I was surprised how familiar the city of Johannesburg seemed to be; one could almost compare it to any typical city in the United States.
We were only going to be spending one day in Joburg before we headed off to our first safari so after eating an amazing breakfast at our hotel, our driver for the day picked us up and took us to the city.
Johannesburg, though similar in style of a typical American city, had a completely different atmosphere. There were barely any trees in sight, it was almost an entirely barren land besides the buildings and houses. Additionally, since it is Africa’s winter season, almost everything was dry and colorless, which is something I have never really seen before. Everything was packed densely together but due to the lack of foliage, you could see the great expanse of the entire land as if it would go on for miles.
It was a city, yet still felt so rural to me.
Our first stop for the day was Gold Reef City, an amusement park that is located on an old gold mine. Johannesburg back in the day used to be one of the biggest gold mining capitals of the world, drawing in thousands of people in search of this precious metal. Therefore, there were hundreds of mines built throughout the city that still exist today, including the one at Gold Reef City.
With hard hats on our heads and flashlights in hand, a guide took us 75 meters below the ground (roughly 246 feet) and showed us what it would have been like to be a miner back in the late 18-1900’s.
Honestly, not the biggest fan of being underground but it was interesting and scary to learn about how dangerous a job like this really was. The amount of people who would die through this type of work was shocking.
We also learned that though majority of the mines in Johannesburg are all abandoned, men in poverty will still go down in search of gold, even though these places are not regulated or secure, and its illegal.
After leaving the mine, we headed to the Apartheid Museum which was something I was really looking forward to. If you are not familiar with the term “apartheid,” it means to segregate and discriminate due to race.
When we first entered the museum, we were given cards which labeled us as either white or non-white. Then those with white cards had to enter through a specific door and non-whites through another, separating our group. I though this was a pretty cool idea because it was a small way to give the visitors an idea of the segregation that occurred in the country.
Originally I was thrown for a loop as I didn’t understand how there would be racism in a country that is predominantly African. But it existed. And did exist until 1994 which is mind boggling because that wasn’t so long ago. In fact, African’s only received their freedom three years before I was born. It’s unbelievable.
The museum was beautiful and insanely big, with hundreds of different exhibits that portrayed the rise and fall of apartheid. Depending on your level of interest, walking through the entire building could take up to three hours, though my family did it in roughly one.
I highly recommend checking out this museum because when visiting another country, I think it is so unbelievably important to learn the history of what happened there. I don’t think it is fair to enter into a new country and just pretend the past doesn’t matter, especially in a place like South Africa, who endured so much.
After leaving the Apartheid Museum, we drove through Soweto, which is a township within Johannesburg. It was home to the famous activist, Nelson Mandela (ring a bell?).
Driving through Soweto was a slight culture shock. There are big houses where the rich live, yes, but it is also home to the poorest of the poor.
Families of 7+ people living in tiny tin boxes, clustered together on the side of the road. I’d never seen anything like it. These houses were just tiny squares with no electricity, meaning that the winter nights were unbearably cold, while the summer days were excruciatingly hot.
You hear about the poverty in Africa but rarely do you experience it for yourself.
Luckily, there is work being done to help these people. The government has been building homes for these families, where they can live almost for free, only having to pay for water and electricity. We had a look at some of these new, free homes and they are beautiful. The project is a godsend to these people and it makes me happy that it will be able to help hundreds of families who aren’t as fortunate as others.
We finally ended the day in Sandton City, which is just a humongous mall in Johannesburg and home to the famous Nelson Mandela statue.
At this point, jet lag was hitting me hard and I was exhausted. So after lunch and a brief walk around the mall (I’m not the biggest shopper), we headed back to our hotel for the night.
Johannesburg wasn’t my favorite city but it had some different aspects that made it very unique. If you’re making the journey to South Africa, I think you should at least spend a day there and see the places that make it such a wealth of cultural and historical knowledge.
I think it’s worth it.