Saturday, March 27, 2010

Black, White and Gold: Johannesburg in a Day

In South Africa, just about everywhere you go, the word on everyone's lips seems to be 'crime'. Crime in the cities, crime in the country, crime with guns, knives and fists, sex crime, gang crime, war crime...You begin to wonder what people would talk about at the dinner table if it weren't for rape and homicide. You also begin to wonder how much of this dinner-table gossip has directly contributed in the erection of high cement walls trimmed with electrical fencing, and how much of it might well be entirely unnecessary.

Nowhere is the topic hotter than in Johannesburg, where the extremes of poverty and wealth compounded with the ubiquity of illegal firearms make for an often deadly combination. Although we remain skeptical that Johannesburg is in fact overrun with gun-toting criminals who would kill for an iPhone, we were swayed by the stories of fellow travellers (some of whom were mugged before even leaving the train station) and decided to base ourselves in Pretoria, about 50k from the madness.

With its colonial government buildings, wide tree-lined avenues and malls teeming with moneyed teenagers and familiar brand names, Pretoria did have a safe, sedate feel. Walking in the suburbs, passing the dignified embassies of Algeria, Slovakia and Singapore (Canada's was a mauve, stuccoed eyesore straight out of Richmond, BC) you couldn't possibly feel further from harm. But aside from the city's graceful gardens and buildings, and a handful of uninspiring museums, our attention was inevitably drawn to its louder, more vibrant and extravagant neighbour: Jozi, Jo'burg, eGoli – Johannesburg.

Given all the negative things we'd heard about Jo'burg (and the fact that we lacked our own transport) we opted to stretch our budget and sign up for an organized tour. Not ten minutes in, we were regretting our decision, as our tour guide – a doddering Afrikaaner woman who had apparently been in the business for 25 years – turned out to be about the least informed 'local expert' one could possibly imagine. Half of the things she told us either came from the tour brochure or were written on a plaque right in front of us. It was like like paying $500 for a university course, only to be read to from the textbook by someone with a PhD in the subject. However, we did have to give her credit for knowing where all the stars stay when they come to Johannesburg – and for having an (almost) close encounter with Richard Branson.

Despite our guide's inability to tell us a single thing we didn't already know, and her blatant disrespect for, well, just about everything, she did serve her purpose of getting us to the sights and home again. First, we visited the Hector Pieterson museum, which commemorates the struggle for equality, with particular attention paid to the role that youth played. In June 1976, school children in Soweto marched to the police station to protest against the implementation of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in their schools. More or less completely unprovoked (accounts differ – some argue that the children captured/beat/set fire to a police dog) police opened fire on the children. In about fifteen minutes, 23 children were shot and killed, including Hector Pieterson, a 13-year old boy who became an icon of the struggle when this picture was published in newspapers around the world.

A few blocks away from the museum is Nkagane street – the only street in the world where two Nobel Prize winners have lived (Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu). The Mandela home has been turned into a museum, where tourists can wander through rooms showcasing photos and memorabilia of South Africa's favourite political family. Of particular interest are the letters between Nelson Mandela and his daughters Zeni and Zindzi, and certificate from the CIA apologizing for their part in his arrest and subsequent 27 years of imprisonment.

Both museums offered sobering insights into South Africa's turbulent past, but for us, the most affecting experience came late in the day at the Apartheid Museum. Deliberately constructed to reflect the sombre, restricted atmosphere of apartheid, visitors enter the museum through either the 'Blankes' or 'Nie-Blankes' entrance – race is assigned at random. Scott is white and I am black. Through the first corridor, I can see and hear him, but a wall of bars separates us – whites and blacks do not mix. Reunited, we spent the next three hours immersed in the horrors of (and eventual triumphs over) apartheid. At every turn, you are confronted with candid black and white photographs of township life, shockingly racist excerpts from Nationalist Party speeches, video clips of resisters being gunned down by police. In one room, below a series of hanging nooses, you learn about the 121 political prisoners who died under apartheid rule, many of them at the hands of the authorities who created cover-up suicide stories to mask the true circumstances surrounding their deaths. Despite feeling a bit overwhelmed with information (the museum spans about 300 years of compelling history) it is the personal accounts of those who lived it that resonate for long after you leave the museum. You can't help but be absolutely awe-struck by their perseverance in the face of such crushing oppression. You also can't help but be similarly awe-struck by how long it was allowed to continue, finally coming to an end a mere 16 years ago.

Regardless of Johannesburg's reputation for brutality and lawlessness, there's no denying that it's the country's – and perhaps the continent's – epicentre. People aren't leaving the city, they're flocking to it. Long after the gold mines (which were the city's initial raison d'etre) have closed, people from all over Africa continue to be drawn to Jo'burg, for its reckless consumerism, its vibrant arts scene, its endless possibilities. Sixty years after Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu opened the country's first black law firm here, in a society divided along racial lines, Johannesburg has emerged from apartheid a complicated city, scarred, but forever promising.

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