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Monday 31 March 2014

Heartbeat of the rainbow nation: visiting Johannesburg and Soweto

Johannesburg and Soweto are two of the most fascinating and vibrant destinations on the planet.

From flashy shopping malls to shanty towns, from leafy green suburbs to scrubby bushland; world-class restaurants to home-brewed township beers and Soweto city slickers to witch doctors, these are cities of stark contrast.

And the biggest conurbation in the rainbow nation of South Africa is one of the hottest destinations of 2014, particularly as it is one of the most affordable places on the planet right now.

This country of around 50 million people has blossomed since the end of the apartheid era, emerging as an African nation with a European accent. Johannesburg is South Africa in microcosm. Rich in cultural and political history, it is a metropolis built on gold mining and now a vibrant mixing pot that’s known variously as Joburg, Jozi, Joeys or Egoli and is the capital of the Gauteng region.

Johannesburg, including the sprawling South Western Townships (known as Soweto), is a lively beast, inherently ugly with its many mine dumps, but the richest city on the continent with the edgy, bustling vibe of a metropolis in transition.

Here businessmen in suits share the sidewalks with tribesmen clad in animal skin, and models shop alongside women with bowls of fruit balanced on their heads. Rich and poor live cheek by jowl (the rich often behind high-rise fences and razor wire), and BMWs park next to street vendors’ trolleys. 
Johannesburg is the biggest city on the planet (13 million people in the conurbation and counting) that is not on an ocean, river or lake. 

The downtown area is rough and ready with pavement market stalls, many deserted buildings awaiting gentrification, piles of rubbish (sometimes burning) – and its denizens range from major gold mining companies to faith healers offering off-the-street consultations and shops selling traditional “muti” or medicines.

Newspaper adverts offer witch doctor services ranging from “bring back lost lover” to “rats to put money in the house” and "get a bigger penis".

Township jazz music belts out from cheap speakers and crazed drivers of the minibuses that serve as taxis to and from the townships toot their horns relentlessly in a bid to drum up business. There may be makeshift barbecues selling tripe to passers by, or bloody buckets with the eviscerated remains of an unfortunate goat; perhaps chickens in makeshift pens waiting for a buyer. This is Africa in the raw.

You’ll find gargantuan, and sometimes soulless, shopping malls dotted throughout the northern suburbs, home to the wealthy and glamorous of all shades. Today’s popular slogan is: “It’s the face, not the race”.

The ultra-modern Gautrain links downtown with the northern suburbs in just a few minutes – but you’ll need to take a tour to Soweto (below) with its contrasting mansions in Diepkloof West and poverty in the squatter camps.

A day in Soweto, with its funky cafes and shebeens, is a must. Visit Vilakazi Street, the only street in the world to have been home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners (Nelson Mandela and Dr Desmond Tutu), or shop at the street markets and marvel at the lively vibe.

Contrary to what you might expect, Soweto is home to malls, world class football stadiums (Soccer City was the venue for the 2010 World Cup final), and even a golf course – much like any other suburb really. Today, Soweto is welcoming new restaurants and bed and breakfasts and tourism is a valuable source of income to the locals. Crime is no longer such a problem as the local businessmen want visitors to be safe.

Must-do Jo’burg activities include the Apartheid Museum and Constitution Hill (a former prison now housing the constitutional court) to find out more about South Africa’s turbulent past; and a meal in Nelson Mandela Square with its world-class restaurants.

A hop on-hop off bus tour with City Sightseeing Johannesburg is a good way to get to grips with the city and its environs with stops including the Gold City Reef Theme Park, the Apartheid Museum (left), the mining precinct and downtown. A one-day pass costs R150 (around $15) and the same company also operates minibus and walking tours of Soweto, including the Hector Pieterson Memorial, remembering a young man who was one of many killed in the anti-apartheid struggle.

MainStreetWalks offers walking tours of the inner city, or take in the views from the top of the Carlton Centre, the tallest building in Africa.

To enjoy this pulsating city at its best, also visit the resurgent Maboneng precinct – close to downtown and alive with restaurants and cafes (15 in all), bars, art galleries, loft apartments, the first micro brewery in the city and vibrant young people of all creeds and colours.

You eat well in Johannesburg, from the outstanding Thai food at Wangthai at Nelson Mandela Square to the huge steaks at places like The Local Grill in Parktown and The Butcher Shop & Grill in Sandton.

South Africans generally love their red meat, whether it comes as steak, frikkadels (meatballs), or in gourmet dishes featuring such curiosities as antelope or other boks. The traditional national dish is the braaivlies, which features barbecued meats usually served with maize meal and chakalaka, a spicy vegetable relish.

For fine dining, you can’t go past the the Five Hundred fine dining restaurant at The Saxon Hotel (below), renowned as one of the best in Africa. Chef David Higgs was recently named Chef of the Year for his innovative cuisine. Five Hundred has no fewer than five sommeliers on its team – and an extensive wine cellar.

More casual is the Winehouse eatery at Ten Bompas, where comfort food like coq au riesling and shepherd’s pie is on the menu – and there is once again a terrific wine cellar.

And what of Joburg’s much-debated crime levels? I never once felt threatened during a week of exploration, although I avoided the urban areas of Hillbrow and Berea at night. Be sensible and use an accredited guide when visiting townships and you should be fine.

The Facts:
South African Airways, Africa’s most awarded airline, operates to 40 destinations worldwide, and has daily flights to/from Johannesburg from Perth, with connections to Sydney and other East Coast cities. For more information call 1300 435 972 or see

The Saxon Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel in the Johannesburg suburb of Sandhurst, has several times been named best small hotel in the world. It is known as a temple of African gastronomy, with its Qunu Grill, specialising in grilled meats, named after the home town of one of its most famous guests, Nelson Mandela, who wrote his autobiography while in residence. The hotel is also home to the high-end five hundred restaurant and the Saxon’s culinary philosophy is to use only the freshest seasonal ingredients. The hotel has its own herb and vegetable garden. The Saxon is set in private grounds ensuring security and peace and quiet – and the service levels are outstanding (think butlers, high teas and a cigar lounge). The on-site spa offers a range of massages, sound therapy and an eight-hour head-to-toe treatment for the truly indulgent. +27 11 292 6000.

Ten Bompas (right), a secluded boutique hotel in the leafy Johannesburg suburb of Dunkeld West, is super chic with just 10 individually-designed suites, combining contemporary style with space and light. Suites have lounges, fireplaces, steam baths and complimentary minibar and each was styled by a different designer. There is an excellent on-site restaurant, and the hotel has an extensive wine cellar. Dining by the pool is a delight in summer and the staff are extremely helpful. Book through Mr and Mrs Smith to score a free bottle of wine.

See and websites or call South African Tourism on (02) 9261 5000.

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