Johannesburg is worth so much more than a transit lounge wait at the airport, in order to make a quick getaway to your safari lodge, or onward journey to the Garden Route.
Although the city has seen its fair share of turmoil and unrest, not least of which during the days of Apartheid, it’s making a steady and determined recovery in order to warrant more than a cursory look when you next visit South Africa.
There are an increasing number of acceptable boutique hotels in and around the city that enable you to escape the hubbub of city life and immerse yourself in verdant gardens and tranquility when you’ve finished touring.
We review hotels elsewhere but this review is for those who want to know more about Johannesburg itself. Its turbulent history gives a great platform from which to travel, learn and understand the evolution of the nation as a whole.
Our pre-booked driver arrives on time and we embark on an highly informative and enlightening tour of the city that kicks off in Houghton, outside a couple of Nelson Mandela’s homes – one before he became president, the other after he stood down and where small flower beds carry hand painted stones with tributes and notes that still forlornly wish for his recovery.
We drive past the substantial grounds of St John’s private school and on into Upper Houghton where the great and the good live, overlooking the green vista of sprawling Johannesburg that now extends to the new commercial centre of Sandton.
Cheek by jowl with this most affluent of areas is Highbrow which until recently was to be avoided at all costs but is now cleaner version of itself with much of the vagrant crime cleaned away and buildings now being refurbished and re-glazed!
Shortly after we’re dropped at the foot of the ‘Freedom Steps’ (made from bricks of the demolished ‘awaiting trial’ cell blocks) and make our way up them to the Constitutional Court building that was appropriately constructed adjacent to the old fort and prison where so many injustices were imposed on a hapless black population. We enter through enormous doors that depict the 27 bills of rights and into an atrium area that still uses part of the old prison cells and infrastructure, with the Portuguese text sign reading ‘The struggle continues’ glowing in bright neon. The main courtroom itself has the judges’ heads at eye level with the windows that are themselves level with the feet of passers-by outside, underlining that the judges serve the will of the people. Numerous works of art depict aspects of the struggle and one of the black granite plaques starkly reminds you of the 9,377 days that Mandela spent incarcerated in misery.
On past Mandela and O.R. Tambo’s legal practice offices and the infamous police headquarters where many a black person met their deaths by ‘falling’ from the roof and we arrive at the Apartheid Museum. Our guide hands Cherrie her entrance ticket for ‘Whites only’ and mine for ‘Blacks only’ and we enter by different doors in recognition of the segregation that prevailed at every level in society for nearly fifty years from 1948 throughout colonial Africa.
The museum is far too extensive to cover even briefly here and our hour and a half simply scratches the surface of the stories and exhibits that keep us both mesmerised and deeply uncomfortable at man’s inhumanity to man. Certainly, you’ll need to allow plenty of time if this aspect of history holds any appeal to you and we guarantee that you’ll spend far longer within its walls than you could ever anticipate.
Fitting, therefore, that our next visit, which passes the old goldmine workings whose mountains of waste and skeletal towers still scar the city landscape, together with their barrack-like accommodation, is to Soweto.
It seems obvious now we’ve been told but Soweto stands for the South-Western Townships. Far from being a single township, Soweto is a huge collection of accommodation that has the same hierarchy of demographics within it as you would expect anywhere else. Acres of tin sheds of the poorest dwellers smother the landscape, whilst increasingly affluent versions of these sheds evolve into brick built homes and then onto the plush ‘mansions’ of those who made good but elected to stay among their kin.
There’s a huge initiative to re-house the shed dwellers into free brick-built accommodation with free water and electricity. As with all human nature there are attempts to circumnavigate the system with sheds being built alongside the new buildings so that the original owners can sub-let to new inductions of dwellers and attempts by the government to ask for a nominal payment for entry to the new buildings has left many of them empty.
Nevertheless Soweto encapsulates much of South Africa’s human history, from the struggle for education, the riots of the seventies, turbulence, persecution, torture and eventual liberation that will keep the most hard hearted enthralled by its story.
We visit a school in the Kliptown community and a restaurant that whilst ‘sanitised’ for tourist consumption nevertheless gives adequate and colourful insight into township dwelling and the recovery that is well under way.
The school provides sponsored education for those kids who demonstrate a real will to succeed and the role of honour photographs testify to the many achievements of both the school and the students they’ve helped into society. Our day tour has been one of the most moving and informative that we’ve ‘enjoyed’ anywhere.
What you’ve read may not immediately push Johannesburg to the top of your travel plans but it would be a mistake to miss it off completly.
We found our stay in the city uplifting, educational and informative – not something we can always say of our travels – and it certainty puts all of our more hedonistic pursuits into sharp perspective.
An hour’s drive away is Pretoria, administrative and university capital of South Africa – the Jacaranda city – because of its wide tree lined boulevards. Its here that you can join the luxurious Rovos Rail trains to whisk you in comfort and opulence to all parts of the continent if you’ve really had enough of the history of social unrest to last you for a lifetime!
Why not spend a couple of days in Johannesburg when we arrange your next holiday to South Africa? You won’t regret the insight it gives you into this fantastic nation.
Why not download the TLC World guide brochure or give us a call today on 01202 030443, or simply click ‘enquire’ to submit your own personal itinerary request