Johannesburg is not a wee city by any stretch of the imagination. It’s an economic powerhouse , the provincial capital of Gauteng, has the largest economy in Sub-Saharan Africa, and is the world’s largest city that is not built on a river, lake or coastline, according to Wiki.
It is often perceived by those who do not live there to be something of a concrete jungle in which crime of every form and description is rife. Some of this must be true as it features in the Real Clear World’s top ten most dangerous cities in the world not at war (quite a mouthful and not necessarily a creditable list of dangerous cities), but considering that London makes it to the list as well, it is obviously a relative experience and depends very much on how much of a victim you make yourself – strolling around with your pocket bulging with a wallet and your camera slung around your neck in the middle of downtown Jo’burg probably qualifies as such.
There are a few obvious no-no’s for those visiting for the first time and not used to a city that will react to even a slight provocation: don’t walk around at night, place all your bags, including your handbag, in the boot of your car, don’t flash your heavy-duty diamond engagement ring around, don’t use your cell phone whilst driving and, when driving on your own late at night, pause only at stop streets and red traffic lights devoid of other traffic (but don’t quote me on this), called robots in Joburg.
And yes, there are the stark contrasts between the wealthy and the poor, and the city’s centre is now a picture of urban decay, and organised crime has made its presence felt. But that’s only half of the picture. Avoiding going out because you’re scared of crime just makes you another victim of observation from behind the safety of razor wire and six foot walls.
Exploring Joburg is a must. It is best to have your wits about you, but there are a feast of things you can do that will only open your eyes and give you a far clearer picture of what the city is about.
There is the Carlton Centre, and Gold Reef City (yawn) but any resident of the city that never sleeps will tell you these are largely tourist traps, even if finding out all about the history of the discovery of gold in Johannesburg, and the reason for its existence, is fascinating.
If you want to experience the pulse of the city then here are a couple of things you will want to do:
The Hillbrow Tower
Back in the late seventies and early eighties, Hillbrow was the hip and happening ‘grey area’ suburb of Jo’burg, which meant that despite being a ‘whites only’ area, different ethnicities lived here happily together. Living in Hillbrow labelled you a liberal, arty type. Today it’s an inner city suburb of intense population, high unemployment, poverty and crime. Much of it is boarded up, paint and plaster peeling off the walls of former shops. It’s a tough and dangerous neighbourhood filled with squatters, immigrants and refugees.
But the Hillbrow Tower, a very high, round, telecommunications tower, dominates the city’s skyline and has become a symbol of the city the way that Table Mountain represents Cape Town. In 2010 the tower, now owned by Telkom, added a massive soccer ball to the equation. Whilst you can’t visit it any longer – there used to be a revolving restaurant at the top of it – getting a pic of the tower is one of the most popular tourist attractions. Otherwise the Parktown Westcliff Heritage Trust does a walking tour of Hillbrow and Berea Ridge starting at the Windybrow. You can contact them to find out more (+27 (0)11 482-3349).
A must-do if you want to get to grips with South Africa’s past. The Apartheid Museum outlines the rise and fall of apartheid, the racially prejudiced system in practice between 1948 and 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected president after serving as a political prisoner for 27 years. The thoroughly modern museum includes film footage, photographs, text panels and artifacts. You cannot but be moved.
Best done as part of a tour, there are many to choose from that take you around the largest black township in South Africa. Most tours will include the Hector Pieterson Museum, Mandela House Museum, Freedom Square, Vilakazi Street, Maponya shopping mall, the Kliptown Open-Air Museum, and a local shabeen to sample local food and drink. If you are really adventurous, bungee jump between the two Orlando cooling towers.
Villages of Jo’burg: Melville, Parktown, Greenside and Norwood
Each of these has a humming street culture, something Johannesburg is not strong on, for obvious reasons. Choose from a selection of restaurants, delis, coffee shops, bistros and boutiques, and watch people from beneath umbrellas at tables largely on the pavement. All of these are great at night too.
Even if you don’t fly into OR Tambo and catch the Gautrain into Sandton to make it easier for your hosts to avoid the nightmare traffic, take a trip on this new addition to Johannesburg public transport. The full length of the line is still not in operation between Pretoria Accommodation and Johannesburg, but all who have caught the train between the airport and Sandton, opened in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, have come away impressed.
Credo Mutwa Cultural Village
Lying in Jabavu, Soweto, and surrounding the Oppenheimer Tower, is the cultural village created by Credo Mutwa, traditional healer, artist and author, who despite being almost 90 years old continues to practise as a sangoma, although he recently suffered a stroke . You’ll be able to study a series of symbolic clay sculptures and buildings that depict African culture and folklore, although many of them stand slightly chipped and dishevelled from weathering the elements.
The village was vandalised after Credo made what have been described as ‘controversial’ statements about the 1976 Soweto uprising. Despite the later renovations the place is a little worn, but well worth the visit. Best to get a guide to take you through the village to explain the symbolism of the various art pieces, particularly those his followers believe predicted HIV in Africa, and the planes that crashed in to the NY World Trade Centre.
Spoken about as the cultural heart of the city, Newtown is part of Johannesburg’s regeneration project, the part of the inner city that is safe to visit and full of things, creative. You get there via the Nelson Mandela Bridge, full of billboard advertising by day, a flurry of lights by night, which links Braamfontein and the north of Jo’burg to Newtown. The complex boasts three theatres, two art galleries, a selection of restaurants, including Kippies, which still brings you live jazz, and a Saturday morning flea market in the same vein as the one that used to draw crowds here during the 1980s and early 1990s.
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