image African Adventure Part 1 – Johannesburg: Of History and Apartheid

Watching out the window on our final approach into Johannesburg, South Africa I was struck by both how much larger and how much greener the city is then I’d expected.


To be honest though, I’m not sure exactly what I’d been expecting since the bulk of my “knowledge” about “Jo’burg” – as it’s more commonly called – had come from movies, newspapers and history books. I think the only adjective I’d ever associated with this, the largest city in South Africa, had been “dangerous”.   How pleasantly surprised I’ve been to discover how much more there is to Jo’burg than “danger”.

The area of the city we’re staying in is called “Rosebank”. It’s a lovely, upper-middle class neighbourhood outside the downtown core, just as many wealthier neighbourhoods in other cities are. There’s a large, brand new mall replete with 2 sets of movie theatres, many jewellery stores and a mixture of high-end and trendy fashion chains. In the immediate area there are numerous restaurants and a couple of prestigious art galleries.   The hotel we’re in has the only champagne bar in town.


I’ve hired a private guide to ferry me around the city for three days because I find I always see and learn more when I’m with a guide. Today is all about history, the history of apartheid in particular. My lessons begin in the immediate neighbourhood with background information concerning the arrival of the Dutch and the British in South Africa, as well as a tour through this, and other, wealthier, predominantly white, neighbourhoods. This background is important for me to understand the roots of where and how the stirrings of apartheid came to be.

Our first major stop is Constitution Hill. Now the site of the country’s Constitutional Court, this site was formerly home to the “Old Fort Prison Complex” commonly known as ‘Number Four’. One of Jo’burg’s oldest buildings it was built between 1896 and 1899 by Paul Kruger as a place to hold British invaders. It later became known as the “Native Jail” and housed black prisoners.

A view of a watch tower and cell blocks at “Number Four” prison

Among its most famous inmates was Mahatma Ghandi who spent a few months incarcerated here in 1906, a period when he was practising law in Jo’burg and his political activism had really begun to take hold. Ghandi, along with an increasing number of political dissidents, was locked up with common murders, thieves and other criminals. A statue of Ghandi commemorating or perhaps reminding us of his incarceration graces one of the courtyards of the now defunct facility.


At the time, everyone within the prison lived in squalid conditions. The black prisoners were, however, kept separate from the white or “coloured” prisoners and were faced with the worst living conditions. For example, cells that were built to hold 30 black prisoners would actually be crammed with up to 60, while white prisoners were often kept on their own, in smaller cells. The white prisoners were also given mattresses and 2 blankets each compared to a single blanket each for the black prisoners. In the early 1900’s the overcrowding among black inmates grew to such a point that tents were erected in the courtyard to accommodate all of the political dissidents being arrested by the government.

The series of solitary confinement cells, literally a 1 meter by 2 meter room with the tiniest of windows.

Punishment within the prison was severe and included everything from solitary confinement to lashings and floggings. Prisoners were also made to strip and dance for their fellow captives at the simple whim of a prison guard. In fact, the flogging frame on display in the “punishment room” was being used up until the mid-1980’s.

The flogging frame, in use until the 1980’s

In the end, clandestine photos taken from the rooftop of an adjacent building by one of their employees exposed some of the horrendous activities taking place inside the prison and contributed to its closing in 1984.

The prison site is now maintained as a museum and links directly to the Supreme Court building where the recent South African Constitution abolishing apartheid was signed.


There is an eternal flame burning in the courtyard between the two sites commemorating the signing of the Constitution in 1996. (More on Constitution Hill complex)

Follow the long shadows to find the eternal flame.

From Constitution Hill we continued our history lesson with a visit to the Apartheid Museum. This museum traces the earliest stirrings of apartheid within South Africa up through the years to its abolition. The information is presented in a comprehensive and logical, multi-media format, including some hard-hitting video broadcasts.  There’s nothing like sitting and watching a TV broadcast from the 50’s or 60’s espousing the benefits of segregation to really hit home the attitudes of the time! It’s a very emotional museum but definitely critical to appreciating how apartheid came about and why its impact is still being felt in Johannesburg today.

My tour guide is Linda (pronounced “Leendah”) and he was born and raised in Soweto, the largest township on the outskirts of Jo’burg. My pre-visit impression of Soweto was that it should be avoided at all costs because it’s ‘DANGEROUS’. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons I hired a guide – I wanted to see Soweto and to find out if and why it is still so dangerous.

To begin, Soweto means “SOuth WEstern TOwnship”. It’s a suburb just outside Jo’burg. I had anticipated that Soweto was going to be one giant slum or ‘shantytown’ similar to what I’d seen outside other major cities in developing countries. I was, however, surprised to discover that Soweto is so much more than that. With close to 3 million people Soweto is a city unto itself. And it has it’s own social strata: yes, there is a large section of Soweto that contains both squatter shanties and extremely low rent housing – areas best avoided by the solo visitor. On the other hand, it also has working class and middle-upper class neighbourhoods that are quite nice and safe to walk around. containing squatter shanties, small and medium sized middle class homes as well. It also has a diverse collection of government constructed low-cost homes only available through an application process: however, judging by the number of these homes sitting empty it seems few people seem to actually ‘qualify’ for them.

Empty government constructed houses in Soweto


Soweto is predominantly a black community and, over the years, has been one of the main suburbs of Jo’burg for protests and violence. Prior to the abolishment of apartheid protests were already occurring between blacks and law enforcement. After its abolishment in 1990, but prior to Nelsen Mandela’s election in 1994, Soweto was also the site of some of the most violent black-on-black conflict in South Africa as depicted in the film ‘The Bang Bang Club’.

In talking with Linda I learned that, in spite of its violent past, many people born and raised in Soweto choose not to leave. It is essentially a big “city” that acts as a smaller “village”: everyone knows each other and generations of families tend to stay in the area. In addition, there is a new large shopping mall, community centres and performance centres. There is also a public transit system connecting Soweto with Johannesburg. These days, according to Linda, the greatest challenges with remaining in Soweto for young professionals such as himself include a long and arduous commute to the centre of the Jo’burg (think monster traffic jams) and a relatively low rate of return on any property you buy. But make no mistake there are some lovely properties and a vibrant culture in Soweto.

Within Soweto we visited Nelson Mandela’s first home. Built in 1945 Mandela moved into this house with his first wife, Evelyn and then later lived here with his second wife, Winnie. Joburg-01850

The umbilical cords from his children are buried under a large tree in the back yard to keep them always close at hand.

View to the back yard from inside Nelson Mandela’s first home. The umbilical cords of his children are buried under the tree in the yard.

However, after his release from prison Mandela spent little time at this home as he sought privacy and safety. He eventually settled in the upscale neighbourhood of Houghton, which has become a pilgrimage site for Africans and tourists from around the world.  People place rocks with messages of hope or remembrance on them in the small gardens surrounding the trees in front of this house.

Nelson Mandela’s final home in the up-scale Houghton neighbourhood. He sought privacy here following his release from prison and his increasingly high profile.

The final stop on my history tour of Johannesburg was to a monument on the site of the 1976 Soweto student uprisings.   In brief, in 1974 the Johannesburg public school system implemented a policy that school children were to be taught their classes in Afrikaans, rather than the more familiar English. Just imagine if your children came home from school one day and informed you that their classes were now being taught in Russian or Mandarin or some other language with which they had little familiarity. Clearly, this put black school children at a distinct disadvantage within the school system. After formal efforts to change the policy failed, the students decided to take matters into their own hands and planned a march within Soweto from a local public school to a local stadium where student leaders would address the group. On the morning of the planned march about 15,000 students showed up, more than double the number anticipated! To make a long story short, although the students marched peacefully through the streets, the police showed up and violence broke out. At least 600 children died and thousands were wounded. A photo capturing a 17-year old student, Mbuyisa Makhubu, carrying the bloodied body of Hector Pietersen, 13 years old and among the youngest to be shot on the first day of the protests became one of the key images marking a turning point in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. It opened the eyes of the world to what was happening and helped lead to the abolition of apartheid in 1990. At the same time, following the events of that day thousands of students were rounded up by the government, detained, tortured, charged or imprisoned. An additional 12,000 are estimated to have fled the country. Most recently Mbuyisa Makhubu was reportedly discovered to be living in Canada, although newspaper reports from August 2014 suggest that the DNA testing conducted on the individual in question was” inconclusive”.

The photo that drew the world’s eyes to the increasingly violent situation in South Africa following the Soweto student uprisings in 1976.

With that I wound up this portion of my history lesson of Johannesburg. The most significant thing I learned from all of this is that the wounds of apartheid are both deep and broad.   It has only been 20 years since apartheid was abolished and it will take many more before the scabs do not re-open with every scratch. Progress has been made to break down barriers, to increase opportunities for black people and to create unity in Jo’burg however there is still not true equality in this city. In fact, there is a feeling among some of the white residents of Jo’burg that they are now victims of a reverse discrimination – underscoring the invisible yet real tension that still exists here. Linda, a young, educated black man, is philosophical about it all. He insists that strong honest leadership in government would go a long way to helping Johannesburg and South Africa move forward from its sordid past.   Specifically, the people, all the people, need to be shown what is possible and how they can achieve it. Unfortunately though, in the opinion of many of the people we’ve spoken with – black and white, young and old, Johannesburg and elsewhere – the needed strong leadership does not seem likely to come from the current government.


    • Thanks! I found Jo’burg to be a fascinating city. So much more than I’d been expecting. Glad you enjoyed the article.


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