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Johannesburg South Africa in One Day

Our Top Four Sights

Location: Johannesburg South Africa

Johannesburg

Two years ago we visited South Africa, spending nearly a month in and around Capetown and the Western Cape. But we didn’t get to Johannesburg.

At the time, I was afraid to visit Joburg, falling victim to the media accounts of a violent place. The very same media accounts I now try to convince would-be travelers to take with a grain of salt.

Johannesburg Constitutional Hill
Artwork at Constitution Hill

Because Johannesburg, like countless places around the world, certainly has some areas you don’t want to wander around alone. It has violence, crime and continuing racial divide. But all that said, during our short visit we found a sparkling clean city with a beautiful airport, good infrastructure and roads, art and cultural sites and kind people.

Johannesburg’s violent past should be remembered and never repeated, all while this city of 8 million people (five million in Joburg and 3 million in Soweto) works with painstaking slowness towards a future where people of all races have the same opportunities.

Johannesburg Prison #4
My husband inside one of the tiny isolation cells at Prison #4

Trying to see Johannesburg South Africa in one day? Is it enough? No it is not. But one day was all I had and so we made the most of our time with a tour with MoAfrika. During our more than nine hours with MoAfrika and our tour guide Michael, I experienced a rollercoaster of emotions as I witnessed and learned about the past, present and future of South Africa’s largest city.

Listed below are the highlights we enjoyed. Given more time the city has much more to offer, but this is what we saw and what we learned.

Constitution Hill, Formerly Prison Number Four

“There is perhaps no other site of incarceration in South Africa that imprisoned the sheer number of world-renowned men and women as those held within the walls of Constitution Hill’s Old Fort,  Women’s Jail, and Number Four. Nelson Mandela. Mahatma Gandhi. Joe Slovo. Albertina Sisulu. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Fatima Meer. They all served time here. But the precinct also confined tens of thousands of ordinary people during its 100-year history: men and women of all races, creeds, ages and political agendas; children too; the everyman and the elite. In this way, the history of every South African lives here.” (Quoted from website Constitution Hill)

Toilets at Prison #4
The outdoor latrines at Prison #4

Constitution Hill is a living museum that tells the story of South Africa’s journey to democracy.

Barbed wire at Prison #4
Barbed wire and blue sky

What I learned and saw here was the unimaginably cruel and inhumane prison that for more than 90 years beat, starved, humiliated, tortured, and worked to death 1000’s of Africans both famous and infamous. In a repatriation effort the site stands in memory of those victims, and the grounds also house the home of South Africa’s Constitutional Court.

Guard tower at Prison #4
The prison guard tower watches over the yard


The Constitutional Court of South Africa is akin to the Supreme Court of the United States and was created in 1993 during Nelson Mandela’s Presidency and the development of the new constitution of the country. I find it very gratifying to see the chambers of the Constitutional Court placed on the grounds of this most violent place. A vivid acknowledgement to the past and a strong statement to the future.

South Africa's Constitutional Court
The Chambers of the Constitutional Congress

Apartheid Museum

“South Africa’s struggle for liberation has been a journey of pain and strife. Freedom brought peace to our land in 1994 after centuries of colonialism and more than 40 years of life under apartheid.” (Quote from the Apartheid Museum website)

Johannesburg Apartheid Museum
Apartheid Musuem (no indoor photos allowed)

What I learned and saw here was the volatile history of this country and how it came to be the fragile place it is today. This museum is one of the best I have ever visited and the hour and forty-five minutes we spent here was not near long enough. I believe you could easily justify an entire day in the cleverly laid-out walk through South Africa’s history.

Nelson Mandela art
Both Nelson and Winne Mandela are held in very high regard

On arrival you get your ticket and randomly are given a ticket that says “Whites Only” or “Non-Whites”. Depending on your ticket you enter the museum through different doors – immediately creating a feeling for the visitor that you have stepped back to another era.

The amazing museum is laid out chronologically taking you through the horrors of race classification and how that led to apartheid. You then learn what life was like as a “non-white” during apartheid, the exterminations and executions, the rise of black consciousness leading to the very violent days of 1976 in Soweto. The museum continues through the roots of compromise, the election of President Mandela and the new constitution.

Non-whites entrance
Entering the “Non-Whites” entrance

If you haven’t been to South Africa you may not know about the remarkable Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The museum covers how in 1995 the government created this commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to promote reconciliation and forgiveness among perpetrators and victims of apartheid. The Commission was charged with three specific tasks: to discover the causes and nature of human rights violations in South Africa between 1960 and 1994; to identify victims with a view to paying reparations; and to allow amnesty to those who fully disclosed their involvement in politically motivated human rights violations.

Apartheid Museum
Inside the “non-whites” entrance

How many places around the world where civil war or civil unrest has left a crack in society should consider something similar to this – so that true healing can actually begin. It’s a true testament to the Mandela leadership era.

The Hector Pieterson Museum

“The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, situated in Orlando West, Soweto, commemorates the role of the country’s students in the struggle against apartheid and in particular the role played by the school children who took part in the Soweto protests of 1976, many of whom were shot by the apartheid police while protesting against the sub-standard of education in black schools in South Africa.” (Quote from Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum Website)

Hectar Pierterson famous photo
The photo seen ’round the world, June 16, 1976

What I learned and saw here was an incredibly heartbreaking story of the June 16th, 1976 peaceful protest that took the lives of many young and innocent children including 13 year-old Hector Pieterson. Shot point blank while on the sidewalk.

The extremely graphic photo (shown here) became a symbol for the South African people fighting apartheid and made Hector Pieterson a martyr. Additionally it caused the photographer to flee for his life when the photo went viral around the world. And the young high-school boy carrying the body of Pieterson had to flee South Africa because the police wanted to kill him too. His family never heard from him again. His name was Mbuyisa Makhubo. I write his name here so he is not forgotten. An innocent victim.

Hectar Pieterson Memorial
Memorial to Hectar Pieterson and all those who were innocent victims

What kind of mad crazy world was this? These were children. Horrifying. This is not a story I knew in depth and I was left feeling so sad. Like the Apartheid Museum this museum does a wonderful job bringing the real people who suffered to the forefront of the story.

Soweto

Soweto (South West Township) was created in the 1930’s when the whites started forcing the black population out of the city of Johannesburg. Soweto became the largest black township in South Africa, where residents were considered temporary and served as the workforce for white Johannesburg. During apartheid, Soweto experienced civil unrest and violence as the slum people began to rise up against the lack of education, sanitation and civil rights. This unrest culminated on June 16 1976 when students staged a peaceful protest against school being taught in Afrikaans instead of the tribal languages. This protest turned violent when the police killed innocent children. The newsreels of that time was seared on the psyche of people around the world and Soweto became known henceforth as the home of the war against apartheid.

Welcome to Soweto
Only a few years ago tourists would never come here
Soweto
Inside one of the “informal” townshps in Soweto

Today, however, Soweto is safe and a visit to Soweto as a tourist is a must. It is however not easy to get around, so having a guide would be advised. Even in Soweto there is a class divide; nicer homes on the outskirts, the “matchbox” houses in the middle and the “informal” villages making up the rest. The informal villages are hammered-together shanty towns, where people who have not been able to get a government issued house live. We toured an informal village and went into a home. It was clean and organized and despite the fact it was made from sheet metal and tarps, you could see the pride the home owner had in her home.

Children in Soweto
Inside one of the informal Townships in Soweto

Unemployment in Soweto is over 70% and and more than 3 million people live here.

Home in Soweto
Visiting one of the homes in the informal township

Final Thoughts

For someone from a western culture, and particularly someone who is white, it’s a difficult thing to wrap your head around all that has happened here. Unimaginable to most people. But despite the hardships and the continued race divide we met some very nice people, many working for a better life for themselves and their families. The children we met were very healthy and happy and curious about us. Our time seeing Johannesburg South Africa in one day was educational, enlightening, heartbreaking and hopeful.

Child in Soweto
The future of South Africa

Slow progress, but will the races ever be on even ground in South Africa? Time will tell, but likely not in my lifetime.

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2 Comments

  • Reply Steve Camasi

    I’m from Seattle & have been to 104 countries, but not there…enjoyed your article today.

    February 22, 2020 at 10:49 am
    • Reply Laureen

      Thank you!! A big world to see!

      February 22, 2020 at 10:58 am

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