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Johannesburg 28/04 – 10/05

Jozi City was on our exit route towards Botswana. A must stop to shop for parts for the second half of our African tour, possibly service the bike (pushing 50K now) and apply for visas in the the jure capital of SAR, Pretoria. All the previous information on Johannesburg spoke of a somber, dirty place inhabited by dangerous black hooligans, something like this:

But the infamous de facto capital of SAR lookes more like this:

The sprawling industrial and commercial hub of SA and a true African metropolis swept us up in its vibrant energy. We needed to a place to stay, and after a short but depressing mishap, boy, were we lucky to land at David, Sam & Layla’s place in Bedfordview suburb. Mircea, our Abuja friend, had suggested to visit them since last September. We cooked, braaied, watched movies and generally hanged out, enjoying one of the best companies we’ve ever had. So our couchsurfing stint in SA would end in a blast after all: fun, good food, happy days, a true home away from home. Thank you dear friends: David, Sam & Layla, Roberto and the cutest dogs Vincent & Kelly. We miss you already!

Joburg is also nicknamed ‘The Gold City’ because of the bustling mining industry. We would soon see why. Since the end of apartheid, the downtown businesses have been moving to Sandton, the new posh suburb-to-be, where luxurious malls and office towers speak of money and power. The buildings ‘abandoned’ by the whites to the blacks don’ t look so good: broken windows, squatters, bad maintenance and poor management, but all too predictable as the power transitioned to a miss educated and incipient political and administrative class.

Signs of good things to come are evident though every way you look, and to get a better view of it all, we climbed on ‘top of Africa’, the Carlton tower.

And gazed upon the metropolis through the looking glass

Urban texture reminiscent of New York, solid street signage, pedestrian developments, decent infrastructure, public transport chaotic but working


The famous Smal Street, the narrowest in Africa, leads into the Carlton mall, an engineering masterpiece

We drove by Soccer City (former FNB Stadium, upgraded for WC)

 This Is Soweto

Possibly the most infamous place in SAR and Joburg is Soweto, and most of the struggle against apartheid was fought in and from here. The name Soweto is an acronym, made up – in apartheid days – from the first letters of the words ‘south western township’. Its history started in the 30s, when the first people were relocated in Olando township, in an attempt to remove ‘black spots’ from downtown Joburg. In 1976 this was the birth place of the student uprising that later spread across South Africa. The sprawling cluster of townships is today home to over 2 million detribalized and largely streetwise people – the biggest black urban settlement in Africa. Luckily the Jones are cool with that – they have actually moved from Durban to Joburg and like it here, so they were the best guides into the contemporary Soweto. So we hoped on, David, Sam, little Layla and us two, on the family ‘bus’, and took a long Saturday drive through Soweto. No guns, no paranoia, no expectations.

If one expects decrepit misery and menacing gangs, Soweto will disappoint. Homes are ranging from makeshift shacks to extravagant mansions, and a local lingo – tsotsitaal – an eclectic mix of several local languages, Afrikaans and street slang – has been developed and is used mainly by the young. We have seen far worse looking African capitals, not to mention certain East European towns. We parked in the guarded (!!!!) parking lot in front of the famous Wandie’s. Inside a bus-load of tourist were enjoying the excellent buffet with live music.

The food was a fusion of south-african and tribal cuisine. Even ice cream and fruit for pudding. Not threatening at all. We loved the atchar, a spicy pickled carrot relish.

The Mandela House looked even less scary. It true that it’s been rebuilt and re-opened as a world-class museum in 2009. Located at 8115 Orlando West, the first township of Soweto, where few authentic shebeens (bush bars) still exist. The house was originally built in 1945 on the corner of Vilakazi and Ngakane Streets and Nelson Mandela moved here in 1976, but spent little time living in the house in the ensuing years as his political agenda became all-consuming.

Born in 1918 at Mvezo, near Qunu, son of a chief councilor to the paramount chief of the Tembe, Mandela spent early childhood in the Transkei, being groomed to become a chief. Later, he become founding member of the youth League of ANC, invigorated in the 40s the present SA ruling party and became a key figure in the uprising and subsequent fight for freedom and reconciliation during his imprisonment on Robben Island and after  his february 1990 release, when he returned for a brief 11 days to 8115. In 1994 Nelson Mandela became SAR’s first president voted in democratic multi-racial elections, uniting both the country’s racial groupings and a fragmented public service. Today the 1993 Nobel Prize winner (award shared with former SA president F. W. de Klerk, a key figure in ending apartheid) symbolizes the struggle of oppressed people around the world, and is universally considered a quintessential peacemaker & negotiator. In ‘The Long Walk to Freedom’ Nelson Mandela said about this house: ‘It was the opposite of grand, but it was my first true home of my own and I was mightily proud. A man is not a man until he has a house of its own.’

There are not one, but two shopping malls in Soweto.

And the scariest fact about Soweto might possibly be the bungee hung between the two graffitti-ed water towers

Time To Go

OK, we were well trotted, rested, fed and with at least one new visa sorted out. Our next task was to patch the tent, that has been leaking for months. So we bought some waterproof material from Oriental Plaza and glued it on the damaged seams.

Nobody was happy to say good-bye

A last finger-licking lamb potje – traditional South-African hot pot slowly cooked for many hours

Sunset over Joburg… We’ll miss this skyline.


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