The largest mural painting in South Africa
During the apartheid era, the Orlando power station towers in Soweto used to work as a coal-burning plant for electricity that supplied the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, while local residents remained without electricity. The only “benefit” to the Sowetans was the polluted air. After years of neglect, they have been transformed into an entertainment area – bungee jumping and a restaurant – and they also serve as giant billboards, one specifically with artistic murals encompassing the lifestyle in Soweto and its people.
Boutique hostel with fascinating history
Curiocity Backpackers is an incredible boutique hostel in Maboneng. It used to be the premises of Pacific Press, which published a rebel publication, Black Sash, during the apartheid era. It’s rumoured that Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu sought refuge in the building on a number of occasions so, as you can imagine, it has an amazing atmosphere. It’s operated by a young, talented photographer called Bheki Dube and his influence is everywhere – the hostel decor is fantastic – think industrial-chic warehouse apartment with lots of quirky touches. The hostel organises regular events including walking tours, bike excursions and community volunteering projects to encourage guests to get under the skin of this city.
A bookshop in which to lose yourself
The Collectors’ Treasury, at 244 Commissioner Street, in the weather-beaten central business district (CBD), is a secondhand bookstore spread across several floors and comprised of many thousands of books you’d have difficulty finding anywhere else on this continent. You truly can lose yourself in this haven of books. At first blush, utterly chaotic, the collection of book are actually carefully curated, with most topics edging happily into esoteria.
Indie bliss and urban regen at 44 Stanley
My advice is to embrace the urban regen spots that sit around Braamfontein on the edge of the city centre – the guidebooks can talk about Constitution Hill and the rest but after you’ve done that, head to 44 Stanley for a beer or a bite to eat. This buzzy complex with art studios and the like exudes indie character and I enjoyed a drink in the olive tree’d garden and a glass of pinotage in one of the great little restaurants inside this urban oasis. Urban regen in Jozi should be supported, so get out of the northern suburbs and into town if you can.
Soweto cycle tour
A cycle tour round Soweto was a “fun” way to hear of that part of the apartheid history and see the people there, without feeling intrusive or like it is “poverty tourism” – it’s not, people want you to visit. Guided from a little backpackers’ hostel in the heart of the town, you cover all areas, from the poorest “suburb” of Soweto up to Mandela’s house, and Tutu’s. Eat local food and listen to local musicians in the shebeens. Even better is the bar crawl with local historians, who take you right in to town to dance and eat and chat with the locals until the early hours.
Where football stars are born: Diepkloof, Soweto
Diepkloof in Soweto has consistently produced world-class soccer players, from Kaizer Chief and national team star Jimmy Tau to Lucas Radebe, who played for Leeds United during the late 1990s. This is the – very dusty – field that most have had to go for their dreams. It is next to a school and kota (street food sellers) hang out just across the road. The atmosphere is epic and, if you want to explore and enjoy the township football atmosphere, make your way to DK.
Joburg Red Bus
The red sightseeing bus is a good way to get around Johannesburg. What you should do, though, is see which other places you want to visit that are within 5km of the stops, to make the most of the ride as a form of transport – because the city doesn’t have proper public transportation. Apart from that, make sure you stop at the Apartheid Museum, and Neighbourgoods Market (great food, and cheap).
Johannesburg Apartheid Museum (Jam)
I love museums and am yet to find a better curated museum than the Jam. Visitors begin their navigation by being allocated a race card and this determines your experience in the first part of the exhibition. The museum then goes chronologically through the history of South Africa, starting with our ancient cave dwelling ancestors, culminating in the democratic republic. It is a superb museum dealing with the issue of apartheid in a sensitive yet educational way. There is a life-size solitary cell that you can enter. I often time myself but rarely last longer than a minute. You can also enter a riot van to see the brutality of the apartheid police. The latter parts are triumphant and celebrate the ending of this awful regime. I often take friends to Soweto afterwards to visit Nelson Mandela’s old house, or to wander the streets. Discussions turn to politics but also to the music filling the streets and where to eat authentic pap or ngqush.
An injera worth supporting
Little Addis Cafe in the Maboneng Precinct is a delightful little hole-in the-wall, which serves a tasty injera-with-all-the-extras for a pittance. Service is brisk and low-key. The passing parade provides a colourful tableau vivant as you savour the range of subtle flavours, and discolour your fingers.
Cube Tasting Kitchen, Parktown North
For a great dining experience comprising 10 courses (using fresh sustainable produce) paired with a drink, you have to try Cube Tasting Kitchen in Parktown North. It only seats 30 people and it’s in demand, so you have to book in advance. A nice touch is that the chef explains each dish to you. You need to set aside three hours for this extraordinary experience.
Newtown: site of activists past and present
Activism, like social and economic turbulence, is not at all a thing of South Africa’s past. Regularly I’m distracted from my work by the unmistakable sounds of an approaching demonstration. Luthuli House (the ANC headquarters), Beyers Naudé Square, the Chamber of Mines or any of the provincial government buildings in the area are popular destinations for demonstrations: I’ve seen groups of 25 people, as well as a march by 50,000. With its street vendors and little shops trading shoes and spices mixed with bank employees and lawyers on their way to the Magistrate Court, the area already lends itself to engagement with people from all walks of South African life.