I’m not proud to say that my opinion of Johannesburg had already been tainted even before I arrived. Like many before me, I was guilty of watching the crime-related documentaries and entertained the words of warning from people who had only heard about it on the 9 o’clock news.
But as I walked the streets on a Past Experiences street art tour, I was overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the graffiti, the rawness of the street musicians and the sense of community from schemes such as ‘iwasshot in Joburg’, a photography project designed to keep young people off the streets. While Joburg may have a dark history, the city is undeniably bursting with colour. It’s everywhere from the graffiti to the bright African clothing and the bold beacons of Orlando Towers (pictured) decorating the skyline.
No visit to Joburg is complete without a day spent in Soweto, once home to Nelson Mandela and the scene of the harrowing Soweto Uprising in 1978, when thousands of students were gunned down in a protest for equal rights. The day became emblematic in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid.
Walking the streets of the township is quite sobering when the realisation of what happened here, just 40 years ago, hits home. But it's the people who seem to have lifted it from under this dark cloud. The locals here are proud of where they come from and express a newfound confidence in South Africa's new President, Cyril Ramaphosa.
"I want you to meet my childhood friend," says our guide who stops the car on the side of the street. We all look at each other a bit bemused, as he interrupsts a big group busy laughing outside a bar.
"This is my friend...he is Desmud Tutu's grandson," he says casually. I shake his hand possibly a bit too enthusiastically, slightly awestruck at this chance meeting, so many questions to ask and yet the conversation inevitably turns to the weather!
Our guide sums up Johannesburg nicely by explaining that sometimes degenerating cities have the chance to reinvent themselves and build a new foundation built on positivity, and that's exactly what Johannesburg seems to be doing.
It may have had a turbulent recent past, and has many modern day problems to work through, but South Africa’s raw appeal remains as strong as it always has. It’s a place you leave knowing that one day you’ll come back. Some countries you just can’t resist – and South Africa is definitely one of them.
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