Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Johannesburg Rises Above Its Apartheid Past - New York Times

I'm a great fan of the New York Times (NYT) - online edition. Their articles are often on the long side, but very informative. While some may be put off by the fact that the NYT definitely caters for Democrats (as in supporters of the USA's Democratic Party), it mostly provides ample exposure for various conflicting opinions on the same issue - where applicable.

As a South African, active in our tourism industry, I'm always very curious to read foreign perspectives on our product in general, or specific attractions / destinations within South Africa or the greater region (Southern Africa).

Sometimes, with some of the enquiries we get at Africa Deluxe Tours for South African tours, potential clients will clearly state that they want to avoid Johannesburg at all cost. This is due to their perceptions of it being a very dangerous destination, because of high crime levels.

Truth be told, it can indeed be a very dangerous place - especially if you don't know it. We normally recommend visitors to include Johannesburg in their itineraries (depending on what they want to get out of their travels of course), but that they make use of a reputable operator in doing so. Otherwise they may well run into trouble. The main reason for using a reputable operator, in this case, has to do with safety considerations. However, a tourist guide -if (s)he's worth his salt- will also add a lot of value in unlocking an unknown city for you. This is especially true of a destination like Soweto (part of Johannesburg), which features a culture and way of life alien to most non-African visitors.

Today's NYT includes a very well written, very comprehensive, article on visiting Johannesburg by Michael Wines. One irony in this article, is the recommended hotel at the end of it, taking into account what the writer had to say about Melrose Arch... The same goes for the Moyo Restaurant, also located in Melrose Arch. Having said that, I agree with his assessment of Melrose Arch - and at the same time agree that both the hotel and restaurant would make a worthwhile visit for most tourists. The hotel is a very funky, designer-type, establishment with off-the-wall humor in its room interiors. It will appeal to a hip crowd, definitely not your style if you prefer colonial establishments. The restaurant provides a vibey, fresh, African experience - often with live entertainment.

I agree with the author that tourists should venture out of the wealthy northern suburbs, which may feel quite familiar to western visitors. Venturing into the city centre and Soweto, once again in the company of a local tour operator / tourist guide, will provide much more unusual experiences and insights. However, don't shun the northern suburbs, as here to, there is much to learn about modern-day South Africa.

Excerpts and a link to the article follows below:

Johannesburg Rises Above Its Apartheid Past - New York Times: "TAKE the M1 freeway south, past the spas and high-end restaurants of Melrose Arch, through the leafy suburb of Houghton and past the nearby clubs and galleries of Melville. Go past all that, and past downtown's concrete towers and the booming Newtown cultural district, and get off at Rissik Street. Just a block away, in the shadow of the elevated freeway's pillars, there awaits the finest selection of porcupine skin and baboon entrails in all Africa...

...Yet many South Africans insist that it is the one city that no visitor should miss. At more than six million people, it is the biggest city in South Africa and the most transformed. Twenty years ago, much of Johannesburg was the preserve of South Africa's white minority. Today, it is a stewpot of colors and languages, the fruit not only of liberation but also of a huge influx of immigrants and refugees. Johannesburg is a place where purveyors of muti - the porcupine skins, ground herbs and baboon entrails touted as cure-alls for everything from flatulence to flagging love affairs - hawk their wares a few blocks from skyscrapers....
...A proper place to begin is the Apartheid Museum (http://www.apartheidmuseum.org/), near Soweto, a powerful series of exhibits and multimedia presentations documenting the last century's oppression. Visitors begin the journey with a pass arbitrarily labeling them white or nonwhite; inside, the concrete-and-steel space, with nooses hung from the ceiling and exhibits caged in wire or trapped behind bars, brings home apartheid's brutality with unusual force.
Soweto, a city of more than a million people, is rife with reminders of that brutality. The Hector Pieterson memorial and museum in the Orlando West neighborhood recounts the 1976 Soweto riots, the event that sounded apartheid's death knell. Orlando West is also the world's only neighborhood that housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners, Nelson Mandela and the Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu..."

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