News from Sin City

Trip Start Apr 15, 2009
Trip End May 15, 2009

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Flag of South Africa  , Gauteng,
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Two days can't possibly be enough to explore Jozi - the affectionate nickname that locals have for Johannesburg - but Claire and I have tried our best to get a fleeting grasp of this city, how it was in the past, how it has changed today, and what it represents to South Africans and foreigners alike.

First a little bit of history - courtesy of Wikipedia. The region was originally inhabited by San tribes, displaced in the XIII century by the arrival of groups of Bantu-speaking peoples from the north. Then in the early 1800s, the Dutch speaking Voortrekkers arrived and established their first settlements: Rustenburg, Pretoria, and Johannesburg. The latter was little more than a dusty settlement of the young Boer Transvaal Republic until the 1880s when gold was discovered in the Witwatersrand, and everything changed: as the word spread, people flocked to the area from all other regions of the country and from abroad, and Jo'burg rapidly became a major mining and financial centre, eGoli, the City of Gold*. The largest city in South Africa, it is the greatest and starkest example of the country's inequalities, excesses, callousness, as well as energy, opportunities, and multiculturalism. 

Though not one of South Africa's three capitals**, Johannesburg is the traditional political heart of the nation, a cauldron of creativity and militancy, the arena that witnessed the historic speeches of Nelson Mandela, the struggles of a beleaguered ANC, the hope heralded by the Freedom Charter. But also violent clashes and massacres such as in Sharpeville and Soweto, episodes that will stick to people's minds and hearts for a long time.

On the first day, Claire and I sort of stayed put, and decided to have a little rest - it was the first time in nearly four weeks that we slept on a real bed after all - and then hang out with the friend who's hosting us, Mikhael. We read, made food, chatted some more, went for a stroll in the park, and then went out for supper at a Pakistani eatery in an area called Fordsburg, a remarkable choice, both for the food and the uber-kitsch décor of the restaurant.

The second day was somewhat busier and activity-heavier. With only a handful of hours of a coldish autumn day at our disposal, we concentrated on museums and some sightseeing: Constitution Hill - with a visit to "Number 4" prison, the Old Fort, and obviously the Constitutional Court - in the morning, followed by an afternoon-long visit to the Apartheid Museum

The latter especially was an edifying and intense experience. Housed in a big newish complex outside the city centre - and just a stones-throw-away from the Gold Reef City theme park with which it bizarrely shares the entrance gate - the Apartheid Museum takes the visitor on a graphic journey along the long decades of racial segregation that scarred South African and its people: photographs, films, official records, testimonies, and finally 1994 election posters that colorfully heralded the beginning of a new democratic era.

However, the museum does not only preserve the memory of a recent past for those who were not yet born, or were too little to remember, or were not, like me, in the country. The pages of daily newspapers are displayed at the end of the, with relevant national news highlighted for everybody to ponder upon, so that the historical information can be placed in its contemporary discourse and better absorbed. Coming out of the museum's building into the fresh air just before sunset - Claire and I ended up spending about four hours browsing the exhibit - one can't help but feeling deeply moved by the experience, and almost daydreaming about in the enormity of history.

Just a quick note on our evening: for dinner we hook up with a Namibian friend, a documentary filmmaker who lives and works in Jo'burgh. We meet him at his apartment, and while he whips up an Italian dish for us in his spacious open-plan kitchen-cum-Nelson-Mandel-Bridge-vista, we chat a lot about art, the state of today's media, writing and taking pictures for a living but also with a purpose, our role in society, and so and so forth...a lot of pseudo-intellectual and self-glorifying blather, basically. Very enjoyable.

Tomorrow we're moving on, the long journey down the N1 all the way to Cape Town and our Muizenberg home begins.

Stay tuned.

* In Zulu. The city's Tswana name, Gauteng, is today the name of the province that includes both Johannesburg and Pretoria.
** These are Pretoria (executive), Bloemfontein (judicial), and Cape Town (legislative).

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