A short time in Johannesburg

En route to Madagascar we decided to have a brief stopover in Johannesburg. It was one city in South Africa that I had never visited. In 1984 I spent my medical school elective in a rural hospital in northern KwaZulu, passing through Durban on the way and spending a few days in Cape Town visiting friends before returning home. In 1993, we spent longer in Cape Town visiting friends who were working there for a while and drove along the Garden Route via Franschhoek to Port Elizabeth. We arrived in sunshine and driving into the city was a similar experience to driving into many North American cities: Johannesburg was founded in 1886 after gold was discovered. Our hotel in Braamfontein had a view over the city from the 24th floor. The circular building is the council office and there is a statue of three miners looking towards where the gold was found.

We took a short walk downtown. There are various colleges nearby and one of the universities so there is a lot of student accommodation, fast food outlets and students wandering around. There was some street art.

We walked onto Nelson Mandela Bridge which was completed in 2003.

It overlooks the station where there were many carriages which looked abandoned.

Chatting to some of the locals we learned that the current weather is cooler than it should be and that they have had less rain than usual. We finished our day at the roof-top bar in our hotel watching the sun go down.

With only a day left in the city we decided to take a tour. It tuned out that we were the only people on it. Johannesburg is the biggest city in Africa and also the greenest as it has so many trees. Our tour took us up to Sandton which is the most expensive square mile in Africa with middle class housing, businesses, hotels and retail centres. What will be the tallest building in Africa is currently under construction and is almost finished. We then were driven through Rosemount to Houghton and Twelfth Avenue where Nelson Mandela’s house is. It is now occupied by his widow and children.

Outside are several squares of painted rocks with RIP and ‘Thank you’ messages from all over the world.

From Upper Houghton we had a view over the northern suburbs.

There was a mosque as in the 19th century the British brought workers from the Indian Subcontinent to work on the sugar cane farms. At one point I thought I was back when I saw a road sign to Carse O’Gowrie. Driving from downtown to Hillbrow we saw several abandoned buildings. Our guide told us that unemployment was 27% here and mostly among young people. The next stop was Constitutional Hill. It is the site of the Old Fort built in 1892 and which became a prison. The buildings were very similar to those at Fort George near Inverness which we had visited earlier in the year. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were prisoners here.

It ceased to be a prison in 1987 and now houses the Constitutional Court. The interior has sculptures and other artworks and there was also a photographic exhibition.
Outside is the Flame of Democracy which was lit on December 10 2011 when South Africa celebrated the 15th anniversary of the signing of the constitution.

The next stop was Soweto, originally established to house mine workers in hostels. Others moved there in 1904 to avoid a plague outbreak in Sophiatown. Our guide said that many visitors assume it is a shanty town whereas in fact there is a variety of housing including some affluent middle-class homes, commuter trains and buses and a large shopping mall. There are still some residual hand-built shacks with herds of goats and illegally tapped electricity. Soweto did not get electricity until 1986. We saw Nelson Mandela’s home where he lived from 1940. Desmond Tutu’s home is also here. We had lunch at a restaurant in Vilakazi Street which since the 1990as has grown to contain shops, restaurants and bars for tourists. We were serenaded by a Tswana tribe band. The Orlando Towers are cooling towers from a decommissioned power station. Covered in murals you can bungee and base jump from them.

Local taxis (minibuses) in Johannesburg are hailed by standing at the roadside and giving a hand signal. One finger raised means you want to go downtown. Near Newton we saw lots of buses with huge trailers. Our guide told us that many people from Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique come to shop in Johannesburg. The Carlton Centre in Newton opened in 1974 and has been the tallest building in Africa but is about to be superseded by the one in Sandton. Our last stop was the very powerful Apartheid Museum. Photography is not allowed inside. Afterwards it was time to return to our hotel and prepare for an early departure the next morning. There is so much to see in and around the city and our visit was very much a taster.

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