I’m not going to sugarcoat this. Johannesburg is still dealing with the effects of apartheid (the system of institutionalized racial segregation that began in 1948 and lasted until 1991), and many residents live in conditions that no one would be living in if this were a just world. However, we’ve seen worse situations in Mexico and the Philippines — and even parts of the U.S. — so I’m not sure why Johannesburg (“Joburg” or “Jozi” to locals) has such a bad reputation. Out of the five cities on our trip, Johannesburg was the one in which we felt most welcomed. The people we interacted with were proud, full of love for their city but who had a frank relationship with it, as well.
Before our trip to South Africa, I had only heard negative things about Johannesburg — the poverty, the crime, and, of course, apartheid. I had wanted to skip it and fly straight into Cape Town instead, but our safari was closer to Johannesburg, and Anthony was eager to visit (he did study the apartheid, after all!), so we decided to start our trip here. I did not expect this city to touch my heart the way it did.
When we arrived at the airport, our guide, Mthandeni, was already waiting for us, and he started his tour immediately. In fact, by the time we were exiting the airport parking lot, we had already practiced some Xhosa pronunciations and learned how mineral-rich Johannesburg is, with its abundance of diamonds, gold, and platinum. I’m not always a fan of hiring private tour guides, but Mthandeni was exactly what we needed. He gave us an honest insight into the history and current situation of South Africa.
He drove us past townships (what we could call slums), which were created on the outskirts of the city so that nonwhites could work — but not live — there. Blacks originally lived in the center of Johannesburg, but once the city became more developed, a specific apartheid act decreed that only certain races could live in certain areas. Entire black populations were forced out of their homes and into townships. Mthandeni reminded us that just a couple of decades ago, as foreigners, we would not have been allowed to be in his car.
We drove to Soweto, which stands for South Western Townships. This area is famous for the Soweto Uprising, the mass protests during apartheid that erupted over the government’s policy to enforce education in Afrikaans (the language of the Dutch colonizers) rather than their native language. Police opened fire on 10,000 students, killing 23 people. The impact of the Soweto Uprising reverberated across the world, leading to economic and cultural sanctions.
The first stop was on our tour was the Apartheid Museum. It was a well-designed museum, with some heartbreaking reminders of apartheid, such as footage from the Soweto Uprising, and a huge Casspir in which armed policemen used to ride through black neighborhoods at night.
Soweto is also famous for being home to Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Trevor Noah. After the museum, we stopped by Nelson Mandela’s house, a small four-room “matchbox” house common in Soweto. It still has bullet holes in the walls and scorches from Molotov cocktails.
While most tourists seem to come to Soweto just for the Apartheid Museum and Mandela House, Mthandeni led us to a nearby restaurant where we had a lunch buffet with a stylish black crowd and tried mieliepap (or “pap”) for the first time. This traditional cornmeal porridge is a working-class staple of South Africans. We were familiar with pap because we’d watched Anthony Bourdain eat it on his No Reservations episode in Johannesburg, but the show had not done it justice. Pap is delicious! We tried three different varieties, topped with a rich tomato and onion sauce.
Toward the end of our tour, Mthandeni asked if we wanted to meet a South African family living in Soweto. We were hesitant at first, reluctant to partake in slum tourism, which turns poverty into a form of entertainment. He convinced us, however, when he explained that these families look forward to when he brings tourists because they benefit greatly from the small tip we are expected to leave at the end. We met Princess, a mother who kept an impressively tidy one-room, tin-roofed home, where she slept on a small bed, her children slept on the floor nearby, and a paraffin stove stood in the corner.
In the end, our tour did take us to the negative things I’d heard about Johannesburg. It would not only be impossible, but also disrespectful, to avoid them. The people of Johannesburg take pride in their resilience. They speak bluntly about their past, which is honestly more than I can say about Americans.
My favorite part of our time in Johannesburg was watching Black Panther at the mall next to our hotel. It’s always an interesting anthropological study to watch movies in another country, especially a movie as significant as Black Panther, in a country as relevant as South Africa. One thing we noticed was that the commercials featured more blacks than I’d ever seen on screen.
While waiting for the theater to be cleaned between showings, a group of teenagers who had watched the previous showing asked us if we could take a photo of them. They stood with their arms crossing their chest and shouted, “Wakanda forever!” Black Panther was inspirational to me, but I can’t imagine how even more meaningful it was to these South Africans. It was heartwarming to hear the excitement of the audience when they recognized their language in the film. Additionally, many of the actors are from South Africa. It’s not that South Africans necessarily need a movie like Black Panther to inform them of how powerful they can be; it’s that now there’s hope that maybe the rest of the world will finally see them as the resilient, culturally- and minerally-rich society – despite the undeniable poverty and lingering segregation.
In South Africa, there’s a term called “ubuntu”. It means humanity toward others, or the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. Ubuntu reminded me of one of the vendors who was closing up his shop on the side of the road. He greeted us when we got out of the car and called me “sister” – perhaps the greatest honor I’ve ever received. Ubuntu reminded me of Princess, the mother in Soweto who let us take photos of her home and children for a tip so that she could take care of the very home we entered and the children we met. I cannot think of a better word to describe my experience here.
Tips for future travelers:
- Hire a tour guide. Even if you don’t usually hire guides, Johannesburg is a place you’ll want one, as sites are somewhat spread out. While we had done lots of South African history research before this trip, having a local offer first-hand knowledge and anecdotes is invaluable. I highly recommend Mthandeni.
- We stayed at the Monarch Hotel in Rosebank because everyone told us to stay in a suburb. While I can’t attest to whether or not the requirement to stay in a “safe” suburb is justified, we loved our hotel, which was conveniently located to the airport via train, and walking distance to Rosebank Mall. Our booking came with a lavish breakfast that included both a buffet and a la carte items, and when our driver was running late the next morning, the staff at the front desk went out of their way to help us contact him.
- Tip everyone, from your tour guide (R50 per person), to the hotel staff (10%), to the family you visit at the township (R100). R10 = less than $1, so you won’t even notice your tips.
- If you haven’t seen Black Panther yet for some reason, watch it now.
- Understand that people around the world are more alike than different. South Africa may have dealt with apartheid, but the U.S. is also guilty of institutionalized racism, and if you looked at most neighborhoods in America, you’ll notice how segregated we are, too. If anything, South Africa is just more honest about its racism, and our society would benefit greatly if we practiced a little more ubuntu.