Skip to content

A Day in Johannesburg


VuvuzelasWe landed in Johannesburg airport to the accompaniment of a thousand vuvuzelas.  As South Africa prepared for the World Cup– these vuvuzelas were South Africa’s hope & secret weapon. As one local person pointed out, their strategy is to blast out these vuvuzelas so that the Europeans will be too baffled to play well.  As each flight landed and fans disembarked from the plane, the uproar started all over again with everyone singing their own football anthems.  Amidst the pandemonium, our guide Amos waited for us at the gate.  We had booked a day tour of Johannesburg city through Wilro Travels (recommend it) and they had promised to send us a guide for the day.  Amos was a soft spoken rotund guy and seemed like an oasis of calm after the chaos of the airport. He quickly shepherded all of us to the car, loaded our luggage in the boot and immediately launched into tour guide mode telling us about the city and the places we were going to see.

Our first destination was Soweto – the historically black neighbourhood that was the site of the struggle against Apartheid.  As we drove towards Soweto, we passed huge golden colored hills— that stood out starkly against the brown soil.  The hills were created byGold Hills the dumping of the soil that was excavated during gold mining.   However since the soil was treated with chemicals to extract gold , it changed into a golden yellow color.  The history of Johannesburg is essentially tied to the  story of these gold mines.    The Europeans first came to South Africa in the 1600s as part of the Dutch East India company and stayed on as farmers or Boers. These early immigrants were mainly Dutch but also included other Europeans particularly the French and Germans. These settlers called themselves Afrikaners and even developed their own version of Dutch language that they called the Afrikaans.  When gold was first discovered, people from all over the world came in by hordes with dreams of gold in their eyes. The rest of the Europe, particularly the British started getting interested in the country– and this started the major Anglo Boer war.  When the British won the war, the country of South Africa was created politically.

GandhijiIndians will remember this war because Gandhiji, was in South Africa at that time and supported the English, in the hope that they would support Indians back home. It was during this war that Gandhiji started his satyagraha and his long arduous journey to become the Mahatma.   We did stop at the Gandhi square in Johannesburg on our way back  — it was interesting that all statues, pictures and monuments dedicated to Gandhi here ( and there are quite a few of them)  feature him as a young barrister in coat and suit rather than the loin cloth clad bald Gandhiji figure that we Indians are used to.

As Amos informed us about the history, one factor that shocked me is that the policy of apartheid was created fairly recently in 1948. It was created after WorldDSC_0702 War II, when these European nations were condemning the Holocaust back home, they were creating Apartheid in South Africa.  Another factoid that I picked up was that apartheid was not merely the racial separation of the blacks and whites but classification of people into four separate categories In hierarchical order: they were the whites, the Indians (included Indians, Chinese and infact most Asians), the coloreds (the mixed race) and lowest of the order : the blacks.  Even among the whites, there was a distinction between the English whites and Afrikaner whites.

Each of the four races had their own area within and around the city based on this hierarchy. While the whites occupied the northern portion ofSowetoJohannesburg,  the blacks were relegated farthest away from them to Soweto  or South West Township.   Soweto is lot like the chawl system in India : long rows of one room tenements with common bathrooms at either end. Even within  Soweto, there  was further subdivisions based on the 9 different African tribes in this area.  As the world starting taking note of the injustice and Soweto took centerstage for the uprisings against apartheid, the government decided that if the media showcased the wretched conditions the blacks were living in, it would not bode well for their foreign policies. So they enclosed the squalor and filth and built perfectly nice houses all around Soweto so that when media came calling they only portrayed gentrified version of Soweto.

Vilakaazi StreetAmos pointed out several landmarks as we drove past : the humungous Baragwananth hospital that covered several blocks and is probably the largest hospital in Africa, the  famous Vilakaazi street which boasts of the residence of two Nobel Prize winners,  Nelson Mandela (which is now a museum) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Around the corner is one of the residences of  another important leader of the fight against apartheid: Winne Mandela.

We stopped the Hector Pieterson museum which commemorated the youth’s uprising protesting against the medium of instruction inHector PietersonAfrikaans. The white Afrikaan rulers insisted that half the subjects should be taught in Afrikaan language : a foreign language to the Blacks who preferred English or Bantu. Our guide told us that in his youth, he was forced to learn half the subjects in the white’s language: the Afrikaans  and that he learnt Maths in English and Physics in Afrikaans and for a long time he had no idea that there could be Mathematics in Physical Sciences.   Many lives were lost when the young Black South Africans rose in protest aginst this injustice. Leaders like Winnie Mandela supported the rebellion from the ghettos of Soweto.  13 year old Hector Pieterson was killed by the police during this struggle. The Hector Pieterson museum has film montages, pictures and oral history of those who fought against the oppression.

Apartheid MuseumHowever it was the Apartheid museum that truly brought the horror alive.  I think what was most horrifying about the whole apartheid was that it was so recent. We spent about three hours, wandering about the museum and learning about how the people were classified and segregated, the innumerable laws that prohibited the blacks and colored from living a life of dignity, the atrocities that were meted out to them and their struggle to overcome all of this that culminated with the freedom of Nelson Mandela and the election of his government.  I always thought Nelson Mandela was a hero to withstand his long prison sentence and then to end apartheidCIMG2110 but I was even more impressed by the fact that he managed to govern without the country having to face a civil war. I would have thought that when black regained power after decades of being powerless , there would be some kind of internal civil riots  and these generally would cripple a fledgling  country. However by peaceful process of reconciliation, the change in power was considerably peaceful and  South Africans seemed to be quite peacefully reintegrated.  Most blacks , like our guide, viewed the upcoming years with hope and had great visions of the country’s progress.

I did have a chance to chat with some of the local white South Africans who not surprisingly didn’t view  the country’s present was as rosy as the blacks described it.  But all of them , black or white,  believed that the next generation – those that are in schools now–  and are being taught the same values  regardless of skin color & that  they would carry the nation forward.

DSC_0750_FramedWe ended the day by driving through the  Johannesburg, seeing the impressive Soccer City stadium, where the World Cup would begin in a three days time, and then going on to the business districts past the Federal Reserve building, the town hall and the Johannesburg stock exchange to the Carlton Center which our guide proudly described as the tallest building in Africa. After being on top of the twin towers & Empire State state building for me and the Burj Dubai (the tallest building in the world– for my sister), we were not impressed by the height but we could see far most of the city. DSC_0721Johannesburg reminded me of very much of  Bombay, there was the business district with its ultramodern office buildings, the fancy apartment complexes but right next to it are the tenements of Soweto (like chawls)  and the slums which hardly had any electricity or running water or sanitation.  There is huge wealth in the city but we also passed open drains, heaps of refuse and beggars on the sidewalk.  Truly a city of contradictions but one that is full of hope & a sense of joie de vivre for the future.

Posted in Travel.

Tagged with , , , .

One Response

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Siddharth.M says

    Hey ,

    Nice work. Its really a rejuvenating article. Being in the Hot and harsh climate, this is really a place to visit and enjoy the moment.


Copyright Deepa