24 hours in Johannesburg
Words: Fraser Doherty l Pictures: Zsolt Stefkovics
Friday 25 May 2018
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Johannesburg, Joburg, Jozi, Egoli, this is a city with as many nicknames as it has spoken languages, dialects and tribes. Although our schedule only allowed for a day or so here, we had a fantastic time – both visiting breweries and experiencing the culture of the city itself. That ‘first night of the trip’ adrenaline always helps us get the most out of a limited amount of time in a new place and we certainly did here.
A city that has a certain notoriety for being ‘dangerous’, to say the least, our experience of Johannesburg is one of friendship, kindness and an all-round great time. With a ‘urban agglomeration’ of some 7.8m people, Joburg is one of the 50 most populous cities in the world.
Known as the ‘City of Gold’, it is today the commercial epicentre of not just South Africa but the continent as a whole. The ‘back office of Africa’, the city has two distinct skylines. The first is the old downtown Hillbrow district with its brutalist office buildings and narrow city blocks.
The other is Sandton, the area where we lay our weary heads to rest. Its wealthy tree-lined streets feature a huge shopping mall at ‘Nelson Mandela Square’, as well as the skyscrapers and offices of the modern South African economy. Having deserted the downtown for this new district to the north, the inner city has become a chaotic, rough and tumble, yet exciting world.
We head out to explore the frenetic area of Braamfontein, home to the trendy ‘Neighbourgoods Market’ and later the artsy Maboneng District, where Smack Republic brewing is based. Blocks away, elsewhere in ‘the Brow’, we see prostitutes hawking their trade amongst the lunchtime traffic. Butchers weave through the minibus taxis with shopping trollies bursting with bloodied cows’ heads, tongues hanging out between the bars.
The road heaves with busloads of young, black students clutching their coursework, getting off to buy milkshakes with their friends. Possibly not for the faint hearted, wandering these streets gives us the very real sense of being in a fascinating, foreign land.
The world’s largest city that isn’t based on a lake, river or sea, this sprawling metropolis covers a vast area larger than London. It is a city literally built atop one of the largest seams of gold on Earth. At the time its settlers wouldn’t have imagined it booming into the scale it is today. Short of time and wanting to see as much of it as we can, we jump in a cab and ask the driver to show us whatever he thinks we need to see.
From there, the most fantastic day unfolds. “I have lived in Soweto all my life”, Sibusiso tells us. The township that was home to old friends Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and other towering characters of South African history, the name is a syllabic abbreviation of ‘South Western Townships’. A gigantic collection of communities, as many as 1.3m people call it home.
For the next few hours, we tour Soweto and take in the key sights, intertwining our driver’s life story with that of Nelson Mandela. At times, we lose track of whether the dilapidated old cinema we are looking at was a favourite date spot of our driver, ‘Madiba’, or both. The Apartheid Museum gives us a stark education in the cruelty of the former regime.
We stop by the great man’s humble home on Vilakazi Street and our visit becomes all the more poignant with the announcement that his ex-wife, Winnie, had died that very day. The hairs stand on the back of our necks as we read quotes from his speeches amid shelves that flex under the mountains of honorary degrees, freedoms of cities, medals and photographs with handwritten notes from everyone from Fidel Castro to Queen Elizabeth.
Situated on the other side of the slag heaps of the gold mines, and out of view from central Joburg, Soweto was conceived as the place where the white government sent black people to live. Of course, all the best areas, public services, parks and facilities were reserved for ‘whites only’. As we approach the iconic, decommissioned Orlando Power Station cooling towers that sit in Soweto, our driver explains that even the electricity from this station was ‘whites only’. Today, the towers offer (incongruously) bungee jumping and a birds-eye view of Soweto; we opt for the latter, and duly clamber into a cage which rattles up the side.
Beneath the cooling towers, after a pint of Heineken-owned ‘Soweto Gold’ lager, we bid farewell to Sibusiso and later enjoy a more interesting-tasting beer at Impi Brewing in the Victoria Yards area. A former nappy-cleaning plant, the area is now home to an artisan jeans maker, an art gallery, glass blower and brewery, the interior of which is tastefully inspired by tribal artefacts and employs one of the first black female brewers in the country.
A final nightcap is found at the very trendy suburban hangout area of Melville, on what feels like a Victorian-era main street. The bar we stop into, Antz Café, attracts an artsy crowd to its beautiful beer garden and front bar filled with quirky knick-knacks. Overall, the city exceeded our expectations and we’d love to visit again to spend more time, especially in Braamfontein and Maboneng.
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