I tend to leave a city with a set opinion of whether I liked it or not and would go back but Johannesburg has left me perplexed. Did I like it as a city, I just cannot decided!
In fairness I was only there for a couple of days and one of those was spent out in Soweto but usually I can form an opinion by then – instant judgement. I like a walkable city, one where you can stroll around and find hidden gems and explore but you cannot really do this in Johannesburg as everything is so spread out and everyone drives everywhere.
One thing that I did like about Johannesburg was the chance to learn. I think like most people of my generation we know a little bit about Apartheid but we were too young to really know what was going on at the time and when I was of an age to understand Apartheid had ended. My time in Johannesburg has allowed me to really learn and understand the history of South Africa. I definitely left the city and the country more educated.
First stop on our trip was stopping by the house where Nelson Mandela died. Outside the house were piles of stones that had been painted with messages and pictures by people who had wanted to leave something, a thank you or get well while Nelson Mandela was ill. They were such simple gestures but one of the most moving things I had ever seen. While we were taking photos, a family pulled up in their car and the father got out and planted a small tree in the garden outside the walls of the house. Even now the people of South Africa keep thanking him for what he did for them. Over my time in South Africa I was to realise just how important Nelson Mandela was to the people. It is very hard coming from the UK to understand how people can feel so connected to a man, a politician!
From Mandela’s house we moved onto the Apartheid Museum and here we started our education. The museum is set on a hill that gives you great views of downtown Johannesburg, set in a peaceful garden its a stunning setting to get people thinking. As you enter your tickets are labelled either white or non-white and here your education in segregation begins. Depending on your ticket you enter the museum through different doors and passageways.
Inside the museum ( allow at least a good couple of hours to really explore) there is much to see and read. It takes you through the history of the country and lead up to Apartheid and then into its history and laws. When we visited there was an exhibition about Mandela, but this may only be temporary. The museum uses the power of architecture, word and image to convey the history and struggles of the country. It was definitely moving and a great way to educate people.
Our second day took us further into South Africa’s history by visiting Soweto, one of Johannesburg’s townships that was created during Apartheid. I think like most people I went to Soweto with an image in my mind of what it was going to be like. You hear all the stories on TV and the news about violence and it gets a reputation. Now I am sure there are some undesirable parts and there is a level of crime and violence but we didn’t see any of this and to be honest we were on a tourist trip so it’s not like our guide would walk us into areas where there would be trouble. However, everyone we met was lovely and from what I saw Soweto was really turning itself into a pleasant place to be.
As you drive past Baragwanath Hospital ( once first, now third biggest hospital in the world) you pass the Soweto taxi rank. Getting closer to the centre life seems to get better, but on the outskirts there are still so many people living in unofficial houses – shanty towns. Charities, like the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the government are building houses and parks to make the area better but it will take quite a few more years before everyone has a proper house to live in. Your heart really does sink when you see these shanty towns made from corrugated iron squashed together, no running water and makeshift electricity. You really appreciate what you have.
The main reason for going to Soweto is this is where Nelson Mandela lived and where Winnie Mandela lived during his imprisonment. It is also the site of many protests and tragedies during Apartheid. The Mandela house is now a museum and definitely worth a visit to learn a bit more about the ANC and what went on in Soweto. The other main museum Hector Pieterson Museum and Memorial. He was the first child to be killed on 16th June 1976, when the children of Soweto marched in protest for being taught only in Afrikaans. The museum is cleverly put together through film and first hand accounts (more than 400 people died in the uprising), by those in the protest and the police. The most moving thing was our tour guide who was present during the march. He was shot but the bullet passed through him killing his cousin. It was a privilege to hear this first hand account but also hear about how someone who lived through Apartheid managed to get an education through underground schooling and has spent his adult life trying to educate tourists but also help charities within townships in both Johannesburg and Cape Town.
So much tragedy and sadness filled the history of Johannesburg and South Africa but our entire time in the city and the rest of the country we came across some of the friendliest people I have ever met. Even though they had lived through so much and had so little the people we met found a way to smile. I may not have fallen in love with Johannesburg the city, but I certainly did with the people and their optimism for a better future.
From Johannesburg we left and headed to the place I was most excited about in South Africa, Kruger National Park!