Meeting the Past and Present South Africa in Johannesburg

Johannesburg is one of the most important cities in Africa (Cairo, Lagos and Nairobi come to mind as competitors for the top spot…).  It is a city of contrasts and, for me, a place where the past and the current South Africa came together – I ended up with a much better understanding of the challenges of the past and present with this short visit.

I went to Joburg to attend 2 conferences for work.  I preceded that with a weekend in the Cape region center on Cape Town (read about visiting Cape Town  here, the Cape of Good Hope region  here and of visiting Stellenbosch wine country here!).

The conferences I went to were internal gatherings of the organization I was a part of and it was neat to meet so many colleagues from around the world.  And, in the second conference, Archbishop Desmond Tutu addressed us and I got to shake his hand!  It was a great speech and a once in a lifetime opportunity to shake his hand – a man of courage and principles!  We also were addressed by other important figures in the humanitarian sector and it was all a call for action and uplifting at the same time.

My Short and Limited View of Joburg…

For the first conference, I stayed in the Rosebank area, a very nice area of town.  We were even able to walk outside at night (as long as we were not on our own).  The Rosebank Mall was nearby which was very convenient as there were restaurants there as well as a market for African arts and crafts.  The second conference took us to a hotel by the airport.  And I mean, BY the airport… planes would fly over us as they were landing and they were at most 300 ft above the street next to the hotel grounds.  Incredible!


We did manage to squeeze in some important short trips in between conferences and after the second conference.  The first place we visited was Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnship, ), the township which was the epicenter of a series of riots that perhaps was the beginning of the end of the apartheid regime starting in 1976 and through the 1980s.  We started at a shantytown in Soweto and that matched, I suppose, what I expected to see.  A shantytown in Soweto, South Africa is not different in some ways than one in Chinandega, Nicaragua.

One of the poorest streets in Soweto, South Africa

One of the poorest streets in Soweto

But the moment we left the shantytown we started seeing middle class and upper class neighborhoods leading us to ask if we had left Soweto (which has slightly less than a million residents).  Well, we had not.  It is incredible to see the mix of levels of income in such a small area.  Winnie Mandela’s house is in a very nice neighborhood close to the street where Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela had lived when younger.

Kids in the streets of Soweto, South Africa

Kids being kids in Soweto

Learning about Apartheid

We also visited the Regina Mundi Catholic Church that shielded protesters from the police during demonstrations in the apartheid era; the choir was practicing when we went which made the visit much more colorful.  Finally, we visited the Hector Pieterson Museum which tells the story of how this boy was killed; the image of this boy’s dead or dying body being carried by a stranger as Hector’s teenage sister ran along crying is a famous image of the period.

Picture of Hector Pieterson's body being carried by a stranger

Picture of Hector’s body being carried by a stranger

The museum is small enough to be easily visited.  It is an eye opener for someone like me who knew only superficially the struggle against apartheid (I only remember the sanctions and images of riots as I was growing up).

The Hector Pieterson Museum was a good start to learn about the history of the country but it was the Apartheid Museum that really taught me what it was all about and how South Africa was able to come out of such a horrible regime without becoming a ground of ashes from vented anger.  It is a testament to the contributions of ANC leaders of the kind that Nelson Mandela represented that prevented violence as revenge and the pragmatism of others such as DeKlerk who understood things had to change whether they wanted the change or not.  That may be oversimplifying (for example, not all ANC leaders would have proceeded as Mandela did) but I am only describing what I took away – not trying to write a dissertation!  I highly recommend this as the most important stop for anyone visiting Joburg.  It is not only a record of the history of modern South Africa but a testament to the human spirit.


Finally, we did not have time to go out to Kruger National Park but did manage to visit a nearby park at Pilanesberg.  We enjoyed the drive from Joburg (about 3 hours each way) and got to see most animals except that we did not see any felines (bummer).  We did have a near hit by an adult male rhino but our experienced driver knew how to read the rhino and know by when we really needed to get going as the rhino was getting testy with our presence.

Rhino about to charge our van in Pilanesberg, South Africa

Rhino about to charge our van!

(Photos taken by Canon EOS Rebel)

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