Ten minutes into my first visit to Johannesburg, and I’m as certain as I’ve ever been that I will leave here with lessons learned. Already, the contrasts are hitting me from every angle. On the left is a painfully spare township. But all too soon, it fades in the rearview mirror as we turn into the swanky Sandton area, home to plush business hotel Radisson Blu Sandton (radissonblu.com). At Vivace restaurant, also on the 13th floor, I savor the lights of the city below, seen through the glass walls, as much as I do the food.
In the morning, it’s time to get down to the business at hand. Today, that’s getting an up-close look at this once-turbulent land’s history. First stop: Alexandra township, one-time home to both former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The townships were established as separate housing for non-whites, who were not allowed to live in the cities (as per a 1913 law), neither as homeowners nor renters. There were Indian, Chinese, colored and black townships, where the stated goal was for residents to be able to own property.
Again, the contrast—this time as we pass through the tree-lined suburban Oaklands/Houghton area, past bistros, wine lofts and shopping centers. The area is home to Nelson Mandela, who resides in a large, pale yellow stone building. Known to his countrymen as “The Old Man,” he is referred to in affectionately reverential tones. “God has blessed him with excellent and extra days,” says Alfred, as we roll by Mandela’s home.
In the busy downtown area, we enter a traditional medicine shop, where skins, dried medicines and bones hang from the ceilings and walls. There is a thatched doctor’s hut in the back, where patients traditionally have their ills diagnosed by the throwing of bones, which the doctor “reads” in order to prescribe medicine, usually from the herbs hanging on the walls.
In Dube, located near Winnie Mandela’s home in the township of Soweto, we stop and gorge ourselves on a buffet spread of lamb curry, tripe and chicken with sweet potato and other trimmings at Wandie’s shebeen (an illegal food and liquor spot)—a simple, onetime traditional watering hole that has evolved into a legally licensed, must-visit spot for locals and international visitors—President Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson and the late Johnnie Cochran have sat at the unadorned tables.
We drive past the eight-level Greenpoint stadium, where some of the World Cup the games were played. Later, the view atop Table Mountain is as stunning as expected. What I didn’t expect is the all-encompassing, surreal beauty of this city, which lives up to every flowery description, yet almost defies description—something I had to see to understand.
Next up: Robben Island. The island is bleak, fitting for the onetime leper colony, which became the infamous prison home of Nelson Mandela and his fellow well-known apartheid protestors. These days, more than 100 ex-wardens and ex-prisoners live side by side as a community. “They say you forgive but not forget. They have done both,” says our guide.
But, inside the actual prison yard and in the former cell blocks, it’s our second guide, former political prisoner Muthe Mzukwa, bone thin and khaki clad, who both contradicts and confirms this idyllic sentiment. “I doubt that anywhere in history shows that anger builds,” he says. “Anger destroys. Many of us have children and grandchildren—we want to build this country. We can’t forget. You are doomed to repeat mistakes if you forget.”
It’s a poignant, and potent, lesson.