Johannesburg in a Day

I’ve just come back from a short but sweet trip to South Africa which was an amazing experience. The country is beautiful. The people and so friendly and welcoming. And the history is astonishing.

I must confess, before my visit I hadn’t really taken any time to understand the history of the country I was going to. I had heard of Nelson Mandela and knew he was an amazing man. I had heard of apartheid and knew it had a massive impact on the country, an impact it was still recovering from. But beyond that I didn’t know much.

My trip included one day in Johannesburg which provided the perfect opportunity to improve my knowledge of this amazing country’s spotted history.

Johannesburg Cooling Towers

There are many tour options available in Johannesburg, with MoAfrika Tours being one of the first that appears on a Google search. This company offers a range of combinations of tours through Soweto, Johannesburg and the Apartheid Museum based on multiple people sharing the tour to bring the prices down. Unfortunately these tours didn’t really fit what we wanted from the day so we looked into private tours – a more costly option but one that can be specifically tailored to your needs.

Through research we found Ekala Eco Tours. Ekala offer private, tailor made tours which was exactly what we were looking for as it meant we could fit in Johannesburg, Soweto and the Apartheid Museum, with our tour guide Janet able to collect us from our hotel and drop us at the airport at the end. We paid 3800 ZAR for the day, which was approximately double the cost of the shared tours (I paid 60% of the cost via credit card up front to secure the trip, the rest at the end of the tour).

The trip started with a drive through Melrose Arch, a high end shopping district that is popular with city workers on evenings. From there we began to learn about Nelson Mandela, beginning with a visit to his final home which is surrounded by pebbles with messages of love towards him following his death in 2013.

Nelson Mandela, Madiba

Memorial to Nelson Mandela – Madiba – outside his family home in Johannesburg

From there we headed past the new Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital to Constitution Hill, the site of a former prison that at various times contained such people as Mahatma Gandhi, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and of course Nelson Mandela. It is possible to get into the Constitutional Court when there are no proceedings taking place and see a beautiful beaded flag that is situated behind the court. With artwork and writing from all the tribes of South Africa, you really get a sense of inclusion and what the country hopes to become following the end of apartheid.

Constitution Hill

The court in Constitution Hill – the background contains the beautiful hand made beaded South African flag

From Constitution Hill we drove through downtown Johannesburg. The old city centre is a bizarre place, with English style buildings facing Dutch style buildings, on opposite sides of the same roads. Some of the buildings are currently being restored, while others remain empty as big business has moved out of the very centre of the city, instead favouring the new area of Sandton to the north of Johannesburg. Some of the buildings resembled 1960’s British tower blocks, and Janet explained to us that was because they were built to the same design. It’s very strange knowing you’re at the opposite end of the world, surrounded by buildings that could be found in any British city.

Following our explanation of how Johannesburg formed following the gold rush, and witnessing it as we drove through, we then moved onto Soweto, an infamous township just outside Johannesburg. Here we learnt about the Soweto Uprising in 1976 where 23 people were killed protesting the change to education where students had to be taught in Afrikaans instead of their native languages.

Included in our tour we visited the road where Demond Tutu and Nelson Mandela both lived in Soweto, including a tour of Nelson Mandela’s house, the house his wife Winnie continued to live in whilst Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. We were given an excellent tour by Pretty, who walked us around the house and hold us a little about its history.

Nelson Mandela Soweto

Nelson Mandela’s house in Soweto. Also the home of Winnie Mandela.

The final stop was the Apartheid Museum. The museum has two sections; one dedicated to Nelson Mandela; the other covering the history of apartheid. We spent approximately one hour walking round the Mandela section of the museum, and about an hour and a half in the apartheid half, but could easily have spent another hour there as we skipped the videos. As someone who grew up in a post-apartheid era, it was really interesting to learn about how it all began, especially when you consider what Martin Luther King was doing in America at the same time the opposite was happening in South Africa.

As our tour guide, Janet was absolutely brilliant. It was also great to get insight from her about what it has been like living through apartheid as a white South African, having gone from the privilege to the now supposed equality in place today. She was great at giving a balanced opinion to ensure we understood Johannesburg and South Africa before she took us to the airport for our flight.

I really enjoyed my day in Johannesburg, and whilst I am sure there are many other ways to spend time in the city I felt I got all I needed to out of my visit. If you have a layover in Johannesburg I would definitely recommend booking a private tour for a few hours to escape the airport and see a little of this incredibly interesting city.

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