Johannesburg has not traditionally been known as a major tourist destination in South Africa. However, since the city is probably the main transfer point coming to or departing from the country, it seems a shame not to add a couple of days here. My personal experience in stopping over in Johannesburg was one of expanding not only my knowledge of South Africa but an insight into the dynamics of this country. Even with limited time, you can have a satisfying visit.
Following the discovery of gold on what had once been farmland, Johannesburg was named and established in 1886. Today, it’s a modern city displaying its wealth and commerce, skyscrapers, and freeway networks. It is often described as Africa’s economic powerhouse.
The centre of the city was at one time a “no go” district. However, that has changed for the better. Should you elect to stop over in Johannesburg, you will more than likely stay in one of the more affluent suburbs, such as Sandton or Rosebank to the north of the centre, where many hotels and upscale shopping malls are located.
The Central Business District
The centre is referred to as the CBD (Central Business District). You should probably start with a visit to the top of the Carlton Centre, the tallest building in Africa. The observation deck at the top of this 50-storey edifice has the best views of Johannesburg, from impressive skylines to disused gold mines.
Chancellor House here was once home to the law practice of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo (a largely unsung hero of the resistance to apartheid). It is now a museum with pictures and history – visible from outside on the street.
In Gandhi Square, you will find a statue of a young Mahatma Gandhi, erected in October 2003.
There was gold in them there hills!
Next, head to Gold Reef City where you can learn about gold mining and actually go into a mine about 60 metres/200 feet deep. Walking into the theme park here is like stepping into another world. It is literally built around an authentic 19th century gold mine. There are a variety of museums offering a peek into what life was like in a mining camp at that time. You can enjoy underground tours of the mine as well as a gold-pouring demonstration.
South Africa’s symbol of democracy
A way in which to find out about the development of democracy in South Africa is to go to Constitution Hill, located in the suburb of Braamfontein. It used to be a fortified prison, originally designed to house prisoners of war during the Second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). It also became a detention centre for political dissidents, striking mineworkers, and anyone who was deemed to be “anti-establishment.” Former president Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were among the many pro-democracy leaders who served time at this infamous prison. Besides seeing the workings of the court itself, visitors can learn more about South Africa’s path to freedom and democracy from the various exhibitions. You can read former prisoners’ and warders’ personal accounts or listen to audio recordings of their experiences at the Old Fort prison complex.
Cultural pursuits in Johannesburg
The Apartheid Museum is a very important place, opening in 2001. It illustrates the rise and fall of the era of segregation in South Africa through the use of various mediums, as well as live accounts – providing an understanding of the inequalities and tensions that existed. A visit to the museum can be overwhelming. In one chamber, there is an exhibit of 131 hanging nooses to represent the 131 government opponents who were executed under anti-terrorism laws.
The Johannesburg Art Gallery, designed by famous British architect, Sir Edward Luytens, has an excellent collection of 17th century Dutch paintings, 18th and 19th century British, European, and South African art, plus a large collection of 20th century art, both local and international.
Another important gallery is CIRCA. It is both an architectural landmark and a superb gallery hosting contemporary works of art. Overlooking the northern suburbs, the spiral structure houses unusual sculptures, sketches, and contemporary work from across South Africa.
The Standard Bank Gallery hosts high-profile exhibitions by local and international artists, as well as major travelling exhibitions. Temporary theme-based exhibitions are arranged from the Collection of African Art, focusing strongly at scholars and academics, as well as the general public.
Perhaps not exactly cultural but nonetheless worth visiting are the Walter Sisulu Botanical Gardens where you can enjoy a relaxing day wandering through the 54 acres of lush gardens. There is also a wide variety of wildlife to entertain you.
A visit to Soweto is not to be missed!
Soweto may sound like an African name but it is an acronym for South Western Townships. Situated 20 kilometres/12 miles south west of Johannesburg, it is a cluster of sprawling townships established in 1904 and created to house mainly black labourers who worked in the mines and other industries in the city.
Soweto’s growth was phenomenal but unplanned. However, in recent years, the government has implemented the planting of trees, developed parks, and provided electricity and running water to the township. Soweto has progressed quite a lot since the 1980s. There is good housing, roads, street lights, and shopping malls – a long way from the informal shacks and squalor you might imagine.
There are many organized guided tours to Soweto, it’s truly the best way to take it all in. Most tourists to Soweto visit the Mandela Museum, located in the former home of Nelson Mandela, where he stayed with his wife, Winnie, before being imprisoned in 1961, jailed for 27 years. It contains memorabilia from the short time they lived there before Mandela went into hiding.
Another famous resident was Archbishop Desmond Tutu. His house can be seen, although it is not open to the public. The Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum, which was opened to honour this boy who died in the 1976 uprising, mixes memorabilia with modern technology and cultural history.
So, considering all the preceding, for a different perspective on this colourful country, do have a stopover in Johannesburg. It will round off your South Africa vacation perfectly.