After we returned the rental car we had taken to Swaziland, we managed to snag a free drop-off (sometimes you just have to ask) at the Pretoria Gautrain station. Gautrain is a slick, well run, rapid transit railway system that connects Jo'burg, Pretoria and OR Tambo International Airport. The first phase from Jo'burg to the airport was inaugurated in 2010, in time for the Football World Cup, and the route has since been extended. The 54 km distance between Pretoria and Jo'burg is traversed in less than 30 minutes and it is an excellent alternative to being stuck in traffic on one of South Africa's busiest roads.
We chose a backpacker hostel slightly away from the CBD in the Observatory area. We had been cautioned about staying in the city center, and besides there are few, if any, lodging options in the downtown area that are still functioning. Public transport isn't the city's strong suit and the only alternative to taking a taxi is to use the unofficial public transit system - the minibus taxi. Used primarily by those who don't have a car, mostly non-whites, they are an affordable way to get around from almost any point in the city to any other. With several criss-crossing routes it can be quite confusing, but there are a few useful hand signals that we learned quickly. A forefinger pointing straight up means you want to go downtown, so if the minibus is headed in that direction, it will stop to pick you up.
Getting off at the final stop, we strolled around the downtown blocks taking in the atmosphere. While the once grand buildings in the center of town looked a little rundown, the streets were humming with people going around their daily business. We made a beeline to Newtown's cultural precinct which is centered around Mary Fitzgerald Square. At the heart of it is Museum Africa, a cultural history museum that tells the history of various African cultures. While the overall presentation seemed to lack a coherent theme and sections seemed somewhat disjointed, there were some interesting exhibits. One exhibit called Cartoons in Context takes you on an journey through South African history through historical cartoons contextualized with accompanying text and images. Another well presented exhibit, Gandhi's Johannesburg : The birthplace of Satyagraha, shows the buildings and places associated with Mahatma Gandhi and his struggle against discrimination, and encourages visitors to visit these sites.
Gandhi came to South Africa in 1893 to work as a lawyer and lived in Johannesburg from 1904 to 1913, then a young mining town. Here he established a prosperous law practice, though his legal work was soon overtaken by his political activism in support of Indian rights. During that decade, he made the streets and suburbs of the city his own.
The exhibits trace the events in the city and the genesis of the philosophy of Satyagraha or passive resistance that Gandhi formulated. There are great photos of the young Gandhi at the Tolstoy Farm, an experimental communal settlement. It was to be a base of Transvaal Satyagrahis who could not earn a living because of their part in the struggle. The emphasis was on simple, communal living based on the principles of self-reliance, frugality and the agreement to work for the common good. While every school-going child in India has learned about Gandhi's early beginnings in South Africa and specifically the incident where he was thrown out of a train in Pietermaritzburg, the exhibits brought to life the extent of his involvement in political activism during his time in Johannesburg and the sacrifices he made in those early days.
Within walking distance from the museum is the Nelson Mandela bridge, the largest cable-stayed bridge in South Africa that links Braamfontein with Newtown. It was completed in 2003 and adds a little something to the city's skyline. Our walk back after viewing the bridge was accompanied by a slight drizzle that threatened to turn into rain, so we lengthened our stride as we made our way to the Bree Street taxi rank. A vast two-story underground minibus terminus, it is a confusing array of minibus taxis leaving for every conceivable destination in and around Jo'burg. As we waited for our minibus to fill up, we had an opportunity to observe a slice of life in the big city, the universal commotion that forms a backdrop of bus stations around the world.
Next morning, for a birds-eye view of the city, we went up to the observation deck on the 50th floor of Carlton Center Tower. When the construction of the building was completed in 1973, it held the distinction of being the tallest in the southern hemisphere. From the top, one gets a panoramic view of the streets and office towers of the CBD and the landscape beyond. While the view of the skyline from the top gives you an impression of opulence, it is clear that all is not well with the city. What was once the economic and political center of power for the apartheid regime is currently one of South Africa's poorest areas.
Twenty years ago, some of the office buildings and residential apartments here were some of the most expensive and exclusive addresses in the country. After 1994, when crime rate increased, residents and business owners fled downtown Johannesburg leaving for richer neighborhoods elsewhere. Complete buildings were abandoned and taken over by squatters, many of them poor families who moved into areas they were previously forbidden to live in due to segregated zoning. Now thousands of people live in cramped and horrendous conditions, many with no running water or electricity. Crime is rampant and we were warned against walking into any random building unless we knew exactly where we were going. In fact, just at the foot of the Carlton Tower is Carlton Hotel, once a prestigious five-star hotel that hosted the rich and famous visitors to the city. We learned that today it is completely empty and risky to enter.
While the city center remained a criminal no-go zone for years, there has been something of an urban revival going on recently. Business are being given incentives to return and are slowly trickling back. Going by the reversing trend in real-estate prices, our escort and guide was optimistic that in the not too distant future, the city will be back on its feet.
We then went on a driving tour of Soweto, a place that once stood for everything that was wrong about South Africa. Even those who know very little else about South Africa are often familiar with the word 'Soweto' and the township's significance in the struggle against apartheid. It lies just 15 kms outside Johannesburg and is the most populous black residential area in the country. But contrary to what many expect, it is not all shantytown. It is a city like any other, with it share of luxurious mansions and manicured lawns, streets occupied by mostly middle class professionals and poorer areas covered with tin shanties and piles of garbage on the streets.
Video : SOWETO-1
M had visited Soweto in 1994 and the striking difference between then and now is the vastly improved infrastructure and roads today. There are few unpaved roads today and the main thoroughfare has all the amenities of urban living including department stores and shopping centers. Soweto is now home to the biggest public hospital in the world. Unfortunately the citizens of the city also suffer from one of the world's highest HIV infection rate.
Video : SOWETO-2
While most parts of Soweto have made great strides in terms of development, we learned that new immigrants and refugees from other parts of Africa continue to stream in and establish new shantytowns because they cannot afford to live any where else. We stopped at a relatively new shantytown that sprung up after the fighting between the ANC and the Inkatha party during 1994 election. Here we visited a small daycare that has been setup here to take care of little children while their parents go out to find work.
The highlight of the visit to Soweto is Vilakazi Street in Orlando West where two Nobel peace prize laureates once lived. The first, Rev Desmond Tutu still lives here, so you can only peek at his home from outside. Nelson Mandela's house, which he once shared with Winne, has been converted into Mandela Museum and has exhibits displaying family photographs, portraits and other memorabilia including the collection of honorary doctorates bestowed on him by universities and institutions around the world. Among the exhibits is a letter from the State of Michigan asking George Bush Sr. to apologize for the role the CIA played in Mandela's 1962 arrest. The apology never came. Just across the street from the museum is a restaurant still owned by Winnie Mandela named Mandela Family Restaurant!
Another essential stop in Soweto is the Hector Pieterson memorial museum that commemorates the role of the country's students in the struggle against apartheid. It is located close to the spot where Hector Pieterson, a 12-year old student was shot in 1976 when he took part in a mass protest against the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in township schools. The museum uses a lot of video clippings and photographs to bring alive the events of the era.
The photograph of Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying Pieterson's lifeless body in his arms while the boy's sister Antoinette runs besides them became an icon of the protest movement and galvanized a whole generation of students to take a stand against oppression. Among the various quotes that are displayed all over the museum, there is an interesting one attributed to Hector's sister Antoinette. While she is grateful that her brother memory was being honored, she feels there was nothing particularly heroic about her brother. There were many people who died that day and her brother was simply one them.
We spent the better part of an afternoon at the new Apartheid Museum, the first museum on apartheid in South Africa. It has become on of Johannesburg's leading attractions for tourists and residents alike. With its large blown up photographs, metal cages, newspaper clippings, artifacts, and monitors replaying scenes from South Africa prior to 1994, it takes the visitor on a powerful emotional journey into the country's past. Even the entrance to the museum plays a part in invoking what the past was like. Tickets are printed on small credit-card size paper and carry a sign saying White or Non-White. Depending on what you get, you use a different entrance and pass through a different turnstile (though both sets eventually reunite down the hall). The rest of the museum is equally graphic - dangling nooses representing political prisoners hanged during apartheid, a cage full of weapons used by security forces to enforce the system and so on.
We also got an opportunity to meet with an old friend of ours with whom we had spent a lot of time in South Africa in 1994. Andrew (we mentioned him earlier in our Okovango Delta blog post) had since relocated to Johannesburg from Pretoria. It was just like old times for the couple of hours we spent together after a gap of 19 years.
Google Maps Link
A fitting place to end your travels - one of the great cities of the world. Yes, there is a fair bit of crime and danger, but surprisingly you don't really feel unsafe there. Huge historical connections to India as you noted. Its a city that's changing in jerky unexpected ways - the "migrations" after the end of apartheid, the delineation of go and no go zones, the transformation of Soweto, but also the regeneration of hope for the future. From, on Apr 14, 2013 at 07:03AM
We landed on this page as today evening I happened to introduce you (and your passion for travel all around the world) to my daughter(s) - one in fourth std and the other one is in second std.
This blog (and about Johannesberg's history and details) evoked so much curiosity and interest in them that they kept me reading every sentence in this blog, asked so many questions, each answer of mine triggering more questions in the quest for knowledge / city / everything around it. Kids were completely engrossed into this.
Honestly, their eyes are closing (time is 11.30pm; usual sleep time is 9pm) but they were unable to move away from the system and thirst isn't fully filled. Elder one finally said "Dad, let's keep this as-is and just minute so that we don't lose it and we come back tommorrow again!".
Thanks for the blog - it's another great place (the blog, I mean) for us to wander / travel / tour around and another great topic for us to engage in lot more interesting conversations - sure she will take me back to your blog tommorrow and more and more. From , on Dec 18, 2013 at 06:18PM
@Sridhar - Delighted to hear that your daughters enjoyed going through the blog. With such naturally inquisitive minds (and with a father who takes the time and effort to satisfy their every curiosity), I am sure they are going to be among the better informed citizens of the world. Kudos to them! From, on Dec 19, 2013 at 05:24AM