Johannesburg is a city that elicits strong opinions from people when mentioned, whether they’ve been there or not. There is a wealth of perception available to make even the most experienced traveller view the destination with caution. I hadn’t crossed the border into outright fearfulness, but I was certainly wary of what a city like this had to offer the traveller.
Here I was, with bolstered confidence about the endeavour of facing this city just by having co-pilot Chloe with me, driving to the outskirts of the city. We would be staying in Observatory, one of the suburbs, in a converted “Mafia Mansion” now called Brown Sugar Backpackers hostel. The toughest part of getting to our accommodation was the impossibly steep approach to the gate of the hostel… Where you had to stop… And then hill start… And immediately turn right. Ok, I may have stalled the car a couple of times, but Chloe was a good sport and didn’t tease me about it.
I felt I really needed to take this weekend and relax a bit, after a relentless couple of weeks of game driving, distance driving and generally busy days. The one thing I had planned to see, however, was the Apartheid Museum. It was widely recommended by other travellers who, nonetheless, warned of its dense exhibits and sombre mood. Still, it was something I felt strongly compelled to go and see. I had been very young when much of the tumultuous ending to apartheid took place.
My first impressions of the country were things that I had learnt from celebrities who praised Nelson Mandela and a country trying to move beyond a horrific history of oppression. Chloe, a girl we’d met at the hostel and I drove across the city to the museum, which sits opposite a Disney-like theme park, a fact that struck me as slightly odd. We spent hours pouring through the information and exhibits. It was powerful, but not necessarily depressing.
We were lucky to see a new Nelson Mandela exhibit in honour of the well-known and respected leader who had died a few years ago. The exhibit encompassed his life from childhood to presidency and presented interesting insight into lesser known parts of his personal history.The museum itself examined the history of South Africa from its arriving colonists to the first truly general elections of 1994, which allowed people of all races to vote, and beyond to the ongoing struggle to repair a country after decades of human rights atrocities.
Going through the exhibits highlighted my own struggle with South Africa. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved it there. But there is no escaping a past that only changed dramatically 22 years ago. Affluent areas of Johannesburg where people (mostly white) live behind high walls with gated entrances and security fences are mere miles from Soweto, one of (if not the) largest slum in Africa. While Soweto also has millionaire residences and hundreds of middle-class homes, there are still the thousands of shacks where the poorest of the poor dwell. This can also be found in all the other cities of the country. For example, on the one side there is Cape Town’s stunning coastline and areas like Bishops Court, Constantia, Camps Bay, and the large modern and expensive homes looking like something from Orange County, and then there is Khayelitsha, a sprawling township of mostly tin-roofed shanty homes housing roughly 400,000 people (though many say that estimate is extremely low). It’s a striking dichotomy and one, which doesn’t settle well in my conscience. While it’s no longer on laws leading to a racially segregated basis, socio-economic divides are starkly visible.
Still, many of the South Africans I met are fiercely proud of their country. They do not shy away from their troubled history; rather praise how far they have come. Hollywood made a movie about the unifying moment the country experienced when it won the Rugby World Cup, but according to the locals, this is not merely a trite story from their past. That cohesive pride is still a moment many recall with deep honour. It is easy to forget that the end of apartheid was only just over 20 years ago and those historic elections took place. Many are working tirelessly to heal the wounds of the past, but it will inevitably take time and continuous effort for years to come.
Despite the general prejudices I had held of the city, I didn’t experience any terrifying moments in Johannesburg. I may have sensed a palpable tension, but that can be chalked up to the heightened awareness from persistent stories of warning. The most uncomfortable I felt was amongst the fortress-like wealthy areas, which impressed upon you that these people must fear crime. I wasn’t in the city for very long, I cannot pretend to have a deep understanding of its complexities. However, I feel its reputation, while not completely unfounded, is perhaps overblown.
I spent the rest of the weekend in the Johannesburg hostel relaxing (and by relaxing, I mean furiously trying to finish my taxes with questionable Wi-Fi and a website bogged down by the Fort Knox of security systems). Monday came, and it was time to leave. Leave the city, the country and the continent. The continent that had felt like home for over 2 months. A place which, for some inexplicable reason, I am heartbroken to leave. I felt at that moment like I could quite easily forget about the rest of my travels and head for all the other parts of Africa I want to see – Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Rwanda, Uganda…. The list goes on.
There is so much more to see. I boarded that plane out of OR Tambo airport with one certainty in my heart – I will be back. Somehow, somewhere in my travels… Africa stole my heart.
It need not be stolen, though, I give it gladly.
This article was written by KRISTIE OMAR.