Paul & Rebecca's Travel Journal - A Brief Break travel blog

Non White Shop

Medicine Shop

Apartheid Museum

New Soccer Stadium

Newer Soweto Homes

New Soweto Shops

A Soweto Institution

Co-Op Home

Paul and A Local Kid

Kids Playing Near the Water Tap

Our Hostess in Her House

Desolate Downtown Jo'Burg


We took a day tour of Johannesburg focusing on the Apartheid museum and a tour through the township of Soweto. We were picked up from our hostel and joined by a young German couple. The woman was a lawyer in Hamburg – we seem to keep running into other lawyers while travelling. Weird.

Our first stop was downtown Johannesburg, which was once considered the Boer Jerusalem. All the recent efforts to make the city a safer place have encouraged some new development and the return of residents and businesses, the place is still a ghost town compared to other cities of similar size. Although there are some nice buildings, including modern highrises and beautiful heritage buildings, most of the tenants left the downtown Jo’Burg for Pretoria and the squatters moved in. Conservative estimates put the number of squatters at 2 million. Once beautiful buildings are now in a state of disrepair and filled with disadvantaged, impoverished squatters living in difficult conditions.

But it seems like progress is being made. The government has given building owners a timeline to evict all the squatters or the government will take ownership of the building. The area used to be too dangerous for South Africa’s white population; however, the day we visited there seemed to be many people walking around downtown.

Our guide joked that he used to play a game called “Spot the White Man” in the downtown area and more often than not one couldn’t spot a single one. Despite the progress, he warned us never to use the subway system.

Johannesburg is a gold town. Unlike most other major cities, Jo’Burg is not located next to a major river or body of water. It was more important to be located next to the mines. There are still thousands of miles worth of tunnels, caverns and mine shafts under the city. During the construction of a big bank tower, construction workers uncovered a mineshaft with a bag of large gold nuggets. They still haven’t been able to find the owner of the shaft and the gold remains unclaimed. Big artificial hills made from all the earth taken from the tunnels and left over from the mining process are found all over the city. Recent technologies have been able to salvage some of the gold that had been missed by the limited machines of that era, so there is still recovery mining being done on the golden dirt mountains scattered around the city.

Continuing through downtown we drove to an old commercial area dating back to the Apartheid era. During apartheid the black and coloured population were restricted to shopping in certain area and in designated shops. Although they weren’t necessarily barred from shopping in these areas, the white population wouldn’t have been seen there. We stopped at a traditional medicine store that still had the 50 year old sign above identifying it as a ‘Non-White Shop’.

This was essentially a traditional medicine pharmacy. The healers, shaman or medicine men come here to get their herbs and the magical stuff. The shop was dark and had a pretty funky smell.

It was a strange store – we were greeted by a hollowed out, open-chested monkey carcass. Drums, beads and swords were piled everywhere. The roof held a bunch of other animal products – skins, horns, antlers, hooves, and skulls – that are used for various ceremonies. People were buying strange powders and elixirs from behind the front counter. We met with the store manager who reassured us that the animal parts were not acquired through illegal methods and explained the continued use of traditional medicines in the modern society. The traditional healers and medicine still have a prominent place in South African culture, both as an alternative and as a compliment to modern, Western medicine.

We drove on through the rich residential part of Johannesburg. There were some massive, modern beautiful houses. We saw yards with tennis courts, large pools, and elaborate gardens. We were impressed. Almost every house had a little guard station with armed guards, large fences and complex alarm systems protecting the property – a clear indicator that crime might be a small problem in this city. We even saw Nelson Mandela’s current home - a particularly massive, luxurious home with guards outside. No sign of the iconic man, unfortunately. He seems to be doing pretty well for himself, though – his home, which also serves as the headquarters of his foundation, is very impressive. Good for him; he definitely deserves it.

We continued on to a freeway that provided some views of the downtown. We drove by the notorious Police Tower. If you were a freedom fighter, an anti-apartheid activist, or even a supporter, the Police Tower was not where you wanted to end up. The top two floors housed the holding and interrogation cells and only the most fortunate survived.

We drove to a big casino and amusement park where, surprisingly, the Apartheid Museum is also located.

It is like having a slavery museum inside Disneyland. The museum was excellent. It was very moving and emotional, as well as informative and educational. We were given new identities when we bought our tickets and were classified as whites, blacks or coloureds. We learned about the history of racial classification in South Africa and the rise of the Apartheid regime through various Laws, statutes and regulations that were enacted and passed through the South African legislature. The museum was filled with large photographs, short films and interactive displays. There was even one of the giant old armoured trucks that used to patrol the townships. The museum was organized chronologically and the last displays celebrated the abolition of apartheid, the first free elections in the country’s history, and the election of Nelson Mandela as president. It was an excellent museum, and definitely a ‘must see’ when in Johannesburg or Pretoria.

We were joined by three new passengers and after a quick lunch at the museum café, we set out for a tour of the Soweto township. Soweto is the most famous of South Africa’s townships; it was ground zero for the anti-apartheid struggle. Unofficial estimates number its citizens at 4 million. While the townships have always been associated with poverty, Soweto is experiencing and benefitting from a rising number of wealthy inhabitants. One of the richest local inhabitants is the man who opened the first local grocery store.

He has turned it into a retail empire and is about to open a large shopping mall in the area. There is a local soccer team, the Orlando Pirates. The owner leaves in a giant brick house close to the stadium. Houses are rebuilt bigger and more extravagant with luxury cars in the driveways. Prevented from owning businesses during the apartheid regime, residents have started opening shops of all types from their front lawns, sometimes from old railway or shipping containers.

But parts of Soweto haven’t changed at all. There are still some very poor parts, and some very dangerous parts.

This is the most visited township in South Africa and even is home to a few backpacker hostels, but there are still roads and neighbourhoods that were unsafe for us to travel through. We saw the small, three-room concrete houses that have, over time, replaced the tin metal shacks. Now, the home owners rent out little metal shacks in their backyards to migrant families who pour into the Johannesburg looking for work.

Soweto was a hotbed of anti-apartheid activism.

Both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have homes in Soweto. On June 16, 1976 the students of Soweto protested against the mandatory use of Afrikaans in schools. We followed their route down the main roads to spot where the South African police first opened fire on the children. That on event resulted in massive nationwide demonstrations, strikes, mass arrests and riots that lasted for more than a year and took more than 1000 lives. It also increased international condemnation against the Apartheid regime. We went to the museum commemorating the students’ protests. It was an excellent museum.

We drove past Winnie Mandela’s home, which is a massive home apparently built with questionable funds. We drove to a little cooperative community of shacks. It was almost like an organized shantytown.

Everyone lived in little shacks of corrugated tin. The government installed portable bathrooms, but has not come back to empty them so the residents are a little concerned. Residents got their water from communal taps and used bottled gas to cook. Little kids ran around barefoot asking us for money, and the adult residents gave us curious looks and smiles. A local guide showed us around and explained how residents went about their daily lives. Most residents of this little shantytown are migrant workers who stay in the homes rent free until they can move up to better homes. We were able to have a nice visit in one lady’s little room home.

We parked across the river from some hostel housing the single men. This tenements are so dangerous that the police won’t go there without backup. The government is trying to turn it into family housing, but most of these migrant workers have more than one family, so it is a little complicated.

We drove by the new soccer stadium, still under construction in preparation for the 2010 World Cup. We were told that it is based on the Xhosa clay pots. Overall, the town of Johannesburg and Soweto was excellent. It was a long day, but it was worth it. We felt like we got to see the highlights of the area, without the risk of staying in Johannesburg.



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