We returned to Johannesburg from our final adventure at Victoria Falls and readied ourselves for the long, long trip home. Since flights from South Africa to the US typically leave at night, our group leaders planned a bus tour that would keep us interested and happy until it was time to drive to the airport. Our tour leaders created our itinerary and have lead groups to South Africa for six years. Except for our arrival city Capetown, our itinerary studiously avoided large urban areas. Even In Capetown, a city where we felt very comfortable and at home, we were cautioned not to walk around after dark. Our leaders told us frightening stories about their initial research trip, it was clear that they had not felt comfortable with all the stories about crime that locals had told them in their initial exploration of South Africa. However, we all had to fly home from Johannesburg, the largest city in the country, and we had a day to fill.
We drove to the Cullinan Diamond mine,the spot where the first diamond was found in South Africa. The diamonds were created in volcanic activity eons ago and such deposits are located all over southern Africa. At Cullinan they are sprinkled in unstable soil called kimberlite that is easily disturbed by water and water is used to separate the soil from the good stuff. A small boy found the first Cullinan diamond - about the size of your fist - when he was out playing in the dirt. He gave it to his mom who passed it on to someone who recognized its true value and the digging began. Only about 20% of the diamonds found here are of jewelry quality and initially the rest were discarded in the tailings. Since the pit has gotten so large and the digging has gone so deep, the whole operation has gotten more expensive and to recoup costs, the mining company is going through the tailings, recovering many industrial grade diamonds that were not appreciated by their first finders. We were told that this sort of mining is much safer than mining for other minerals such as coal, and I was glad to hear that women are being included in the training and recruiting these days.
Then we returned to Johannesburg, a city also created by mining - gold in this case. If you are old enough to remember the decay of many urban centers in America by white flight to the suburbs, you will feel familiar with what has happened to Johannesburg. By 1992 it was clear that the old apartheid regime was on its last legs, and whites began to flee the city. People with less skills and economic wherewithal moved in. Today Johannesburg suffers from 60% unemployment and many illegal aliens from neighboring countries where conditions are even worse. We drove through a nice neighborhood where we saw Nelson Mandela's home. In the old days these homes were surrounded by walls built for privacy, but today the walls are topped with razor wire and security cameras. A few blocks later and we were in an area advertising lap dancing, frequented by prostitutes and drug dealers. Crumbling buildings with broken windows were everywhere. In central Joburg we saw beautiful hotels shuttered and closed. Our guide said that as tour operators stopped booking tourists downtown due to crime concerns, they went out of business. We stopped at a large, modern mall and got out to ride to the top of the Africa Tower, the tallest building in Africa. The mall was busy with those locals who were fortunate enough to have the income to shop there. The view we saw from fifty stories above the city showed us a city that we could have seen in the US, and we spotted a political protest going on near a government building. I think some people in our group couldn't wait to get out of central Joburg, but our guide pointed to the apartment building where he lived. He had spent his youth in Soweto and was justly proud of the economic progress he has made. We have watched dramatic urban renewal in downtown Chicago and Harlem in New York City. I hope that with skilled leadership, Johannesburg can also step back from the brink and recover its status as a world class city.