Read part 1 here.
View of the city center from the Carlton Center observatory.
After my first experience of Johannesburg as a brief stopover where I got conned by a porter, my proper Johannesburg experience started near the end of my trip in July. I left for Jo’burg from Durban on the day of the semifinal between Germany and Spain, which incidentally was taking place in Durban. By that time, I had already booked my overland tour so I had to get to Johannesburg by that day, plus the only remaining game tickets were US$200 (these being the cheapest for foreigners). I left Durban on a 1Time (one of several domestic airlines, each with funky designs on their planes) flight in the morning and within an hour’s time, I was in Jo’burg back at OR Tambo. I used my hostel pickup service and their driver came for me soon. The hostel was located outside of Johannesburg proper in the northern suburbs so it was about half an hour’s drive from the airport. During the drive, I asked my driver about the World Cup. By this time, South Africa had crashed out in what seemed ages ago, ignominously as the first host to never advance to the second round. He didn’t care too much, saying he was busy working and that the tickets were too expensive anyways. The fact that he, as a South African with a fulltime job, was eligible to buy the local tickets, priced around US$10, and still thought they were expensive speaks volumes about the harsh economic situation for many locals, especially blacks. I heard and read this same sentiment expressed by other people and in the news. While I said this was an uneventful drive, there was a small incident along the way which was a perfect example of male chauvinism, except instead of being black or African, it was universal. We were blocked on the road by 2 cars which were waiting to turn right and when one was too slow to move on, the driver honked furiously which made that person finally turn. As we drove past, the driver looked at that driver, a black woman, and cursed. “Women are stupid drivers!” he spat, something I’ve heard before though in a more restrained manner and which I don’t agree with. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I didn’t say anything and just murmured a neutral response.
That afternoon, I did a half-day “city tour” arranged by my hostel. I was going to Constitution Hill, the Carlton Center (Africa’s tallest building), the Museum Africa and the Mandela bridge. My guide was Matt, a tall serious-looking black guy who was talkative as all tour guides should be and also didn’t seem too thrilled at first. This wasn’t surprising because I was the only tourist on his van and it made me feel a little like I was on a private tour. He wasn’t shy about telling me this, saying how much it cost to run his van with the insurance and all that, and that few tourists meant it wasn’t really worth it. Business wasn’t doing well, he told me, and given that he had been in it for several years, it seemed like he wasn’t too keen on staying. But, despite all that, Matt was cool and he took me to everywhere I was supposed to go and made sure everything was alright. We even finished our tour debating politics and him wondering why a form of social democracy couldn’t exist in South Africa. Anyways about the actual sights. Johannesburg is an interesting city. It has this dark, ominous reputation, a kind of real-life Gotham City where murder, rape, street car hijackings and muggings occur frequently and everywhere. On the other hand, it is the nation’s economic and cultural powerhouse, especially with the famous and massive Soweto township next to it. Some would even say it is Africa’s economic powerhouse and it attracts people from all African nations, from refugees to middle-class professionals to gangsters. The downtown or city center is supposedly the most dangerous place and usually people won’t go there unless they work there. In Durban, a similar situation exists where the city center is said to be dangerous and the middle and upper classes live in suburbs right outside of the city center or in towns away from the city. There are several really upscale suburbs to the north of the city center in Johannesburg including Sandton, which are filled with houses and malls and office buildings that give the appearance of a wealthy Western country. The further you go into the city center, the more rundown and grimy buildings you see, but there are also impressive historic colonial-era buildings and many skyscrapers, more than in Taipei. There are wide roads and works of art such as giant antelope statues that show off the local creativity. In time for the World Cup, the city opened a new bus line, the Reo Vaya, which had fancy-looking bus stops.Constitution Hill was the first place on the tour. It’s where the Constitution Court, the nation’s highest court for constitutional matters, is located, having been moved here in 2004. The court is part of a complex which consists of former prisons where such worthies as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were locked up in while waiting trial. The court building itself is nice, with the name written in all 11 official languages on its front and with parts of the prison it was built upon still intact. We were able to go into the actual court chamber, which was empty and the judges’ table made for an interesting sight as it was swathes in cow hides.
The Constitution Court building, with the name written in all 11 official languages.
The Constitution Court itself.
The next stop was the Carlton Center, located directly in the city center. It’s the nation’s tallest tower as well as the continent’s. It’s not too impressive visually, having been built in the 1970s and being plain. There’s a mall at the ground level and the top floor is the observatory. It provides a 360 degree view of the city extending all the way to Soweto in the southwest and the suburbs in the north. There weren’t many visitors, this being a weekday, and I got the impression that despite the ongoing World Cup, there weren’t many tourists in Johannesburg. The observatory had a few vendors selling from stalls but there was a lot of empty space. The pale green walls also gave the place an oldish aura. I was helped by a friendly security guard who pointed out places like Soccer City and Gandhi Square. He also knew a little about Taiwan (computers and high-tech industry) which impressed me because many people there didn’t.When we walked back to the van, I wanted to take a picture or two but shamefully, the fear of being robbed, even with Matt next to me, prevented me. This was Johannesburg’s reputation taking ahold of my mind, preventing me from snapping pictures on the street in the city center. Of course, I also exercised similar restraint while walking around in Cape Town and Durban, but not to the same level. Downtown Johannesburg was bustling, being where the country’s financial center, and it had a big-city atmosphere that downtown Durban, itself a city of 3 million, didn’t. There were even double-decker buses, decked out in colorful ads, and we drove by the SAB World of Beer and even onto a diagonal street.
After this, it was off to the Newtown District, well-known as an art district, and Museum Africa. Located inside the historic Market Precinct, where there were historic “rail sidings and potato sheds” and the Market Theatre playhouse, this museum had a mix of displays and exhibits, from geological rocks to multimedia artworks and even a collection of antique cameras. One of the most interesting displays was a fullscale mockup of a township slum home. There were also some archaelogical artifacts but it wasn’t much; a Gandhi exhibit that was mostly photos of him in Johannesburg; and a set of displays telling the stories of local gays. The museum’s exterior didn’t match the newness of the interior and looked like a warehouse. In fact the building used to be a market (its official name is the Newtown Market Building), and was built in 1913 while the museum was housed in it from 1994. Next to the museum was a large courtyard with a concert screen. A large figure with hands upraised made out of red Coke cases loomed at one end and in the near distance, Cristiano Ronaldo loomed on the side of a skyscraper that was swathed in a Nike “Write the Future” ad. There were many stalls and some guys playing music, giving off a really touristy atmospere, which it was intended to. As with the Carlton Center and Constitution Hill, there weren’t many tourists arounds.
The museum was the last stop of my “private” tour, but not the last sight. The driver drove over the Nelson Mandela suspension bridge, Southern Africa’s longest such bridge, and also past Nelson Mandela’s residence in Houghton, an upscale suburb north of Johannesburg. I couldn’t really see much because the walls are high and we didn’t linger, but it was striking to me that it was possible to drive past his home just like that.
After I got back to my hostel, I had just enough time before my tour group meeting to walk to a nearby mall (my first and only bit of walking I did in Johannesburg), which strangely enough had no entrance above ground. To get in, you had to walk into the underground garage and go through the doors there. It was a nice mall with all kinds of fancy stores, chain outlets, and cafes and lots of solid middle-class and higher types, as well as the odd lowly single tourist like myself. I would come back and make the meeting on time, but it would turn out to be a fateful night, and I’m not referring to Germany’s loss to Spain, tragic as that was.
The Market Theatre, left, in Newtown’s Market Precinct. Museum Africa was just around the corner. This giant Coca Cola robot loomed large at an outdoor plaza next to Museum Africa.