Johannesburg is often perceived as a dangerous crime filled city that still fights racism and poverty. You only have to watch District 9 to get an understanding, while I know this is a sci-fi movie the theme rings true. A year ago I stepped out of my comfort zone and made a solo trip to Jozi (as it is referred locally).
I boarded the 14 hour direct flight from Sydney to Johannesburg on a Saturday morning and was assigned the middle seat, sitting between an elderly lady and another lady who suffered from motion sickness (as I found out later). This was a full plane. Every seat was taken. I couldn’t move seats and it made me want to cry. Thankfully motion sickness lady only dry wretched on the take off, once we were in the air she was fine. The older lady had a 90 minute routine; she’d walk around for 10 minutes before settling in for a nap and repeat. It was this short window that I stretched my little legs, cracked my spine back into place and hurried to the ladies. By the time she’d get back I’d be tucked into the next movie. We started our descent into Jozi around 2pm and motion sickness lady couldn’t hold back anymore. I went to my happy place because I knew with the older lady next to me I was going no where fast.
I was glad to step into Johannesburg airport; O.R. Tambo International terminal is my favourite airport in the world. My passport photo has me in braids and there is always one person in customs and immigration who asks why I don’t have them anymore. After getting my passport stamped and pulling my suitcase off the carousel (with help from another lady) I was on my way to meet my transfer to my favourite lodge in Jozi, the Safari Club. I always stay here when I need to spend a night in Johannesburg. The owners are friendly, the staff are cheeky and the lodge is central and safe. The driver and host were Zimbabwean, this made me feel right at home. Shona is the local language in Zimbabwe (where I’m from) and it was great to speak it again after so long.
Each of the Safari Club rooms are named after famous sites in Africa and decorated with paintings and trinklets from those countries. I was assigned the Okavango room. For those not familiar with Africa the Okavango Delta is the only delta in the world that does not run into the ocean. It is located in Botswana. The rooms are comfortable and spacious, breakfast is included, and the thatched roof and lush greenery give it that safari feel.
By 5pm I was showered and relaxed. Rooibos tea was in my belly and I was chilling in the lodge living room. The wifi was down so I people watched instead while crickets serenaded me into the night. I made my way back to my room for the night. After a 2 hour sleep I was wide awake with only the tv to keep me company. Old African ads put a smile on my face and I finally got to watch Psycho. I drifted off again as Batman Begins started.
My alarm went off around 6.30am on the Sunday. Normally I wouldn’t be happy but I had booked a tour of Soweto township and Johannesburg city. I had just finished my scrambled eggs on toast when the tour guide arrived to get me. He drove to Sandton which is probably the richest suburb in Jozi. There are 3 metre high walls and electric fences to keep intruders out. We were there to pick up 2 American tourists but within 5 minutes police had pulled us over to ask what our intentions were in this area. After a short while we were on our way again to pick up 2 Aussie adventurers. Finally we were on route to Soweto. Soweto is a township where black people were segregated to during the apartheid. It was initially a shanty town with make shift homes made from anything to everything. There were compounds set up for the mine workers which were over crowded. Often they slept in shifts. Fast forward to today Soweto is a thriving suburb with beautiful houses and small businesses. The 2010 soccer world cup was hosted in Soweto. This is where Shakira gave us ‘Waka Waka and we discovered how annoying vuvuzelas are. However there is still a reminder of the shanty town history with families still waiting to be settled into the more secure housing facilities. The independent movie ‘Tsotsi’ is a must watch to get an idea of life in Soweto. As we drove down streets and over bridges I saw children playing. Some came up to the car to say hello.
From here our driver took us to a church known as Regina Mundi. He parked the car and we went in and sat at the back. Say what you like about stereotypes but there is nothing that comes close to the goose bumps you get from hearing a black choir in a church. Those harmonies and melodies warm the soul. This church is where Nelson Mandela (Madiba as he is referred to in South Africa) and other freedom fighters secretly met during the apartheid. Behind the church is a graffiti wall filled with images representing the struggles of the apartheid. An elderly gentleman approached us as we took photos reminding us that this wasn’t art, it is a memorial. This almost brought me to tears, the energy and atmosphere is overwhelming but joyful all at once.
We were on our way once more headed to the Hector Pieterson Museum. Hector was a 12 year old boy shot and killed by apartheid police in a peaceful protest made up of school students in 1976. There is a famous photo of an older boy carrying Hector as he bled with his sister crying in the background. After independence a museum was built in memory of Hector and the students who marched that day. As I walked through reading the articles and watching the news clips I was brought to tears. The most humbling moment was watching an interview with Hector’s sister saying he was not a hero, he was just a kid who wanted change.
With an overwhelming reminder to be appreciative of how lucky I am I headed back to the car. Next our guide drove past Madiba’s house which was his home in the last few years of his life. He could’ve lived anywhere but chose to remain in Soweto, where it all began. We took a quick detour past Winnie Mandela’s home also in Soweto. Winnie was a prominent figure of the anti-apartheid movement and Nelson Mandelas’s first wife.
From Soweto we travelled back to Jozi for a city tour with our guide giving us statistics of the area. I now know that it is also referred to as the ‘City of Gold’ as it was built on top of old mines, it’s amazing how the city has not yet started sinking. Our first stop was Constitutional Hill where we had a chance to enter the court where we learnt about the legal history. Activists such as Mahatma Gandhi and Madiba were held prisoner here. The bench is lined with traditional zulu rugs. 3 main languages are spoken which are English, Afrikaans and Zulu, a symbol of unity. On the outside of the court is the flame of democracy, carvings and statues acknowledging the horror of the past and pledging a better future. Our next adventure took us over Nelson Mandela bridge (the longest bridge in Southern Africa), past the Telkom Tower and into the CBD which is a little dirty with most businesses closed, including the old Carlton Hotel. Our tour guide instructed us to hold tightly on to our belongings as we walked from the car to the Carlton Towers, the ‘Top of Africa’.
No one approached us or tried to snatch our bags. The lift shot to the 50th floor which gave us 360 degree views of the city. It was beautiful and quiet from up here. From here there was an option to visit the Apartheid Museum or head back to the lodge. I chose to head back as I had been on an emotional rollercoaster and was exhausted. I am a child of a mixed race mother who was raised during the apartheid and have heard the stories and history of this terrible time in African history. I can only hope we learn and progress.
‘It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’ Nelson Mandela, on trial 1964.
After a shower and nap I was met by cousins I had not seen in 20 years. After lots of hugs and squeals we were on our way to a braai (barbecue). Jozi is made up of lots of over passes, under passes, freeways and turn offs. What should’ve been a 15 minute drive turned into an hour because of a wrong turn. I didn’t mind as I got to see the city at night. The food was delicious and I made new friends that night. I made up for 20 years in the space of 4 hours. There was not 1 awkward moment, it was like we picked up exactly where we left off. A perfect ending to my solo Jozi trip.