Culture shock in Jo'burg!

Trip Start Dec 12, 2010
Trip End Dec 16, 2012

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Flag of South Africa  , Gauteng,
Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Misconceptions are a thing that you often experience when traveling. But as we headed to Johannesburg in South Africa, we really didn't think that our conceptions of Jo'burg would turn out to be misconceptions. And we really didn't think that we would experience a culture shock in Jo'burg.
As we arrived in Johannesburg via a flight from Congo, we had in our head the comments many people make about Jo'burg; 'Jo'burg is so dangerous', 'don't go anywhere in Jo'burg or you'll get mugged', 'bags always get lost at Jo'burg airport', 'Why would you want to go to Jo'burg', 'Don't take a taxi in Jo'burg, it is too dangerous'. But as we got our bags and headed off to our backpackers in a taxi thinks started to change. Okay, maybe not the fact that even in South Africa, like West Africa, taxi drivers don't know where they are going. But after several stops at petrol stations to ask for directions, we made it safely to our backpackers in one piece.
Our first big day in Jo'burg would be one of a culture shock. So what is there to do in Jo'burg after spending four months in West African countries, shop of course. As we set off to the Sandton City Shopping Centre in a taxi, we started to feel symptons of a culture shock. Driving through the classy suburbs of Jo'burg, we passed massive houses, fenced with high walls, barbed wire and electric fences, with 'armed response' security signs displayed. Okay, this was not the village huts or run down houses we were use to, this was crazy. But yes, Jo'burg must be dangerous if these houses need so much security.
When we arrived at Sandton City Shopping Centre, we headed straight for Mandela Square to admire the massive statue of the great man, Nelson Mandela. And yes it was here, we realised we were suffering from a culture shock. As we enjoyed breakfast in western surrounds, endulging in things like a English Breakfast with bacon and awesome smoothies, we definately could feel that we had left West Africa and we had returned to a 'normal' Western society.
As we shopped for traveling supplies, electronic luxuries and new books to read, we continued to feel the culture shock. It was unnatural for us to go into a shop and for that shop to have what we wanted. It was also unnatural for a waitress to understand what we meant when we asked for seperate bills. It was strange to feel underdressed while shopping. We were in Jo'burg and we were having a culture shock.
We were having a culture shock, but we were loving it, especially in terms of food and drink. Shopping for ourselves, not on a tight budget like we are when we went 'cook group shopping' on the truck, we were able to purchase meat, meat and more meat, along with awesome salad ingredients and good quality South African wine and cider. Our time in Jo'burg allowed us to have some awesome brais (South African style barbeques) accompanied by salad that had yummy cheese like feta in it. It was awesome!
We were having a culture shock in terms of being in a Western country again, but in terms of the South Africa history and culture, we didn't know too much about it, so we headed off on a day tour of Soweto and the Apartheid Museum.
Soweto is a township just outside of Jo'burg with a population of 4.5 million people. This township was set up in the early 1900's in order to remove people from the bubonic plague, then eventually became a place to segregate the blacks and coloureds from the white population. The name Soweto literally means, South West Township.
As we entered the township of Soweto we were soon to learn that this part of Jo'burg was safe, as none of the houses in the upper class section had high security fences. We checked out the three classes of the township, the nice houses, the middle class area where matchbox houses line the streets and the lower class areas of tin huts and hostels.
As we drove down the middle class street of Vilakazi Street, we soon learnt that this was the only street in the world where two noble peace prize winners had lived. Archbishop Desmund Tutu and Nelson Mandela had lived in Vilakazi street in typical matchbox houses, and they both had put their stamp on the world through efforts towards equality and peace. We stopped at Mandela's house and had a local beer at the restaurant across the street. Soweto so far was interesting, but we soon would suffer from more culture shocks as we delved deeper into South Africa's history.
We continued on our Soweto tour, stopping at the Hector Pieterson Museum. Up until now, we did not know anything about Hector Pieterson, but soon learnt how different this 'Western' country was to ours. Hector Pieterson was a young student who was shot in 1975, at a students' demonstration. The students were protesting against having to learn in Afrikaans, a language that was not their native language, but the language of the minority 'white' Afrikaan population of South Africa. This museum displayed Jo'burg's sad, shocking racial history, but unfortunately racial problems were reality in South Africa.
After our museum visit, we began to understand a bit about the segregation problems in South Africa's past, and still today, only 5 white people live in the township of Soweto. We then headed to the lower class section of Soweto when we visited the Motsoaledi settlement. This area is populated by people who are poor, living in tin houses of 2 bedrooms, no electricity and commual taps in the lane. Portaloos fill half of the tiny yards and the lucky residents are the ones who have a generator. Just to think, yesterday we got a culture shock when we drove passed massive mansions, now we were getting a culture shock when walking through these poverty areas. While we were there, we sat down with the locals while having a beer and hearing about their stories. It was an empowering experience.
To top off our history lesson, we headed to the Apartheid Museum. The Apartheid was a segregation law in South Africa in the 1970's, giving power purely to the white population. Blacks and coloureds were segregation from the white in terms of education, residence and even shopping and dining experiences. It was shocking!!! The was hard to believe that things like the Apartheid existed in our lifetime. At the museum, we also learnt a bit about the great man Nelson Mandela and his efforts against the Apartheid law and his fight for equality in South Africa. The museum was a very interesting museum, a must if you ever visit Jo'burg. And to think, we had a misconception that there was nothing to do in Jo'burg.
To finish off our day tour, we drove through the centre of Jo'burg, which was a culture shock. Our tour guide informed us that it was safe for us to be driving through with him as he was black, but as white people, we should not visit Central Jo'burg alone, as yes it is too dangerous for whites.
As our short visit in Jo'burg came to an end, we reflect on our time here. We had an amazing time, a huge learning experience about the history and yes, a massive culture shock. Jo'burg is a city of classes and of course many misconceptions. Like all major cities, there are places that are safe, and there are places that are not. But if you ask us, Jo'burg is place that you should give a go!
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