Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Today we toured Johannesburg. Siphiwe, our guide took us to the rich north side Houghton area, the formerly rich area of Hillbrow that is now mostly home to illegal immigrants from other southern African countries,  downtown, the Apartheid Museum, and Soweto. By the end of the day we have a much better understanding of life here both before and after the end of apartheid in 1992 and the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. 
Downtown Joburg

Downtown Joburg
Several times Siphiwe talked about Joburg’s reputation as a violent and dangerous place. This shows itself in the gated homes in north Joburg and the absence of whites in both downtown and Soweto. According to Siphiwe, Joburg is not significantly more dangerous than any other large city as long as you don’t put yourself in dangerous  situations. 

After driving through downtown to see all the unemployed and the streetside shops typical of other large cities in poorer countries, we rode the elevator to the Top of Africa at the Carlton Center. From there we got great views of the city and environs although just like looking at New York from high up, you really can’t see but a part of it. Joburg has a population of over 8 million, 3 million of whom live in Soweto. Yet we could not even see Soweto from the 50-story tower because it is behind a giant hill of gold mine tailings. We could see, in addition to the crowded streets, three hotels that no longer accept guests. Today there are no hotels in downtown Joburg. While the deterioration of downtowns is a common occurrence today, I’m not aware of another one that has lost all of its hotels. 
Entrance to the Apartheid Museum
 From there we went to the Apartheid Museum. Paid for by a nearby casino, the museum opened in 2001. The temporary exhibit on Nelson Mandela covered his life from birth. Most interesting to me was the story of his father. The family story is that his father had refused an order from the local magistrate to explain a land decision he had made as the official responsible. Further investigation showed that his father had not refused the order and had been removed from the office over a dispute over an animal where the father had used his influence inappropriately. 

The permanent exhibit leads attendees through a maze that begins with rock art and leads viewers through the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. Before entering the museum everyone is randomly chosen to be white or non-white who then go in separate entrances. The final stop is a contemplative park. 
Soweto Today

Soweto was a big surprise for me. I have seen pictures of narrow alleys amongst the tin shacks. Those were pictures from the apartheid era, so things have changed , but the truth is also that the pictures I saw had to have been an incomplete picture. A township of over one million must have had more than just tin shacks, especially since black South Africans were forced to live in designated areas such as Soweto.
Mine Worker Hostels - Not much larger than a bedroom.
Soweto at its Worst Today
 The shacks we saw today were spread out in the lower wetland areas. Siphiwe showed us this area along with hostels built for mine workers and some upper and middle class areas of Soweto. These homes would be nice middle class homes in any city in the US. He also took us past Winnie Mandela’s home. Easily identified by the African flags, Winnie’s home is well protected by bullet-proof glass and cameras. 
Hector's Memorial

Hector's Memorial

We also stopped by the memorial to the youngest child (Hector Pieterson) killed by the police when the students of Soweto protested  the new rule that half of all classes would be taught in Afrikaans, even though most did not speak it and there weren’t even enough teachers who could speak the language. 
Minibuses Ready To Go
A couple of other highlights include the cell phone trees, cell phone towers built to look like trees, and the 20,000 minibuses that take the place of bus lines and taxis for the poorer segment of the population. They do run regular routes, but hold only 16 passengers crammed in.

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