I am really not proud to say that my opinion of Johannesburg had already been tainted, even before I arrived in the city. Like many before me, I was guilty of watching the crime-related documentaries. Added to that, I entertained the words of warning from people who had only heard about it on the 9 o’clock news, but had never been to the city, let alone the country.
But as I walked the streets on a Past Experiences street art tour, I was overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the graffiti. Then, there’s the rawness of the street musicians and the sense of community from schemes such as ‘I was shot in Joburg’; a photography project designed to keep young people off the streets. While Joburg may have a dark history, the city is undeniably bursting with colour. It’s everywhere from the graffiti to the bright African clothing and the bold beacons of Orlando Towers (pictured) decorating the skyline.
In my humble opinion, no visit to Joburg would be complete without a day spent in Soweto, once home to Nelson Mandela. It was also the scene of the harrowing Soweto Uprising in 1978, when thousands of students were gunned down in a protest for equal rights. The day became emblematic in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.
As I walked the streets of the township, I admit that I found it to be quite sobering when the realisation of what happened here, just 40 years ago, hits home. But as I found, it’s the people who seem to have lifted it from under this dark cloud. The locals here are proud of where they come from and express a newfound confidence in South Africa’s new President, Cyril Ramaphosa.
“I want you to meet my childhood friend,” says our guide who stops the car on the side of the street. We all look at each other a bit bemused, as he interrupts a big group busy laughing outside a bar.
“This is my friend…he is Desmond Tutu’s grandson,” he says casually. I daresay that I shook his hand possibly a bit too enthusiastically, slightly awestruck at this chance meeting. As you can imagine, I had so many questions to ask, and yet the conversation inevitably turns to the weather!
Our guide sums up Johannesburg nicely by explaining that sometimes degenerating cities have the chance to reinvent themselves and build a new foundation built on positivity. That, dear reader, is exactly what I think Johannesburg is doing, and, it has to be said, doing it very well too!
Yes, it may have had a turbulent recent past, and has many modern day problems to work through. However, South Africa’s raw appeal remains as strong as it always has. It’s a place you leave, knowing that one day you’ll come back. Some countries you just can’t resist – and South Africa is definitely one of them.