Why it's time you got to know Johannesburg

John Malathronas

John Malathronas

Most people who travel to South Africa pass through Joburg - the name 'Johannesburg' nowadays being confined to only the most unrepentant Afrikaners - with few staying to explore the city's attractions. Only those in the know ensure they don't miss out on South Africa's most culturally dynamic city, so it's time you added Johannesburg to your list of dream destinations. The city is easy to reach from the UK, with the likes of KLM offering great value fares via Schipol Airport in Amsterdam.

Top things to do and see in Johannesburg © Doug Holder - Fotolia.com
Top things to do and see in Johannesburg © Doug Holder - Fotolia.com

Top things to see & do in Johannesburg

The days when Joburg had a reputation second only to Mordor are well and truly gone. The 2010 World Cup and its resulting infrastructure improvements secured neighbourhoods, provided employment, and raised living standards. As a result, the crime rate is dropping and no-go areas are far from the places tourists are likely to visit. Prime amongst these upgrades is the Gautrain metro - extending to the airport - with its many connecting buses that offer a quick and safe way of seeing the area's wealth of sights.

Soweto

A Soweto tour is Joburg's premier tourist attraction. Although Soweto is a living, breathing township with one million residents and wealthy middle class areas that rival some of Joburg's best, it is still defined by South Africa's freedom struggle. The highlight of its sights is the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum focusing on the Soweto uprising of 1976, when young schoolchildren defied the government and were cruelly shot at by the police.

Vilakazi Street is famous for its two Nobel prize-winning residents. Before he was jailed, Nelson Mandela lived with his then wife Winnie in a modest brick bungalow, now the Nelson Mandela House Museum. The other Nobel Prize winner is Reverend Desmond Tutu, who still spends his time in his unassuming house a few blocks down.

The most poignant sight, however, is the Catholic Church of Regina Mundi. In 1976, the church sheltered anti-apartheid protesters and was famously desecrated by riot police who opened fire inside; you can still see the damaged altar and the bullet holes around the walls.

Apartheid Museum & Gold Reef City

The racially segregated entrance may be a gimmick that shocks, but it certainly prepares you for the exhibition in the Apartheid Museum. Moving displays, film clips and interactive exhibits tell a powerful story of racism elevated to state dogma. From the pettiness of the pass laws and the cruelty of native homelands to the violence and struggle for democracy, the museum presents a panorama of life under apartheid.

Situated opposite, and thus the perfect remedy for the inevitable Apartheid Museum blues, Gold Reef City is an amusement park that combines Joburg's goldrush heritage with some thrilling rides. Built over a real goldmine exhausted in 1971, the main attraction is a descent to the mine itself with a lift that drops down to 75 metres for a hard-hat walk along the gold-depleted corridors.

Demonstration of gold casting at Gold Reef City © Dan Brown - Flickr Creative Commons
Demonstration of gold casting at Gold Reef City © Dan Brown - Flickr Creative Commons

This is best followed by a demonstration of gold casting - with a real gold bar at the end of it - and an adventure in gold panning where you can maybe offset the entry ticket with a few specs of gold dust - should you be so lucky. Yet nothing compares to the sheer panic of the Tower of Terror, a ride much scarier in real life than its name betrays or the judder and quake of the rickety Anaconda rollercoaster, only a few vibrations short of whiplash.

Constitution Hill

This complex has been called Joburg's own Robben Island. The jail at the Old Fort housed political prisoners under arguably worse conditions than anywhere else, and the exhibits bring to life the personal stories of prisoners, famous or not, who passed through its cells.

What is extraordinary, however, is that this is the spot where, in a gesture of unrivalled optimism, post-apartheid South Africa chose to build the country's Constitutional Court. In line with the country's new openness, visitors can attend hearings when the court is in session.

Origins Centre & The Cradle of Humankind

The campus of Wits University houses the Origins Centre, maybe the most interesting museum in Joburg, which traces the history of homo sapiens to their African roots. The exhibits, most from around the city itself, include rock art, tools and artefacts of early humans.

Should you want to follow on that thread, the Sterkfontein Caves (30 minutes' drive on the R563 north of Sandton) is an area with the highest concentration of hominid fossils in the world that supplied archeologists with the missing links between apes and humans. You can still see fossils trapped in the rock strata, while a nearby museum explains everything very lucidly.

Pretoria

Half an hour on the Gautrain from chaotic, feverish Joburg, genteel Pretoria, with its jacaranda-shaded avenues, multitude of parks and lack of traffic provides the setting for the perfect day trip.

First on the list must be the Italianate-inspired architectural complex of the Union Buildings, now the offices of the President of South Africa. Designed in 1910 by Herbert Baker, who was also responsible for much of colonial New Delhi, they sport an imposing Nelson Mandela statue and staggered gardens with fine city vistas.

Statue of Nelson Mandela in front of Union Buildings, Pretoria © Karin Olivier - Wikimedia Commons
Statue of Nelson Mandela in front of Union Buildings, Pretoria © Karin Olivier - Wikimedia Commons

From there you can catch sight of the Voortrekker Monument, a massive domed memorial dedicated to the 'Voortrekkers', Afrikaner pioneers who fled British rule in the 1830s and 1840s to establish the Boer republics. In line with the New South Africa's policy of compromise and rapprochement with the white minority it still stands high and mighty, but a couple of open-air concert venues have sprinkled some fun and joy on its once sacred, solemn grounds.

Finally stop at the 52-hectare Freedom Park, connected to the Voortrekker Monument via a long Reconciliation Road. The focus of the park, created as one of Nelson Mandela's final wishes, is the Freedom Monument that celebrates all cultures of modern South Africa and commemorates those who have given their lives for South Africa, old and new.

If you want to get stuck into the raw and real history of South Africa, Joburg has plenty to offer culture vultures, and you can be there within 15 hours thanks to KLM, which operates at least six flights daily. Check out the latest KLM fare offers to Johannesburg, and remember to see what the weather in Joburg is like as well as when we think is the best time to go for some warming sunshine.

John Malathronas

John Malathronas
Posted on Monday 2nd January 2017 in: Africa City Culture

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