It’s an exciting time to visit Joburg’s ever-growing downtown in a city booming with visitors and flamboyant development. Johannesburg’s wealth today comes from the booming gold and diamond trade that shaped its history - and the shantytowns it became famous for.
Even though the crime and poverty has lessened as the political turmoil in South Africa stabilised, it is still a city of astonishing contrasts.
Some seedier neighbourhoods like NEWTOWN were already shaping up even before the World Cup - its gritty, inner city flavour finally catching up with its desirability as prime, downtown real estate. New business, bohemian café latte drinkers and entrepreneurs started to trickle into the area, bringing in boutiques, attention and money.
The bohemian buzz of MELVILLE, with its 19th century architecture and local university crowd, will appeal to those who love hole in the wall restaurants, coffee shops and bars. The arty ambience of 7th STREET makes it an interesting - and safe - place to stroll or bar hop after dark.
This township bordering Joburg’s northern mining region has come a long way since its oppressive and poverty stricken origins, when riots and the 1976 “Soweto uprising” made its name famous around the world during the Apartheid era.
Now in happier times, its dense population, proximity to the city and grass roots feel has made it more a hotbed of dance, music, slang and fashion trends than political ideas. Civic money has poured in, giving the streets tarmac paving, electricity, public facilities and parks. Now that the danger and slum conditions have gentrified somewhat - yet the area still has a cultural edge - tourism has started to grow.
Sheira and I were moved when visiting Rio De Janeiro’s favela’s in 2009, that a tour of Soweto when we visited Johannesburg 6 months later was a must. As long as you are accompanied by a local, experienced guide, as much for interest as safety one walks away with amazing memories and experiences..
Amongst the melting-pot population of 2 million, young sub-cultures have their own dress sense and TSOTSITAAL, an eclectic street slang that mixes Afrikaans and several regional languages. Poorer suburbs like DIE PKLOOF have humble dwellings, like makeshift shacks made up of corrugated and found timber or “MATCHBOX” MIGRANT HOUSING. But as you pass by and see children playing, people growing their small cottage gardens and housewives sweeping the dust by the door you can still sense the pride, community and political, if not economic stability in their lives.
Travelers interested in learning about Soweto’s resistance role in the struggle for liberation have plenty to see also. NELSON MANDELA’S FIRST HOUSE in ORLANDO, his home before he was imprisoned in 1961, has become a pilgrimage for his admirers. And to get an understanding of the political uprising and riots of 1976, when Soweto youth rose up and fought the South African authorities, visitors can visit the HECTOR PIETERSON MEMORIAL MUSEUM, which recreates the events through visuals and eye-witness accounts.
To step out of the luxury zone and enter this world, you will get a sense not only of Soweto’s past, but its movingly exciting future.
I regard a visit to this extraordinary museum as a must because it is a great learning opportunity; the experience is one of the most effective recreations of an inhumane and damaging mindset that the world has ever seen. It is not designed to let visitors to be complacent, but to truly step into the thinking of South Africa’s shameful old regime.
Sheira and I found signs like “non-whites only” incredibly confronting as it goes against all of our beliefs - but there is no doubt that we came out of the experience with a different understanding of what it must have felt like to be non-white in the years of Apartheid, which only creates greater empathy.
One of the things that stood out for us immediately - is right from the moment you enter the this space, you are given a BLACK or WHITE CARD at entry, then separated and have to walk in by different entrances. You relive the reality...
Another factor that creates immediacy and authenticity are the guides. They are former political prisoners. The man whose hand you are shaking here as your guide, was once treated as less than human. This is even more shocking than the abstract idea, and an effective way to really bring it home to you. He reveals the horrors, massacres and unfolding history, as well as an excellent exhibit that brings alive the inspiring, almost unbelievable story of Nelson Mandela and his trials.
In this context the technology is used as an instrument of hate. You can actually step into the large, sinister vehicles that would disperse water onto crowds who were rioting.
Life under apartheid is also bought alive by banners, artwork, photos and scrapbooks, and then finally, light at the end of the tunnel.
After witnessing the atrocities, it is almost miraculous to learn about the PILLARS OF THE CONSTITUTION, the amazing charter that South Africa's first fully democratic parliament drafted and put into law in the mid nineties. Considered one of the most enlightened human rights documents of its kind, it ensures equality, respect and freedom for all South Africans - something almost unimaginable a short time ago. So a visit here is not only sobering, but inspirational.
KICK OFF: JUNE 11TH 2010
As soon as Johannesburg won a key role as one of the host cities of the 2010 FIFA World Cup the mayor, Amos Masondo, announced "Africa's time has come! South Africa is ready!" Now the ”city of gold’s” goal is not only to step up to the plate and show the world it can do it but to create an infrastructure whose legacy will live on…
Johannesburg already has two stadiums big enough to take on the opening match, semi final and final match. SOCCER CITY, known as the jewel in South Africa's crown located in Johannesburg’s south west, not that far from Soweto has a capacity of 94,700 and is where the World Cup will be christened and the first roars of the crowd will be heard. Like so much of the city, the stadium will get a facelift for 2010, with and extended upper tier, a new encircling roof and floodlights.
The older ELLIS PARK, re-built in the early eighties, is known for its outstanding sight lines from every seat and proximity to Johannesburg’s City Centre. After its World Cup revamp there will be new upper tiers behind each of the goals and 10,149 seats added to the current capacity of 62,000.
Even before soccer fans descend on the city, they can start getting hooked on the latest news on the official site, where the countdown has already begun! If you are amongst our many friends who are Joburg-bound, share your excitement with us on our YOUSAID page!
As I paced myself along Corlett Drive, in residential neighbourhoods I had grown up in, I wasn’t just going on my ritual, meditative daily exercise but literally taking steps back into my past. These were the streets where I grew up and I felt safe as I made my way to upmarket suburb, Hyde Park, where I remember rambling homes on big blocks with established, leafy gardens.
But cities are cyclical and always evolve. I was amazed to see the urban sprawl, even in such a well-heeled area: a lot of the green spaces had fallen away to commercial development, turning many of the multi-acre properties into offices. Personally, I am on the side of leaving pockets of peaceful nature in the cities and always choose to live where I can hear birds twitter...
After 45 minutes I made my way back to Melrose Arch to the fantastic VIRGIN ACTIVE GYM. In the heart of the Melrose Arch Shopping Precinct, it has an arrangement with the Melrose Arch Hotel and is only a 2-minute walk away. Richard Branson strikes again! This is what I call a “destination gym,” where fitness freaks can find a workout space that is worth going out of your way for. It is inspired - with a sea of amazing equipment, people in spin classes and a great indoor pool.
Joburg doesn’t have a beach so there is a great infrastructure here for those who still want to be active and swim; Virgin Active alone has dozens of clubs through the country. I recommend keeping your fitness routine up while in town - it’s an absolute pleasure to use such state of the art facilities.