Say “Africa” and most people think of Safari holidays; wide open plains, wildlife and remote game park camps.
Say “South Africa” and they will probably conjure up images of Cape Town, Table Mountain – or maybe a tour of the country’s famed vineyards. Of course for those with plenty of cash to spare, there are also South African diamonds...
But apart from Cape Town, Durban and the game reserves, Johannesburg and Pretoria are fascinating destinations that are well worth a visit. And with the introduction of Qatar Airways’ Doha-Johannesburg-Cape Town flights earlier this year, a split-destination holiday becomes a realistic option for travellers from Qatar and the Gulf as well as for those from further afield travelling through the Doha hub.
South Africa has 11 official languages but everyone speaks English – though they’ll appreciate it if you try a few phrases in Xhosa, one of the ‘click’ languages (good luck; my advice is stick to the simpler words that don’t have any clicks, like ‘Molo’, which means hello!).
Pretoria, the administrative capital is close to Jo’burg and an easy half-day visit away. Soon, but very controversially, it’s set to take on a new (although some would say an old) name – Tshwane. But however much the name may reflect the area’s black tribal history, Pretoria – with its majestic state buildings and manicured parks and gardens – still has the character of a small colonial town. It has a population of just over a million and is where you’ll find all the foreign embassies as well as the famous South African Reserve Bank and the Mint. Visit the pedestrianised church Square and seek out the statue of Boer leader Paul Kruger (after whom the gold Kruger Rand was named).
You can sift through the handicraft stalls on the square, wander past the main post office, visit the museums – and have a great view down over the town from the Union Buildings (the seat of government) – with acres of manicured laws, riotously-coloured flowerbeds and sculpted trees leading down from the main entrance. If you love plants, then the National botanical Garden contains over 5,000 different specimens and the National Zoological Gardens are the largest in Africa.
Just outside the city is the ‘Voortrekker Monument’ – literally a monument to those who went ahead – the pioneers who set out from the British Cape colony in the 1830s. You can go up to the top (by lift) for a great view, and the huge hall has walls covered with sculpted reliefs depicting the Voortrekkers fights with the Zulu.
Selected as host to the World Soccer cup in 2010, South Africa is working hard to develop its infrastructure – including the rehabilitation of Johannesburg, a soccer-mad city with a downtown area that became almost a ghost-town as businesses and hotels moved out to the classy suburbs when inner city crime rose (but is now, thankfully, under control). Also known as eGoli (the city of gold), it started life as a mining town and is now an exciting city of over seven million with an amazing mix of cultures but also both extremes of rich and poor. Sandton City (a suburb where many of the five star hotels are located) has classy designer stores, shopping malls linked to the hotels and a wide range of upmarket restaurants and bars. The rich love Kayali Castle as a weekend retreat; it’s a small very upmarket hotel, also used for conferences, that was actually built as a family retreat. It has huge grounds – and a stable for those who like to go riding!
Go to the top of the City Centre building downtown, and you have not only a 360 degree view of the city, but an extraordinary panorama that stretches out into the surrounding countryside and as far away as Pretoria.
Sandton Square has a rapidly expanding monthly antiques and collectibles market and regular performances by the Philharmonic Orchestra, and Market Theatre Market is Johannesburg’s original flea market.
Don’t miss the vibrant Rosebank Rooftop Market and downstairs African Market – craft markets with an adjoining ‘flea market’ where you can find both modern examples of indigenous crafts and antiques as well as a whole range of new ‘takes’ on traditional souvenirs and a wonderful range of African foods. The rooftop Market (actually the top level of the car park) is only open on Sundays – from 9.30am to 5pm but the African Market is open daily. The adjacent Rosebank malls have plenty to offer and with the area’s numerous cafes restaurants and bars it’s a centre of ‘pavement society’ where races mingle freely and adults and kids alike stop to watch the talented street performers. (If you’ve never eaten it before, try the Ostrich; the meat is delicious and it’s supposed to be an incredibly healthy option too!)
Other places you should put on your list of things to see are the MuseuMAfrika (yes, it is written like that, it’s not a misprint!) and the adjacent Market Theatre.
Not surprisingly, the City of Gold is located in Gauteng province (which in Sesotho means ‘place of gold’) and one of the tourist attractions is Gold Reef City – a museum and amusement park complex that includes the Apartheid Museum and also a disused mine that has been ‘restored’.
If you love nature, you can visit the Melville Kopples Nature reserve where you’ll see not only the plants of the veld but Stone and Iron Age ruins, or Pilanesberg National Park to watch the wildlife, but Johannesburg is also close to Kruger National Park, and to the casinos of ‘Sun City’.
But no trip to Johannesburg is really complete unless you visit Johannesburg’s black township of Soweto, which – with a population of around 2 million – is a huge, vibrant and incredibly diverse ‘city’ in its own right. Yes, there is poverty and there are no-go areas for outsiders, as there are in many of the world’s biggest cities. But Soweto also has its ‘upmarket’ areas – its own Beverly Hills – of beautiful houses with neatly cut lawns, richly-planted gardens and prestige cars parked in the driveways. (Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu are among people with homes there). It has thriving restaurants and bars, hundreds of artists, sculptors and musicians, and even extreme sports clubs for the kids.
It also has its shanty homes, its small thriving township corner stores selling everything from food to music; and little ‘businesses’ set up in tiny shacks providing a ‘public’ telephone service. It has standpipes for fresh water, chemical toilets in the lanes between the shanties, to be shared by numerous families – and the largest public hospital on the continent – Baragwanath, linked by a footbridge to the market area. The walls around the entrance are covered with murals encouraging people to go for AIDS testing.
As a visitor, you can take an ‘organised tour’ through parts of the township, meet the people, visit their homes, and buy your wood and stone carvings directly from the artists who created them.
Thanks to sports and music programmes, Soweto’s youngsters are learning about, and developing skills in, extreme sports, while musicians such as Ndumiso and his colleagues collect unwanted musical instruments and use them in clubs where underprivileged kids can learn to play them and develop their musical talents.
One of the most moving (but for me saddest) places in Soweto is the Hector Pieterson Museum – testament to the atrocities suffered by the community during the June 16, 1976 riots. Hundreds died there in violence sparked by the demonstrations of schoolchildren opposed to the apartheid government’s insistence that they study at least 50 per cent of their subjects in the colonial language of Afrikaans. English had been hard enough for some of them, who used their own native language at home – but they had conquered it, now some students had to follow all their studies in Afrikaans.
The police opened fire on the demonstration; 40 children died.
The violence should never have happened; but the shooting to death of the first young boy, Hector Peterson, made the front pages of newspapers around the world with a photograph of his limp body being carried from the scene by a young man, running, and a screaming woman. You can read all about it in the museum and watch video clips of eyewitness accounts. You can also see the history of the development of Soweto.
In a walled courtyard are scattered bricks, each one engraved with the name of a victim of the violence. And on the wall are the sad poems of the tribal storytellers who were at the funeral.
Outside, the famous picture is by a fountain; and happy young black children play in the sunshine. It’s just one of the signs that South Africa has recovered from its past. The people are so warm and so welcoming – and the scenery is so spectacular that once you’ve visited the country you’ll want to go back for more!
By Gina Coleman
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