South Africa has many attractions – wildlife, beaches, vineyards, gardens – and to reach them most international visitors will fly into Johannesburg and connect directly to their final destination. However, on this trip to the north-eastern game reserves we decided to stay for a few days in Johannesburg, South Africa’s most populous city. Although not a capital city, Johannesburg is a major financial centre and the seat of the Constitutional Court.
First up, let’s get the safety issue out of the way. Johannesburg has a reputation as an extremely dangerous city and is generally regarded as a place you transit through on the way to somewhere else. There is some truth in the reputation but if you are an experienced traveller you will probably find Johannesburg no more dangerous than many other cities in the world. In fact there are those in South Africa who swear that Cape Town is far more dangerous, and that’s a city where I have never given personal safety a second thought.
Crime and safety throughout South Africa as a whole are complex issues closely linked to the country’s sorry history of apartheid and inequality. Johannesburg is still suffering from the aftermath of the country’s fight against racial discrimination. It was here in the 1940s where two giants of the anti-apartheid struggle, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, began their long fight for equality and democracy in South Africa.
Perhaps Johannesburg is improving. Both Lonely Planet and Rough Guides talk it up, the former describing “… the buzz of a city undergoing an incredible rebirth.” Rough Guides goes even further, saying: “South Africa’s most diverse, progressive and energetic city, the country’s best showcase for activism and optimism. There’s really nowhere better if you want to see the face of modern South Africa and get a sense of how far the nation’s come and where it’s going next.”
Well, maybe, but as with many other cities around the world, the solution to the safety issue is to avoid certain areas and to keep your wits about you. In particular it’s best not to walk around downtown unescorted, and steer clear of the neighbourhood of Hillbrow altogether. Care also needs to be taken when visiting the townships, of which Soweto is the largest and most famous.
Suburbs to the north of the city are the best places for tourists to stay and are where many expats live. These include Sandton, Melrose and West Cliff, which is near the Johannesburg Zoo.
On this trip we stayed at the Garden Court Sandton City (below), a large modern hotel close to Sandton Mall and adjacent to Nelson Mandela Square.
If you just want to stay overnight there are some decent hotels close to OR Tambo International Airport including the delightful Safari Club at Kempton Park, just four miles from the airport and with a convenient shuttle service.
Johannesburg, usually abbreviated in conversation and informal writing to Joburg, was founded in 1886, following the discovery of gold. Today Johannesburg is home to around seven million of South Africa’s 60 million people. The city is located in Gauteng – the smallest of the nine South African provinces but the largest supporter of South Africa’s GDP, contributing around 40 per cent.
While staying at Sandton City we took the opportunity to stroll around Nelson Mandela Square, right next door. The square is considered to be one of the most fashionable destinations in Johannesburg, offering more than 60 exclusive shops and boutiques, as well as fine dining experiences and pavement cafes.
It also has an impressive statue of the man it is named after. Standing six metres tall and weighing 2.5 tons, the bronze Nelson Mandela statue was unveiled on the occasion of the centre’s 10-year anniversary in March 2003. The unveiling also served as a celebration of 10 years of democracy in South Africa as well as the renaming of the location from Sandton Square to Nelson Mandela Square.
Johannesburg is a city of extraordinary contrasts and there is a surprising amount to see and do in the city. We hired a driver to take us around downtown, where we visited Constitution Hill, a living museum that tells the story of South Africa’s journey to democracy.
The site is a former prison and military fort that reflects South Africa’s turbulent past. Today, it is also home to the country’s Constitutional Court, which upholds the rights of all citizens.
The prison has probably interned more world-renowned men and women than any other in South Africa. Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Albertina Sisulu and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela all served time here in either the Old Fort, for white male prisoners (and Nelson Mandela who was considered too influential to be housed with blacks), the Women’s Jail, or Number Four for black prisoners. Gandhi was imprisoned for breaching laws that discriminated against Indians and violated their dignity and freedom, and because he refused to take out a registration certificate.
But the precinct also confined tens of thousands of ordinary people during its 100-year history: men and women of all races, creeds, ages and political agendas. It is said that the history of every South African lives here.
Constitution Hill conforms to the principle of preserving sites of atrocity for posterity, so that future generations can learn from the past.
We ascended a tall building for a bird’s eye view of the city. This was not a tourist building with observation deck and super-fast elevators, just a regular building but with not very high occupancy rates by the look of it. To get the view you simply alight at one of the upper floors and look out of the window. I’ve forgotten the building’s name, if indeed I ever knew it, but I’m pretty sure it was one of those in the picture above.
Then it was on to Soweto, an urban settlement or township south-west of Johannesburg, with a population of approximately 1.9 million. The name SOWETO is an acronym for South West Townships.
Soweto was created in the 1930s and became the largest black city in South Africa, but until 1976 its people were classified as temporary residents, serving as a workforce for Johannesburg. It experienced civil unrest during the apartheid regime and there were serious riots in 1976, sparked by a ruling that students there be taught in the Afrikaans language.
On 16 June of that year police used teargas and live ammunition to disperse demonstrators, killing at least 176 high-school students including 12-year-old Hector Pieterson, who became a symbol of youth resistance to apartheid. Reforms followed, but riots flared up again in 1985 and continued until the first multiracial elections were held in April 1994.
Incredibly, Soweto is a vibrant tourist hub today that offers unique sightseeing options in one of South Africa's oldest townships. What the people who actually live there think of it all I can’t imagine.
The shantytown parts are still there as well as more modern housing, but also sites such as Kliptown, the oldest residential district of Soweto established in 1891 and the place where the Freedom Charter was first adopted in 1955; the home of former President Nelson Mandela, the Hector Pieterson Memorial site, restaurants and shopping malls. It also boasts the largest hospital on the African continent – the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital – and claimed to be the third largest in the world, although I’m not sure how they measure these things.
A room in Nelson Mandela's former home.
The Hector Pieterson Memorial site.
Then there are the old and highly conspicuous cooling towers, built in 1951 to supplement the spray pond cooling system, which was running at capacity. The power station was finally decommissioned in 1998 and transformed into an entertainment and business centre in 2006. Once dull and grey, the Orlando Towers as they are now known are the biggest works of public art in Soweto. Colourfully painted, one serves as an advertising signboard while the other displays the largest mural painting in South Africa.
The towers now have a 100-metre-high suspension bridge between them, from where, apparently, both local and visiting thrill-seekers hurl themselves towards the ground in the most unappealing bungee jump I have ever seen.
Despite the optimism of Lonely Planet and Rough Guides I suspect that many travellers will still not view Johannesburg as a destination in its own right, but some may be persuaded to visit for a few days to see what all the fuss is about.
For my part, I was ready to move on to the wild animal kingdom, where it is probably safer than in the big cities. I shall write about game reserves next month.
Photos © Judy Barford