Johannesburg has a bad reputation. Most tourists never get further than the airport unless they absolutely have to go there. But while it may not be the most beautiful place on the planet - and it does have serious social issues - it also has a great deal going for it. If you really want to understand what makes South Africa tick, this kick-ass city is the country's heartbeat.
What's in a name?
In 1886, George Harrison (no, not the Beatle, but an Australian prospector) found gold on Langlaagte Farm, Roodepoort. Hot on his heels came two 'Johannes', an initial investigator, Johannes Joubert, and the surveyor-general, Johannes Rissik, who laid out the grid on which the fledgling mining village was founded. The debate has continued ever since as to which of the two gave the city its name. Over the years, the city has sprouted many alternate names. It's routinely shortened to Jo'burg or Jozi. It is also known as Egoli (City of Gold), Maboneng (City of Lights) and even bizarrely as the 'Big Naartje' (tangerine). The whole province that includes the suburbs, Soweto, and reaches up as far as Pretoria in one giant conurbation is wrapped up as Gauteng.
Today, Jozi is South Africa's largest city and by far the most powerful economic machine on the African continent. The Greater Johannesburg area has a population of nearly11 million people and sprawls across a vast 1,645 square kms (635 square miles). Gold is still of vital importance, although there are no longer any mines within the city center. You can still see the slag heaps all around you and deep mines surround the region. The rabbit warren of old tunnels under the city is causing major headaches to city planners these days not only because of the risk of cave-ins but it is potentially contaminating the city's water supplies. Meantime, the city's business tycoons are more concerned with a virtual gold rush, as they trade billions in a high-flying high pressure high-finance lifestyle. This city is about conspicuous consumption.
For years the city center was virtually abandoned, a criminal no-go zone. Middle-class South Africans moved en masse to northern suburbs such as Sandton, Rosebank and Parktown, and the businesses followed them out, with even such august institutions such as the Stock Exchange moving uptown. This is where the affluent still live and work, in genteel residential suburbs with leafy streets (the city has over 6 million trees), high concrete walls and gated communities. Socialising is done in secure malls with guards on the door. No one walks around the streets. It's a sad fact of life. Having said that, places like upmarket Sandton, gracious Parktown with its Herbert Baker mansions, and bohemian Melville are filled with excellent hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and shops, with plenty of golf courses, spas and swimming pools for the odd bit of downtime.
Meantime, back in the city center, there has been something of an urban revival going on. It's still not a place to go wandering wearing your best jewellery, but there are pockets of real joy and fascination. Throughout the apartheid era, the Market Theatre was a thorn in the side of the regime, producing some of South Africa's most interesting and challenging theatre. Now it is the centerpiece of the Newtown Cultural Precinct, a lively inner city regeneration project, connected to the rest of the city by the sweeping Nelson Mandela Bridge. The area is filled with great restaurants, jazz clubs, art galleries, and museums while Orient Plaza offers an enticing mix of Indian-style bazaar shopping. Museum Africa trawls the history of the continent from ancient Egypt to the Rivonia Treason Trials. The hugely popular SA Breweries World of Beer is dedicated to the art of brewing, with tours, samples and a bar. The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre is a hands-on science centre aimed at children and young people.
Out and About
Elsewhere in the city, the old Johannesburg prison has been transformed into the country's Constitutional Court, equivalent to the Supreme Court, in an exciting and inspirational architectural project with an attached museum. To understand the city old and new, spend a day at the Apartheid Museum and Gold Reef City, a theme park that also has a great deal of information about gold, how to mine it and the early years of the city. Go back even further in time to the Origins Centre at Wits University, Braamfontein, which explores Khoi San rock art and the earliest origins of proto humans. Take a day to leave the city and head out of town to Maropeng, where the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage site marks some of the earliest humanoid discoveries ever made. There are great parks and botanical gardens, a brilliant zoo (although I am still not sure about this for travellers with all those gameparks on the doorstep). I recently visited the Lion Park and was very impressed, a "must-see". And if staying here, it would also be worth spending a day or perhaps two in neighbouring Pretoria, another unsung city with much of interest.
And then, of course, there is Soweto. The name sounds incredibly African. In fact it stands prosaically for South Western Township. This name once stood for all that was wrong in South Africa, a place of oppression and despair. Now it is leading the way into the future. It is almost essential to do a township tour - it's also fun and fascinating. Sights include Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication (Freedom Square), where the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955, marking the start of the struggle for liberation; the Hector Pieterson Museum, commemorating the children who died in the Soweto uprisings of 1976-7; the Regina Mundi Church which became the unofficial black parliament; and of course, the Mandela Museum, the simple home Nelson Mandela shared with his first wife, Winnie. But Soweto is more than this, it is a living breathing place filled with life and laughter, music and food. These days, it is possible for tourists to stay in its hotels and b&bs, drink and dance in its clubs, and glimpse something of life on the other side of the fence in the new South Africa.