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One Day in Johannesburg
When a lanky young man in Soweto, one of the most notorious townships in South Africa, approached me gesturing angrily, my mind went as blank as an unpainted canvas. First fear crept in. Then curiosity. Then, strangely enough, relief.
Not because it looked as if he wasn’t going to storm the van and slap the camera out of my hands after all, but because he was arguing in the first place. Part of me was arguing with myself.
This is an article about spending one day in Johannesburg – and if you’re travelling to South Africa let me just say it’s wild and fascinating and you won’t want to miss it.
It’s also a tale of my ignorance and embarrassment, and the only reason I’m telling it is to help you, in your most ignorant uninformed travel moments, know that you’re not the only one. Besides (she says hopefully), isn’t that why we travel? To become more aware?
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. Nelson Mandela
Enough philosophizing. Let’s get to my tale. My humiliation actually began few days earlier when I was looking around for things to do in Cape Town and someone mentioned Robben Island.
“I have no idea what Robben Island is,” I said, picturing for some reason a resort-type island with roller coasters and hot dog stands.
“It’s where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 17 years.”
Oomph. That was my heart falling down to the ground. How could I not know about Robben Island? That’s when I realized I needed to learn more, much more, about Nelson Mandela and apartheid.
Obviously one day in Johannesburg wasn’t going to do it, but Jo’burg, or Jozi, South Africa’s largest city and the pulse of the nation, seemed like a good place to start.
The City of Gold
I arrived in Johannesburg just before sundown. From my hotel room I looked out over the sprawl of the city, the sun reflecting off one fat cloud in a bright burst of gold.
It seemed fitting. Johannesburg began as a gold rush town and its fast-paced energy still glitters. Jo’burg is the financial centre of South Africa and a hub for both the gold and the diamond trade. There is money here. Big money. And poverty. I didn’t know what to expect.
Day tour of Johannesburg
In the morning I went down to the lobby for my day tour. To my surprise I was the only guest who climbed into the van.
One day in Johannesburg – Houghton and the last home of Nelson Mandela
My guide and driver was Themba, a smallish man who wore glasses and lived in Soweto. Our first stop was Houghton, a wealthy neighbourhood dripping with mansions, high walls, gardens and palatial estates. In Lower Houghton Themba pulled the van up to 49 Fourth Street, where Nelson Mandela moved not long after he was released from prison. It would be his final home.
“When Nelson Mandela moved to Houghton,” Themba said, “some people moved out because of fear, fear of the unknown. They thought Mandela would start a civil war. Only one house sent flowers when he moved in, the house across the street.”
The miracle, of course, is that civil war didn’t happen. Nelson Mandela pulled South Africa back from the brink of disaster and kept it together. Instead of vengeance, as so many expected, he sought reconciliation and peace.
I knew all this in abstract terms, but had never seen the fierce love so many South Africans have for Madiba, as he was sometimes called.
My first inkling had been back in Sun City, a two-hour drive from Johannesburg where I’d had dinner with a woman on the one-year anniversary of Mandela’s death. She told me she’d been taken to jail during apartheid for protesting, and that the authorities had attempted to release her because she was white, but she’d refused to go unless the black protesters were released, too.
Mandela changed that, she told me.
Mandela’s Houghton home isn’t accessible to the public, but nonetheless it’s become a grass roots shrine. Palm-sized stones painted with text and brightly-coloured images have been placed in planters by those wanting to pay respect.
I prowled around reading the messages and Themba pointed out a striped rock. “This stone tells it all, how Nelson Mandela felt,” he said, “like South Africa should be black and white, like a zebra.”
As we wound our way out of the flower-filled streets of Houghton I asked Themba about April 27th in 1994, Freedom Day, when the first democratic elections were held and Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa.
“There were tears of happiness on one side and tears of sadness to see the apartheid flag brought down,” he said, checking over his shoulder as he changed lanes.
The first thing I noticed as we neared Soweto was a pall of sienna-tinted dust rising up from the red African soil.
“Before you’d just see red dust – that’s how you could recognize Soweto,” Themba said. “Now we have street lights, university and tar roads. KFC. And a mall. Who would have thought we’d ever have these things in Soweto? Things changed in 94. Mandela changed it all.”
What is Soweto?
Soweto is short for South Western Townships. It started out as Klipspruit back in 1904 and was established to house migrant workers and labourers, mostly blacks working in the gold mines.
In the 50s when apartheid was in full force, more blacks from inner city areas of Johannesburg were relocated here, as central urban areas were reserved for whites only.
What to see in Soweto
We drove past Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s large house, protected behind high security walls: past corrugated tin shacks, lines of brightly-coloured laundry strung between them, and past children playing on the road.
There were homegrown businesses, the odd cage of chickens and homes owned by soccer stars and models, people who have chosen to stay in Soweto and make it a place to be, not just a place you have to be.
If you’re touring Soweto you’ll surely visit Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world that’s been home to two Nobel Prize winners Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela.
Mandela Family Museum
At the corner of Ngakane and Vilakazi is the Nelson Mandela House, the brick ‘matchbox’ home where Mandela lived before his imprisonment. Now the Mandela Family Museum, it’s had a tumultuous time, being petrol bombed more than once while Mandela was behind bars and his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, kept up the fight.
Nelson Mandela only stayed here for 11 days after his release from prison, and his relationship with Winnie soon crumbled, destroyed by their growing political differences as she kept fighting while he tried to carve out a path to peace.
“How was it that Nelson Mandela wasn’t forgotten when he was imprisoned for 27 years?” I asked Themba after he told me that images of Mandela had been banned, as had his writings.
“Because of Winnie,” he said. “She didn’t let people forget.”
Moema Street and the Youth Uprising
I stood on the corner of Vilakazi and Moema Streets where hundreds of demonstrating schoolchildren had been confronted by the police during South Africa’s Youth Uprising in 1976. The resulting death of 13-year old Hector Pieterson set off protests around the globe, becoming a symbol of brutality, injustice and the beginning of the end of apartheid.
My favourite part of Soweto was just rambling around in the van with Themba, taking in the scents and the markets stalls and street scenes so varied it was hard to believe Soweto wasn’t a thousand different cities.
“Is it all right to take pictures of people?” I asked. “I don’t want to be rude, or to intrude …”
But of course I did want to intrude. I wanted to document everything. Recording things, through notes or images or simply memories is, for me at least, a way to connect, to try to wade through the layers of a place I don’t know.
“You can,” Themba said. “Mandela said to the people, ‘These people are not here just to stare at you. Allow them into your homes, let them explain why they’re here – these are the people who supported you in their own countries, pressured their governments at home to provide sanctions.'”
I looked out at a makeshift market where a woman was selling vinyl blocks of bright colours. In his low key way, I thought, Themba embodies Nelson Mandela’s ideas about inclusion and respect. He also had a rare gift of making me feel part of things, as if I had personally petitioned the Canadian government for sanctions myself.
The funny thing was, when I did unroll the window to wave to a staring child, or hop out of the van and snap street scenes, what Themba said seemed true. People waved back. Said hello. More than one said thank you when I included them in my street scenes.
The Different Sides of Soweto
A woman in a leopard dress was walking down the street. She looked magnificent, so I focused my camera and clicked. She smiled shyly. That’s when the lanky young man left his friends on the opposite corner and approached, speaking angrily in a language I didn’t understand.
I lowered my camera. I couldn’t understand the words, but did it matter? It was as if he were echoing thoughts in my own head. No matter what Themba said, did I have a right to take photos? Did I have a right to be here at all, looking out at Soweto from my privileged position in a van with a driver – though if I were on a bicycle would it make a difference?
At the same time, while I empathized, I wasn’t keen on being yelled at or attacked.
Themba spoke to the man through the open van window. For a smallish man Themba was calm, even though the young man was taller and had a group of friends while Themba only had me.
Whatever Themba said had an effect. The lanky man nodded and backed away.
“What was he saying?” I asked, twisting my neck to look back as we slowly drove away.
“He does not like you to take photos of him – you’re going to sell it overseas for a lot of money and he gets nothing.”
I could pretty much guarantee no one was going to buy my photos, but that wasn’t the point. “What did you say to him?” I asked.
“I said, ‘We respect you so much, that we will not offend you or take a photo of you without your consent.”
A day in Johannesburg and my bruised traveller’s conscience
The irony is, of course, that I wasn’t taking a photo of the man at all but of the woman across the street. On the other hand, maybe it isn’t ironic. Soweto belongs to that man and to the woman in the leopard print dress and to Themba – but it doesn’t belong to me. In a way, I was trying to steal part of it and take it back home.
To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. Nelson Mandela
The Traveller’s Dilemma
It’s an endless debate. Do we, as travellers, have a right to capture images of a place that isn’t ours? To visit at all? Are we justified if we do it to understand? If we do it with respect?
Maybe the answer is no.
So I’m glad the man confronted me. Because everything isn’t perfect in Soweto or in Johannesburg or anywhere else, not when children live in tin shacks. There is crime, and anger and a great gaping canyon between the haves and have nots. There is also change, a burgeoning middle class and a warm infectious energy that cuts through Soweto’s red dust like bright streaks of gold.
I’m glad I could see it through the eyes of a guide who is proud of Soweto and who, like Nelson Mandela before him, takes care to show compassion and respect – both to angry young men and to ignorant tourists who have never heard of Robben Island.
If you’re visiting Johannesburg you’re only half done. Our one-day-in-Johannesburg itinerary continues
Believe it or not, you can do all the above in half a day – I skipped lunch to fit it all in, but if you need to eat you could grab a bite at the Mandela Family Restaurant near Mandela’s house in Soweto.
It always seems impossible until its done. Nelson Mandela
Apartheid Museum – Johannesburg’s top sight
From the entrance ticket that declares you white or non-white to the nooses that represent hanged political prisoners, the spectucular Apartheid Museum is a dark and poignant look at South Africa’s turbulent times.
Sandton City Shopping Mall and Nelson Mandela Square
If you’re visiting Sandton City Shopping Mall don’t miss the bronze statue of Nelson Mandela.
Travelling in Johannesburg
Travel wisely. Be careful where you go and watch your belongings. Take tours, don’t wander around alone at night and ask your hotel staff for advice on what to do and see.
Disclaimer: Any political missteps or misquotes are mine and mine alone, and done out of (ahem) ignorance and not intent.
Thinking of moving to this remarkable country? Check out this article on the best places to live in South Africa.