I was reminded that first morning in Johannesburg of something Ernest Hemingway once said . . . that he never knew a morning in Africa when he awoke and was not happy. Before arriving here I would have questioned if such a thing were possible. Yet I knew there was something to it when I arose every morning of our trip with a happiness I could not explain . . . perhaps knowing that each day would be full of new discoveries and experiences . . . seeing things I had only dreamed of.
We slept like the dead, and that first morning, after showering and dressing, I took a short walk around the grounds of our bed and breakfast. It was early autumn in the Southern Hemisphere and the leaves were beginning to turn. The air was fresh and sweet. Autumn has always been my favorite season, and now I was going to enjoy it twice in the same year. One thing I noticed almost immediately were the high security walls topped with barbed wire and the gated driveway. I asked our host, a white Afrikaner, about this and she said it was pretty much de rigeur throughout South Africa. And not just the residences of the minority white population. Our travels throughout South Africa would prove this true. Marlboro Gardens seemed such a quiet and peaceful residential suburb today, yet during the years of apartheid, when the area was an Indian township, it was frequently the scene of bitter racial disturbances and the crime level, as is the case throughout Johannesburg, the country's largest city with its 4+ million inhabitants, is still a significant problem.
When planning our trip to South Africa we gave very little attention to Johannesburg as it has never been considered a traditional tourist destination due to its size and its infamous crime. Many view it as just another big city with little to offer compared with what lies beyond. People fly into Johannesburg and then quickly disperse to the many game preserves and other nature sites throughout the region, returning only to catch their homeward bound flight. This was essentially our own plan as we mapped out the logistics of our own trip. We would fly into Johannesburg, spend one night and then head into the bushveld to see what we had really come to see. As our planning began to coalesce, however, we looked into the possibility of visiting one of the former Black African townships that encircle the city. Soweto and Alexandra immediately came to mind as they each played a strong role in the eventually existential battle against apartheid.
If crime was rampant, you would not know it on that pleasant early autumn morning as we ate a casual breakfast on the porch of our B&B. Afterwards our host drove us a short distance to the Marlboro train station where we caught the Gautrain for the short hop to the upscale northern borough of Sandton. She would meet us there again in the afternoon along with our luggage. This modern light rail system opened in 2009 in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer competition hosted by South Africa. It now links Johannesburg and the airport with the capital city of Pretoria a few miles to the north.
Along the way we got our first real look at the former "native township" of Alexandra – known locally simply as "Alex" – which in contrast to modern Sandton is among the poorest urban areas in the entire country. Almost 200,000 people are crowded into three square miles. Alexandra was the home of Nelson Mandela in the early 1940s, as well as several ministers of his African National Congress government when he became the first black president of South Africa in 1994. It was also home to Samora Machel, later president of neighboring Mozambique whose widow Mandela married after divorcing his second wife Winnie. Machel lived in Alexandra in the 1950s and 1960s when he worked at a hotel in downtown Johannesburg. Hastings Banda, a former president of Malawi, also lived here for a time before moving to Soweto. It is now home to an ever-growing population of Zimbabweans who have fled their chaotic homeland in search of jobs. In the early 1980s a new master plan was introduced to transform and modernize Alexandra, but all of this came to an end in February 1986 when a violent uprising known popularly as "Alex Six Days" resulted in scores being killed by security forces while attending a funeral. Tensions still exist there today as they do in other townships around the country.
Just a short distance to the west is Sandton which is considered by many to be the wealthiest square mile in all of Africa. It certainly appeared so on first blush, especially after traveling along the outer fringes of Alexandra. Sandton became a destination of white flight in the mid 1990s when the ANC government took power in the midst of racial unrest throughout the country. Many hotels and corporate offices have since relocated here to escape the urban decay and rampant crime in central Johannesburg and elsewhere. Despite its reputation as a moneyed enclave, I found a rather cheery and pleasant racial mix going about their daily lives among sidewalk markets adjacent to upscale galleries and boutique, it streets full of traffic, including a fleet of tuk-tuks, those three-wheel motorized rickshaws used for deliveries and as taxis. These would be a common sight as one passes through South Africa’s urban areas.
From Sandton we made our way slowly through central precincts of Johannesburg on the MI autoroute. South Africa’s largest city – frequently referred to as simply "Jo-burg" - is situated on the Witwatersrand, an east-west escarpment running through today’s Gauteng (Sesotho for "place of gold") and Mpumalanga provinces. This area was originally highveld grasslands covered with scrub brush until the Afrikaner farmers moved into the former Transvaal (South African Republic) from the British (formerly Dutch) Cape Colony (centered around Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope) in the late 19th century. This region is also part of South Africa’s Golden Arc," the massive gold-bearing reefs where at one time almost half of the world’s gold was mined following its discovery in 1886, the same year Johannesburg was established by those attracted to the new gold rush.
There were few if any naturally occurring trees in the Witwatersrand when the Afrikaners arrived. They brought with them seeds - oak and walnut mostly - from the Cape Colony to plant as wind breaks for their new farms. With the development of the gold mining industry in the area, the mining companies established a horticultural center just north of Johannesburg to cultivate trees whose wood would be satisfactory for reinforcing mine shafts and tunnels. They would eventually settle on the blue gum (eucalyptus) which quickly became an important commodity supporting the South African economy. Various types of trees were planted along city streets and residents were encouraged to plant trees on their property and in their gardens. Over the past century the city has continued to plant and cultivate trees, especially in those underclass areas that suffered under apartheid, and today Johannesburg is considered one of the world’s greenest cities. Towering above the city’s treescape are long ochre-hued hummocks formed by the tailings from the mining of the gold reefs.
Arriving in teeming Soweto, the oldest former Black African (the current official demographic designation) township established in the 1930s and situated on the southwestern edge of the city (thus the name), I was surprised to discover that it was far larger and more diverse than I had expected with a population well over one million. Established in the wake of the Urban Areas Act of 1923 which sought to separate the races, Soweto is now technically part of the City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality since 2002. Yet Soweto is in many ways a city unto itself with its own core neighborhoods and"suburbs." Like many, I first learned of Soweto in 1976 when a massive violent uprising against apartheid rule erupted here and quickly spread to other townships, including Alexandra. Scores of blacks were killed and the uprising marked the beginning of the slow deconstruction of the apartheid system.
Our driver and guide was a Zulu resident of Soweto (they are the largest ethnic Bantu people in both South Africa and Soweto) who shared with us the rich colorful history of various sections of the township, from Diepkloof through Kliptown to Orlando. Despite its size, in many ways my first impressions of Soweto matched what I expected to find. Here was the maze of shanty neighborhoods with their corrugated tin houses and huts.
For me there were two memorable moments during our visit to Soweto. The first was our stop at Walter Sisulu Square, in the heart of Kliptown, where we were able to explore sacred ground for South Africa’s native peoples. For it was in a field located here on June 26-27, 1955 that the Congress of the
Next we drove to nearby Vilakazi Street in Orlando West to visit the Nelson Mandela House and Museum. Mandela lived in this small brick house from 1946 until 1962 when he was
Some of the residential areas throughout Soweto struck me as solidly middle-class, some even with Mercedes and Jaguars parked in the driveways. Our guide told us that some of the wealthiest blacks still choose to reside in Soweto. Much of the township, however, is gut-wrenchingly poor. To call it a slum would be too kind. It reminded me a great deal of scenes from the gritty 2005 film Tsotsi set in the Alexandra township although it was actually filmed in some of the Soweto neighborhoods we drove through. Based on a novel by contemporary playwright Athol Fugard (more on him in Part VI), it won the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (featuring Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, as well as some English).
We continued past the brightly painted Orlando Towers -
Following our visit we returned to the Marlboro train station later in the afternoon where our previous night’s host met us with out luggage. We took the Gautrain back to the airport to meet other members of our upcoming safari who were arriving on a flight from Atlanta. From there we headed north to Brits, near Pretoria, where we would spend the next two nights.