Journey through Jo’burg

  • Travel
  • Saturday, 22 Oct 2005

Black men’s wheels, break my windows — confronting words, even in jest, and enough to goad white South Africa to barricade itself behind high walls and razor wire, securing Johannesburg’s most privileged shops and corporate offices inside a gilded ghetto called Sandton, writes PHILIP GAME. 

The former Witwatersrand, Gauteng or Place of Gold in the Sotho language, is South Africa’s smallest but wealthiest province, founded on the world’s richest reef of gold. Its capital, Johannesburg, is the economic hub of all South Africa, and the city sprawls right up to the outskirts of Pretoria, where the Boer war dead are buried. 

Johannesburg sprang up far from waterways or other natural assets, its patterns of settlement shaped by racial segregation. Apartheid’s legacy, although starting to break down, still distorts many lives. Young children from affluent black families join their older brothers and sisters aboard the suburban trains, commuting long distances to well-regarded schools. 

History is still being made in Jo’burg, as everyone calls it, as the nightmare of apartheid retreats into the background, and to a large extent this is the fascination of the place. 

Downtown Johannesburg, we learn, should be visited only in daylight hours. Sandton, the transplanted heart of Johannesburg, lies half an hour north, a labyrinth of sumptuous shopping malls and hotels which attempt to evoke the Italian Renaissance here on the Highveld. If there’s a certain sense of the surreal, with the Rand trading at more than two to the Ringgit, wining, dining and shopping in style prove pleasantly affordable. Locally-made clothes are fair value, and there’s a vast range of recorded African music available. 

Shantytowns are inhabited by people from the other side of the social spectrum.

Yes, there is a scattering of affluent Africans shopping at Sandton too, if for the most part black faces belong to solicitous waiters, doormen and security guards. Beyond the malls, scruffy, silent figures gather at “robots” – traffic lights to the rest of us – hawking newspapers.  

Soweto is not one township but many, a city of 3.5 million people sprawling between the mine waste dumps southwest of Johannesburg proper. The name itself, seemingly indigenous, is simply an acronym for SouthWestTownship, conceived by the planners of apartheid who segregated the black mine workers, recruited from so far and wide that they had to be taught a basic common language before beginning work underground. 

Abram Mofokeng was born in 1958 in Orlando East, the first of the Soweto townships. He grew up against the backdrop of names made famous on the nightly television news. Old-style tourists visiting Soweto became “monkeys in a moving cage” shielded by police: Abram represents a new approach, locals escorting small groups. 

Departing Sandton, we glide through the leafy streets of affluent Lower Houghton, whose swimming pools and tennis courts are no longer off-limits to anybody with money. Nelson Mandela’s office and the home he shares with his second wife, Graca Machel, are patrolled today by a bomb disposal squad car. 

We have arrived a day after several bombs exploded in Soweto, allegedly the work of white extremists soon fingered by police. Trains were derailed; one life was lost, and a bomb found in a petrol station defused. 

Enterprising Tabitha Kamau.

The sadly depressed status of Hillbrow comes as a revelation to one of our number who lived and worked here, two decades ago. Now home to guest workers from Zimbabwe and Angola, this inner-city district has lost any sense of community. For Abram, this loss is what corrupts a neighbourhood. “Even if we had tin houses in Soweto, we still knew each other, unlike this area,” he declares. 

In the city centre, Joubert Park is a sprawling transport hub whence taxis depart all over southern Africa. From the nearby central railway station, the busiest line runs into Soweto. 

Green-and-gold uniformed watchmen stand on almost every corner. Eloff Street becomes a sea of people on market days; the Indian retail district is shabby but still bustles. The De Beers Building was “built with diamonds”, its design modelled on a diamond washing pan. The city hall, library, Supreme Court – these institutions remain in place, although white faces are now rare. The stock exchange moved to Sandton some time ago, whilst major hotels like the Carlton slipped down the ratings before closing their doors altogether. In better times one looked out over the “top of Africa” from the rooftop of the Carlton Centre. 

In the wasteland underneath an overpass, we pay a brief visit to the Faraday Medical Depot, a marketplace for Sangoma or traditional healers to stock up on an eclectic assortment of gnarled roots, mysterious plants and powders. 

From the expressway, the nondescript John Vorster Building flashes by – this was the police headquarters from which Steve Biko and other Black leaders “slipped” or “fell” to their deaths during the 1970s. 

Rosebank dolls for sale.

Two landmarks appear on Soweto’s outskirts. The former reform school beside the highway was once headed by Alan Paton, author of the seminal Cry the Beloved Country. Opposite another sprawling transport terminal stands the huge Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital. Twenty thousand babies are born here each year. 

Diepkloof township lies within sight of waste dumps from the gold mines, opposite the “Welcome to Soweto” sign. Rows of matchbox houses, compact but often well-cared for, crowd into the treeless streets. Those less fortunate rent a garage, power and water included, for 280 Rand (about RM120) per month.  

  • Philip Game travelled as a guest of the Regional Tourism Association of Southern Africa00 

    The inhabitants

    Soweto’s professionals settle into suburban affluence in the Beverly Hills district, whilst those at the other end of the social spectrum exist in shantytowns like Mshenguville. Alongside the shantytowns, the desperately bleak hostels where single men board for 30 Rand per month and the rubbish-strewn vacant lots, one can still find evidence of community pride and cohesion. 

    From 1955 onwards, people from nine tribes moved into these regimented ghettos, many forcibly relocated from the once-vibrant community of Sophiatown. Segregated by tribes, the inhabitants of Soweto communicated in a mix of Sotho and Zulu languages. Makeshift public telephone cabinets stand on many corners, some converted from shipping containers. 

    A scratch football game is underway: soccer has always been more popular here than the Afrikaaners’ rugby. There are 50 soccer fields and the Orlando Stadium seats 55,000: the Orlando Pioneers once gave a good account of themselves against AC Milan. 

    Soweto’s home-grown heroes include two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize, although on his release Nelson Mandela refused to share the palatial (and well-fortified) home built in Vilakazi Street, Orlando West Extension by his wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, declaring it tainted by her misappropriations. Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived nearby. 

    On June 14, 1976, Black schoolchildren joined a protest march against the imposition of the Afrikaans language on an already-stretched education system. Police fired on the crowd, mortally wounding 13-year-old Hector Pieterson. The schoolboy martyr is remembered in the suitably austere museum bearing his name, which tells the story of those turbulent times through stark contemporary images. This incident became a watershed from which the pressure for reform gained momentum, but at the cost of a lost generation of Blacks whose schooling was interrupted or aborted. 

    We wrap up our Soweto tour by taking tea at Baseia Bed and Breakfast, which operates from the unpretentious but comfortable home of a hospitable lady named Queen Mokgopo. The homespun hospitality is faultless but the price raises some eyebrows – clearly pitched at foreign visitors. Optional excursions include visits to shebeens, the lively bars and clubs descended from the original watering holes of Irish workingmen. 

    Two people I met one Sunday at Rosebank, a slick suburb not far from Sandton, perhaps exemplify the new Johannesburg. Victor Nyoro Karanja and Tabitha Kamau are two amongst many savvy traders at the African Craft Market, their stalls well-stocked with artifacts from across the continent. This is no spontaneous street market (charming as those can be) but a carefully-conceived venture targeted at visitors like us. Victor and Tabitha will be buying their own Beemers before long.  

    Travel tips

    Getting there 

    South African Airways ( services Johannesburg via Singapore. Malaysian citizens do not normally require a visa. 


    A visa is not required by most visitors, no particular health precautions. Entry permits are issued on arrival. Cash machines are widely available – but watch your back! Street crime is high, so don’t give the game away with bum bags and dangling cameras and be careful where you wander at night. Lonely Planet’s Southern Africa is a reliable guide. 

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