September 10, 2010
Johannesburg is probably the most famous city in South Africa. Cape Town comes close, but it lacks the history that resides within the boundaries of Johannesburg. The city is definitely not the oldest in SA, it was founded in the 1800’s as a gold mining town and as more resources were found the city boomed. I won’t delve too much into politics here so if you want to learn more about the political history of South Africa and apartheid you can check out here. When I was in Johannesburg I felt vaguely aware that apartheid had existed, and I toured the apartheid museum and the Soweto township, but I did not feel the prevalence of lasting racism and cultural divide within the city. Once I got out of the city and onto my first project site in Kroonstaad I felt very differently and realized that the tensions and blatant racism is still thriving in certain parts of South Africa. I may have just been naïve to believe my tour guide, who was black and had grown up in Soweto- I’m not sure if he was trying to appease the white American trying to make me feel comfortable, or if attitudes have changed drastically in some of the major cities and not at all in some of the more rural areas. I will post soon about my time working at a lion sanctuary in Kroonstaad and the startling attitude of the white South Africans that I encountered.
Unfortunately my time in Jo’burg was cut down by a horrible cold that forced me to spend most of my time there in the confines of my hotel room at the Melrose Arch Hotel. I didn’t take any pictures of the hotel because I was feeling so ill, but you can check it out here. Luckily the hotel was absolutely lovely and served as a great spot to get better. The hotel is in a suburb of Jo’burg and is actually in the small gated and enclosed area of Melrose Arch. The compound contains the hotel a dozen or so great restaurants and a small shopping mall. I would have loved to explore the area more, but was feeling very sick. However the one night I did go out, I went to a wonderful Italian restaurant within Melrose Arch named Mangiare, which I highly recommend. The food was excellent and the atmosphere was beautiful- it felt like it could have been in New York or Los Angeles. We walked the shops a bit, which are great like any standard mall including luggage stores, adventure stores, clothes shops, and more. As I said I spent most of the time in my room, which is too bad because the hotel itself has wonderful facilities including a swimming pool, multiple restaurants, a large lounge with a bar and a game room with a foosball table. However what I liked best was the free high speed wireless internet and large bathtubs in the rooms which allowed me to make all the blog posts you’ve been reading and take wonderful luxurious baths!
Depending on your interests Johannesburg itself is not the most interesting city. Although it is getting safer, I still wouldn’t suggest walking around on your own. It is not like Cape Town with a thousand sites to see and things to do. The main attractions for tourists to visit are really the Apartheid Museum and the Soweto Township. We had &Beyond arrange a car and guide for us for the day, which was great because we got a nice tour of Jo’burg in addition to the museum and township. We were driven around the very posh area of town and got to see the huge compounds with their high walls, barbed wire, and security cameras. This is the area where Nelson Mandela’s house is now and we were able to see it. From there we went on to the city center, which used to be almost completely abandoned, but is not starting to get people back again. Many people work in the suburbs so they wish to live there too and demand for the apartments in the city center are not high. We saw the tallest building in Africa, which is located in the Jo’burg city center- it is only 50 stories high, which for perspective is shorter than my apartment in New York. We saw the Debeers building shaped like a diamond, and then we were taken to a traditional Zulu muti shop.
A muti shop is a kind of pharmacy/doctors office for traditional Zulu medicines. The people who work in the shop practice ancient traditions of medicine and they go through immense training. Our guide told us that the people who work there as healers do not choose to become healers, rather they feel a call to duty. However, because South Africa is becoming a more modern country the healers are now watched over by the government and they must be certified to practice healing. Our guide told us that if they are certified the healers have the same respect as a western doctor and have the ability to write doctors notes excusing someone from work. Shops like these represent for me an ongoing clash and discomfort I feel with keeping traditions alive and being ecologically responsible in the modern era. Within the shop we saw many bones and skins of animals. Because the government is now involved they make sure these traditional medicine shops aren’t in the practice of selling or slaughtering endangered species. I am a big supporter of civil liberties and think that these shops should not feel a sense of overbearing control from the government, but at the same time I think it is of the up most importance that these shops to not engage in the illegal trade of endangered or threatened species. This is a major problem in China with traditional healers using tiger bones in their medicines. The use of the tiger’s bones has highly contributed their endangerment in China, and is one of the reasons why South African breeding programs do not want to re-release tigers back in to China. I will talk much more about this topic later when I write about my time at Boskoppie Lion Park in Kroonstaad.
After the muti shop we went to the Apartheid Museum. It was a wonderful and sad experience. It reminded me of visiting the many holocaust museums in various cities that I have been to. You enter the museum through one of two doors- when you buy your ticket you are randomly assigned as either European or as colored/black. There are two separate entrances to remind us of the segregation during apartheid years. The museum gives a good multi media history of apartheid and Nelson Mandela. Depending on your level of interest and patience you could spend any where from 30 minutes to 3 hours exploring the museum.
Next we went to Soweto, which was very different than I expected. I was surprised by the three distinct economic levels that make up Soweto. The first section we drove through was the upper class section, these homes were very nice with backyards and satellite dishes. They had proper plumbing and seemed to look like any middle class neighborhood you could find in America. Then startlingly those houses came to an abrupt end and the middle class houses started. These were much closer together and much more shanty in nature. Many of them do not have indoor plumbing or small luxuries I take for granted like a phone or even constant electricity. Scattered in the neighborhoods of these houses were the lower class houses, which really can hardly be called houses. They were shacks made of what look like large sheets of scrap metal not really held together by anything. There are portipotties scattered around the area, which give off a horrible smell. There is no running water except for a few common wells scattered about in the township. It is devastating to see the poverty in these areas and even more devastating to think this is what the township used to dominantly be. The government is trying to give assistance and build more infrastructure for these people to live in, but there is not enough money or resources to go around. It is difficult to see these squalor conditions and to know that poverty breeds poverty in third world nations and while some people can get out, it is extremely difficult to do so. To read more about the Soweto Township you can check out here.
My overall feeling of Johannesburg was of a rapidly changing city that was well served by the influx of money brought by the world cup, and could use more tourism. Hopefully it will continue to become a safer better-balanced city with a sad past,