First, a hale and hearty shove-off to anyone who said “skip Joburg”, because I loved it! The city has gone through difficult and prolonged economic rough patch, in conjunction with apartheid, which is where the bad rap comes from. But, it’s history is what makes Johannesburg so special. Since the end of apartheid, the city has been remaking itself and there are some really special pockets of town that would be a shame to miss.
We landed in Johannesburg first, and like most travelers, wanted to spend a few days adjusting to the time change before heading out on safari. We stayed in the charming suburb of Melville in northern Johannesburg. It is an artsy little neighborhood with lots of bars and shops, including 27 Boxes. Much like Container Park in Las Vegas, 27 Boxes is predicated on the idea of giving local artists and aspiring business owners a chance to launch their own store without incredibly high overhead costs. If you are looking for something unique without the tchotchkes and an overdose of kitsch, this is a good spot to find it.
Pro Tip: Guest houses with in-home catering are abundant and well worth booking while you are adjusting to the time change. Additionally, the food is delicious in Johannesburg, and portion sizes are generous, so being able to reheat some mighty good leftovers when you are jetlagged is a real plus.
The next day we were up and out early for a whirlwind tour of the city. It was a packed day, and in an ideal world, I probably would have split the day in two. The first part of our day was spent in Soweto, the world-famous township in Joburg. For those who are unfamiliar, Soweto rose to international consciousness during Apartheid and is where many Blacks were forced to move by the government. Individuals who were forced to move were given nothing but notice and came to the township with the resources they had. It is important to remember that people would not have been able to sell their house to get money for a forced relocation. The government often bulldozed anywhere that Coloreds or Blacks lived to make room for new development for Whites. The township is essentially separated into three neighborhoods, just like any city. Those with money built nice, upper and middle-class homes. Those who were poor built their homes from scrap metal and any other objects they could find, and to this day those houses stand, along with the communal pit toilets and taps.
The sheer size of the township is mind-boggling, which makes it super interesting to see how a young democracy is handling the challenge of systemic poverty. We got to meet with a local nonprofit guide, who was born and raised, and still lives in Soweto who talked to us about the different efforts underway to help build housing for those in Soweto, youth education efforts and what changes he has seen since Apartheid ended.
The people of Soweto have a rich and revolutionary history, so we headed over to the Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial, which is dedicated to the student protests that made international headlines and led to economic sanctions on businesses working in South Africa. In June of 1976 students in Soweto decided to march in protest of being forced to learn and take exams in Afrikaans, after already being forced to speak and learn in English instead of their native languages. About 20,000 students took part in the protests, and of course, the police responded violently, killing hundreds (the numbers reported by the police were just over 175, while other groups estimate anywhere between 200-700 people were killed). The first to be killed was 13-year-old Hector Pieterson.
The museum opens with a powerful monument to Pieterson and those who lost their lives just outside the building, then walks you through the myriad events that lead to the protests, with written and visual testaments to the students and civil rights leaders who worked alongside them. The museum is an emotional experience, but not one you should skip if you want to understand South Africa.
Pro Tip: A large number of indigenous groups were forced to move into close quarters in Soweto. To get by, people learned each other’s languages. If you are in South Africa, stop and listen to other’s conversation. It feels like everyone speaks about 20 languages. In my informal poll, the average was six with a seventh the speaker considered themselves to have a subpar working knowledge of. If you are a language enthusiast, like me, it’s both badass and a real treat.
After lunch, we took a quick pass by a few of the houses Nelson Mandela lived in. This reminded me a lot of the American version of “George Washington slept here.” He seems to have stayed in just about every house in South Africa, and nearly as many of them have been turned into museums, monuments, or tourist activities. Although an interesting thing to look at, most of his possessions are in other museums, so you can probably skip visiting his houses if you are short on time.
Next, we made our way over to the hard-hitting Apartheid Museum. It is beautifully done and does an excellent job of contextualizing and depicting the full weight of Apartheid while linking everyone’s history to it. The message is clear, this is the story of all South Africans and the weight of working through injust sits on everyone’s shoulders. But the museum isn’t exclusively a slow, sad trudge through a painful past. It also sings with hope and beauty, and you will leave in awe of the human spirit.
I wished I had spent a full day taking in everything that it has to offer, because the two hours we planned weren’t nearly enough I took a full hour just to get through the Nelson Mandela special exhibit alone (Note: Madiba is his Xhosa clan name, and you will hear people in South Africa call him that as a term on endearment. He is referred to as Tata Mandela, the Xhosa word for father).
Pro Tip: If you are in Joburg, start with the Apartheid Museum first, before hitting the other major monuments. The context it provides will only deepen your understanding of the city.
Finally, down to noms! The food in South Africa is stellar. Two spots in Melville blew my socks off:
Mootee Bar: South African specialties with a real twist. The main courses are big, and this is worth going hungry for so you can sample a bit of everything. And whatever you do, don’t miss out on the cocktails.
Lonely Hearts Club: Delicious tapas and a great vibe. What could be better?
Final note, the people in Johannesburg, like everyone in South Africa, are wonderful. Talk about the friendliest people on the planet. I have traveled far and wide, and if more wonderful people exist, I haven’t found ’em yet.
Pro Tip: Being an American, I was skeptical about drinking the tap water. I don’t drink the tap water in Los Angeles, but I drank it in Joburg without issue. In fact, Joburg’s water ranks quite high on the international water quality scale. Bring a refillable water bottle and save a bit of money. It has the added bonus of being pretty tasty as far as tap water goes!