Johannesburg: the heartbeat of South Africa

by Lyn.Eyb

South Africa is gearing up for the 2010 FIFA World Cup – and there's lots to do in Johannesburg in between matches

It’s the economic heartbeat of South Africa, but Johannesburg is all too often seen as a place to fly in to and out of, the starting point of a journey, rarely part of the journey itself. But the savvy traveller will find a colourful city and wonderful insights into the modern history of one of the world’s most fascinating countries.
Nowhere is more symbolic of the struggles faced by black South Africans than Soweto. From its streets came two Nobel Prize-winners in Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, as well as dozens of their comrades who inspired a generation of change. It’s a strange experience walking the dusty streets of Soweto, a slum city born out of the need for cheap labour for the nearby gold mines. While Johannesburg prospered, the men who toiled underground returned each night to tin shacks lacking water and electricity.
The tin shacks remain – this is, after all, still a shanty town – but a thriving torist trade has emerged from oppression, with ‘township tours’ now among the most popular attractions in Johannesburg. The tours take in the Mandela Family Museum in Vilakazi Street, a simple four-roomed house that was home to Mandela and his first wife, Evelyn, until their divorce. Mandela’s second wife, Winnie, moved in in 1958. The story goes that she later tried selling ‘Mandela garden soil’ to souvenir-hunters.
The house is now been preserved by the Soweto Heritage Trust, and is home to memorabilia from Mandela’s life. It is a fascinating insight into the humble beginnings of a man whose quest for justice inspired not just a nation but a world. The nearby homes of Tutu and ANC stalwart Walter Sisulu are further reminders of men who rose from poverty and despair to help change the course of history.
Poignancy is at every turn in Soweto, as is grief. The Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial commemorates the life of the 13-year-old who was shot during the Soweto Uprising of 1976. The photograph taken of him as he lay dying was beamed around the world, and instantly became a symbol of the anti-apartheid movement, galvanising support for the struggle in every corner of the world.
We coupled our overnight stay in Soweto with a visit to the remarkable Apartheid Museum, arguably the most powerful museum in the world. To step inside the Apartheid Museum is to be struck by the incredible brutality of the apartheid regime. Just as in apartheid South Africa, everyone who enters the museum must carry a card identifying them as ‘black’, ‘white’ or ‘coloured’. You then experience the museum through the eyes of the race you have been given (not necessarily your own). What follows is an emotional journey. It’s a stunning, unforgettable experience.
Twenty-first century South Africa isn’t all about heavy-handed history lessons, but shadows from the past have influenced just about everything from music and literature to the arts. This is never more evident that at MuseuMAfricA, the city’s major cultural history museum. At the birth of the New South Africa in 1994, curator Diana Wall said the gallery would “tell stories that had not been told before”. The echo of apartheid lingers on.
As it does across the road at the Market Theatre, which was once a showcase for anti-apartheid plays. It’s maintained its cutting edge status and is now one of the country’s most important theatre and music venues. Johannesburg Art Gallery, meanwhile, has a more international feel, and carries works by Rodin, Picasso and Henry Moore, as well as leading artists from across the continent. 
Outside the city
For a cultural experience of an entirely different kind, we headed 50km west of Johannesburg to the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, a near-complete ape-man skeleton, dubbed ‘Little Foot’ and thought to be some 3.3 million years old, was discovered in 1995. The non-profit Palaeo-Anthropology Scientific Trust sponsors most of the research work carried out at the site, and also runs tours of the area.
If discoveries of a more modern type are your thing, head for Gold Reef City, a casino and theme park in one. It’s not quite Vegas, but you won’t get any closer to the real thing anywhere else in Africa.
The Gold Reef City theme park is built around the original mines in what was known as the Witwatersrand mining area. Almost half the gold ever mined worldwide has been extracted from this region, and the plundering of the soil helped make Johannesburg the most prosperous city in Africa. The 220-metre journey down into an old mine shaft gives you a flavour of what life was like underground. It was here that miners – mostly black and immigrant men from the city’s shanty towns – toiled to make others much richer than they themselves could ever dream of being.
After a hard day’s sightseeing, we stopped in at the SAB World of Beer to cool off. Dublin might have its Guinness factory and Amsterdam its Heineken, but the free sample of Johannesburg’s liquid gold at the end of our tour was just as rewarding.


Where to stay
The suburb of Melville is a vibrant and affordable area. Its guesthouses and B&Bs offer a welcome alternative to the more soulless hotels in the northern suburb of Sandton. Try The Melville House, a spirited guesthouse owned and operated by writer, Heidi Holland, whose books include Born In Soweto: Inside the Heart of South Africa and From Jo'burg to Jozi, a collection of stories about the city.
Where to eat
7th Street, which runs through the heart of Melville, is full of bars, cafes and restaurants. For an alternative taste of Africa, Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinica at Seventh Street is delightful.