Johannesburg - S. Africa
The overwhelming piece of advice I heard about Johannesburg was when you
get into town don?t waste too much time getting out. If you look at the
crime statistics only the country of Columbia has more violent crime. The
Colombians, however, like to commit their heinous acts on one another, while
it seems the tourists are prey in South Africa. Oh well, I needed to see
a few things that would possibly help us understand the effects and
current situation which apartheid has levied on the largest city in South
Africa. It was this idea that led us to hire a tour company to escort us
around the townships and central business district of Johannesburg.
I booked a morning tour through our overly hospitable hotel and set off
from our gated community. Although this was touted ?the most popular tour?
only three people showed; Bob (my traveling partner), myself and Isaac (our driver). Maybe it
was just too early. After a quick petrol stop we were off to Soweto, the
largest township in Johannesburg, consisting of four million people.
Supposedly the wealthiest of all the townships, it was marred by
shantytowns and a frightening smell of burning oil.
Let me offer you a brief history lesson. Yes this will include dates, but
the significance of how current these events have occurred is startling.
Soweto was the sight where on June 16, 1976 students organized a protest
against the use of Afrikaans as the language in public schools. After a
number of demonstrators were shot and killed by white police, a series of
riots ensued. This brought international attention to South Africa and a
critical look into their apartheid government. Apartheid eventually ended
in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress
As our tour truck drove undisturbed past the vehicle theft police, it became
apparent that the unwritten rule of tourism safety resonated with each bump
in the road. Our driver gave a thumbs up sign on a slight angle to
passer-bye?s on the street, which we later discovered was a pledge to the
ANC. The streets were active. Women walked with baskets of goods perched
high on top their heads, as men worked on their dwellings while looking
after the playing children who graced us with song and big smiles as we
Eventually the monotony of seeing houses made of no more than a few pieces
of wood slanted against a pile of bricks was broken by a middle class
subdivision. Houses ranged from simple one-bedroom dwellings to the cramped
mansions of Winnie Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
Careful maneuvering through the winding streets led us to the small-gated
house where Nelson Mandela resided prior to arrest in 1956. For a mere $2
we walked through this newly created museum. Established in 1997.
Our guide was a distinguished young man dressed in a magnificent African
robe. He was a skilled orator, educated at Boston University. His cautious
voice gave the impression that his words may be silenced like many men
before him. The stories centered on the numerous photographs, clothing, and
awards presented to Nelson Mandela over the last 80 plus years of his life.
The house itself, which was resided in by his wife told the most haunted
stories. A bullet-ridden fortress had interior walls erected to block
incoming bullets. Stories of a crossbred Doberman Pincher/Rotweilerr breed,
coy enough to avoid eating poison meat was her shadow. Streetlights were
shot out in the neighborhood and street numbers had been painted over to
buy time from the police if so needed. Countless tales later our guide
offered us the use of Nelson Mandela?s toilet, gave us the chance to take a
couple of pictures, and sent us on our way.
We huddled back into our truck and were thankful that we were able to
experience such a historical landmark. However, without a local guide I
reckon this would have been a much different; and when I say different I
mean dangerous, experience.
We had our fill of townships and headed to the once thriving megalopolis of
Johannesburg. From a distance the downtown business district looks like any
modern large city. Tall skyscrapers, storefronts, vehicles, and well
maintained roads with a traffic light on every corner. The difference
becomes evident, as you get closer. Many of immaculate buildings are left
vacant, the vehicles are office-moving trucks and although the traffic
lights are fully functioning you won?t be stopping on red anyways.
Our driver, Isaac, was employed at one of the many 5-star hotels in the Central Business District
before they closed shop three years ago. Hotels like the Marriott had to
close their doors when mugging became so out of control it was occurring
five feet outside the door. An escort was needed to walk around the city,
and even a local on your arm didn?t mean much to the area muggers.
As unbelievable as this sounds, the government actually set up a police
station within the interior of the city, but had to close it down due to
crime. Our guide took us to the street and explained we wouldn?t be able to
touch the side of the nearest building before we got robbed. It was kind of
hard to believe with all the people just calmly sitting around. The
absolute void of street vendors, in a country where beds to kitchen sinks
are sold on the streets, was an obvious hint that no one was about to
conduct business in this area.
Needless to say we still got out of the truck. I think it was to look at
the tallest building in the city, but my eyes didn?t leave the shady guys
across the street. Our driver?s sudden nervousness was contagious as we
scurried back into the truck.
By this time we were comfortable enough to ask Isaac the complicated
question of how this could happen? His answer was angry and void of
responsibility. He explained that after Apartheid ended political refugees
were let back into the county. Many of these people were from neighboring
countries with no understanding of a civilized community. According to our
driver it appears these vagrants with no family, fingerprints, or traceably
are creating the mass hysteria and fleeing within Johannesburg?s central
Time for me to fly,