Join me for one day in Johannesburg, South Africa…
The View from Houghton
On clear days, you can see all the way to Pretoria from this beautiful lookout point!
Yes, it’s really called “The View.”
Nelson Mandela also resided in Houghton at the end of his life. We drove by his home, where his widow Graça Machel still lives, and looked at the beautiful, quiet memorials that visitors have left outside the building.
Hillbrow has seen great demographic change over the past twenty years. Once home to only middle-class white residents, this township now bustles with immigrants from neighboring countries and all sorts of folks.
Even though America’s history of racial politics is far from clean, it still shocks me that within my own lifetime, South Africa maintained a strict legal system of oppression.
Browsing the museum, I was humbled and horrified by the atrocities suffered by South Africans fighting for their freedom. I didn’t know that the primary theory of action behind the African National Congress (ANC)’s tactics was to make the country “ungovernable,” to show the leaders that South Africa could not flourish as a country while apartheid reigned.
I can’t believe the bravery of these people, throwing themselves into chaos and violence so that they could gain peace and freedom, and I am so grateful for the rights and freedoms I have enjoyed all my life.
Prior to the demise of apartheid, this site housed the Old Fort Prison (for white men), Number Four (for black men), and the Women’s Gaol. Inmates here, particularly in Number Four, suffered terrible abuses and many were tortured to death. Mahatma Gandhi was held here, as was Mandela for a short time (in the Old Fort, since they were afraid he would prove too influential in the black jail).
After apartheid was overturned, South Africa decided to reclaim this tragic history and honor the country’s new direction by transforming the prisons into the site of the Constitutional Court.
Comparable to the Supreme Court in the United States, the Constitutional Court is comprised of twelve justices, appointed by the president. Our guide Tefo was proud to share that many are former freedom fighters, and the court is racially diverse, with several women, two disabled judges, and one gay judge. (South Africa was the fifth country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage!)
The site is a monument as well as a functioning court. One installation, called the “Ladder of Freedom” illustrates the history of South Africa. Each rung marks a different critical stage, beginning with rungs wrapped in barbed wire and proceeding upwards through ivory, gold, and other symbolic materials. These intricately carved doors depict the country’s twenty-seven constitutional rights.
Touring the Saxon Hotel
The luxurious Saxon Hotel is perhaps best known for housing Nelson Mandela as he edited his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom. Nestled in a wealthy Joburg suburb, the Saxon is styled with breezy elegance. The architecture, interior design, and landscaping combine traditional African art with a clean, modern sensibility.
We romped throughout the grounds.
This garden bears produce for the hotel’s two restaurants. Someday I’ll try the tasting menu at the renowned Saxon Five Hundred, but it books up over a month in advance, and I brought no swanky duds.
As the night drew nigh, we drove through Soweto Township to get a better sense of Joburg’s housing diversity. While some of the homes were similar to those we saw in wealthy suburbs, Soweto also houses shanties. Some are metal structures built on government land, where there is access to water and electricity. The owners of these homes rent out their front yard space to tenants with scrap-built shacks or for small roadside stands. Across the river, other people build shanties out of rocks and castaway items on the unclaimed land. These homes reveal apartheid’s legacy of inequality that still exists in South Africa.
Many important figures do not move to the wealthy suburbs, remaining loyal to township life. We passed the house of Winnie Mandela, Nelson Mandela’s second wife, who was a key freedom fighter as well. Then we came upon Vilakazi Street, the only road in the world that has housed two Nobel Laureates: Nelson Mandela, who lived there prior to prison, and Desmond Tutu, who lives there to this day. Vilakazi Street was also the start of the 1976 uprising, when university students marched on police to fight for their rights.
People have shaken their heads at our choice to visit Joburg over Capetown, because Capetown is said to be so beautiful, but I wouldn’t trade the chance to tour this diverse and historic city. Despite having been awake for nearly 28 hours by the end of the tour, I felt alert the entire time.