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A Day in Jozi

‘Fly to Cape Town instead’’

I must admit, prior to embarking on my 3-week tour through South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe, I did not think that the 72 hours I spent in Johannesburg (the biggest city in South Africa) would be the most eye-opening. I saw lions in the Kruger, slept under the stars in the Okavango and marvelled at the mighty Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Despite this, the lasting memory I have is of my time in this fascinating metropolis. The history, the culture, the food, the architecture and the people all providing this unforgettable, albeit short, experience.

With Johannesburg always comes apprehension. When I told people I was going there, responses (from South Africans as well) included-

‘’Book a tour that doesn’t travel within 100 miles of Johannesburg’’

‘’Fly to Cape Town instead’’

‘’You will get shot’’

‘’Avoid Johannesburg like the plague mate, complete hole’’

The issue was that when it comes to travelling, I do not listen to many people. If I want to go, I will go…unless there’s a pandemic but that never happens…. right….? I must admit, when I have seen Johannesburg from an outsider perspective, it has almost always been through sport- whether it’s the Wanderers for cricket or Ellis Park for rugby. ‘Invictus’ was one of my favourite films. I’ve heard songs such as ‘Give me Hope Joanna’ and ‘Shosholoza’. It was always the upbeat side, and I wasn’t all too naïve to ignore the fact that there was more to the city and a few plush sports stadiums and catchy songs. What I really wanted to understand was the history- the country that has 11 official languages, the country that blessed us with Nelson Mandela, the ‘Rainbow Nation’. I knew Johannesburg was intrinsic to the anti-apartheid movement, and the place to go to understand the history of an incredible country. I had met many South Africans in the UK, but I noticed that none of them were black. I wanted to understand whether challenges were still faced. I learned a lot about this as well, but at risk of being too political, this post will focus on my experiences in the city.

After a brief stopover in Nairobi, I landed in Johannesburg in the early afternoon. As I waited for somebody to pick me up from the place I was staying, I noticed the diversity. Black, White, South Asian, East Asian- this was perhaps the most diverse Airport I had been to, except the obvious hubs such as Heathrow, Dubai and Singapore. I was offered many different services whilst waiting outside (some not suitable for any children who may read this), but overall, the excitement of finally being in South Africa made me oblivious. Upon reaching the hotel, I unpacked, and made to the exit to go on a walk and then….

‘’Excuse me sir, we are in an unsafe area, please do not leave the gates on foot, unaccompanied!’’

Bloody hell! I did not think it could have been that bad. Anyway, I hailed a cab and grabbed a meal at the Emperors Palace and a few beers after. I was approached by a South African guy who said he would buy me a couple of drinks whilst we chatted and being alone, I took him up on it. He was rather opinionated and talked about how the apartheid times were the best, how he felt held back by the new system (of equality!!) and how he wanted out. The discussion made me extremely uncomfortable and when I told him this he replied saying ‘But you’re from the UK, surely you don’t agree with the discrimination white people face in South Africa?’’. It was all rather uncomfortable, and I never provided my own opinion on this. This made me realise that there were still strong residual feelings, even after 25-30 years. It was sad, but every country faces this challenge and South Africa was no real exception, in the recent past at least.

The next day was the part I was really looking forward to. I had booked a day tour through Johannesburg, which included most if what I imagined, were the ‘highlights. After being picked up by a couple of hungover (and apologetic) tour guides, we made our way to pick up the others. They warmed to me a bit more than they did to the others- perhaps because I was alone, or because I met them first. They even promised to have a friend drop me to my hotel separately so I could be on time to my tour introduction (something I was later told was a dumb thing to do- never trust a stranger in Johannesburg and all that BS).

The first stop was Constitution Hill, which included the prison where both Gandhi and Mandela spent time (not together). What struck me was how informative the attraction was. There were heaps of text, ornaments and displays. What I admired most was the humility shown by both Gandhi and Mandela. Always forgive those that oppress you was their underlying thought process. That effort to forgive and be kind for a greater cause was inspiring. There were also exhibitions on how prisoners were treated, the differences in food given to white and black prisoners and the unsanitary conditions they faced. Of course, this was experienced by many prisoners around the world, but knowing that both beacons of world peace experienced oppression here really brought home several emotions. We then proceeded to the parliament, which was fairly in line with other constitutional buildings. After this, we went to Carlton Tower, which at that time was the tallest building in Africa, standing at 223 meters. A personal highlight was seeing Ellis Park from above, the Scene of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final where Mandela supported a sport, which many saw was the epitome of apartheid. Again, that ability to forgive, to sympathise and support those that oppressed him was a trait I admired so much with the man.

Our next stop was the Apartheid Museum, where I felt was a point where every decision that I made that cumulated in me coming to this city was justified. The entrances itself were racially segregated whereby you were given a ticket with either ‘White’ or ‘Black’ (at random) on it. You took the corresponding entrance depending on the ticket. Whilst this was a sort of gimmick, the fact that we were differentiating based on skin colour itself was haunting. I also realised that it wasn’t only black people that were victims of apartheid- Asians and other ‘minorities’ were discriminated as well. It was a problem that was felt by most people in the country. What was even more scary was that it was not even 30 years ago! Videos were shown of the anti-apartheid movement, as well as discrimination. I must say, I didn’t walk out with dry eyes, and I didn’t see many others that did either. It was harrowing. There were ‘white only areas’, interracial marriages were banned, and Black people were not allowed to vote. I do not want to describe this museum in too much detail because I would urge people to visit and form their own opinions- it is the sentiments rather than the attractions within the museum themselves that still leaves me awestruck.

We then moved on to Soweto, which was the townships where in 1954, thousands of Black South Africans, as a result of the Native Settlement Act, were forced out of predominantly white areas to areas such as Soweto. In fact, at the time Soweto was not even considered part of Johannesburg. We visited a family living in a hut in Soweto, which again seemed a bit staged, but the conditions were extremely difficult. After this we walked to Nelson Mandela’s house in Orlando West in Soweto and then the Hector Pietersen Museum, named after the South African Schoolboy, who was murdered as part of the Soweto uprising in 1976. Although 176 were recorded murdered as part of the massacre, you could not trust the South African Government at the time as far as you could throw them. It was harrowing and humbling to see how these brave souls laid down their lives for something they believed in, but also disgusting that it had to happen in the first place. I have met people from South Africa who still claim Apartheid was the era in which South Africa blossomed the most- but at what cost? It’s a horrible way of looking at it. I draw parallels with the George Floyd protests of last summer and believe that when it was peaceful, it was necessary. No protest should be violent, and I would always condemn that. I asked my driver about the quota system and whether that puts white people in South Africa at a disadvantage and he came up with a fantastic analogy-

Imagine you start a 100m race and your legs are tied. 50m in you would be last. Then they untie your legs and let you run. Would you catch up over a short distance? No. You would need time and help to catch up first, and this is what the quota system does’’

Before this, I was all about the best person should get the job, role. I was perhaps naïve, looking at the South African cricket team and thinking the whole of South Africa was white, when I was younger. Same with rugby. You want those that represent a nation to represent its demographics- therefore we have constitutional elections in the UK. When Siya Kolisi lifted the Rugby World Cup as captain in 2019, that symbolised change. A black South African rugby captain would not have been envisaged a few years ago, let alone during apartheid. Hashim Amla, of Indian origin captained the South African cricket team, Kagiso Rabada is their best bowler- the fruits of a quota system are now coming to bear and isn’t that something we should celebrate?

My tour finished with a dilemma. I was running late to the GAdventures tour induction meeting and there was absolutely no way I was going to make it on time if the lads on the tour drove me to the hotel- as they had to drop the others off home too. So, one of them called up his mate and we waited on the hard shoulder until his mate picked me up. Then his mate, whom I had never heard off dropped me off and refused to take any money. I remember telling this to the receptionist who shouted at me in a maternal, concerning way-

‘You can do that in Cape Town. You can do that in Port Elizabeth, but never get in a random person’s car in Johannesburg’

To which I replied-

‘’I don’t think anyone in Cape Town would have been kind or hospitable enough to give a random person a lift, so I don’t regret anything.’’

So that is where I stand with Johannesburg. I absolutely loved it. No, I haven’t been a victim of crime and I cannot even say I know much about the city. The people I met, however, were so kind and accepting and the history and culture is unlike anywhere else I had visited before or since. I would 100% recommend a visit to ‘Jozi’, and yes- keep safe, but also remember there are plenty of kindhearted people there that will help you do that.

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