This Week in Africa…Johannesburg, South Africa (March 2019)

Welcome to “This Week in Africa”! In this and upcoming episodes I’ll share our experiences in Africa in regular posts (weekly, every few weeks, or as time and wifi allow). Mathieu and I are starting in South Africa where we’ll buy a fully-equipped road-ready 4×4 and hit the road. After exploring South Africa, we’ll continue our road trip through southern and eastern Africa (and beyond?). For how long? Maybe 6 months, maybe more, maybe less. However long the journey, it promises to be an adventure. So please join us in Africa!


The Joburg Crew.

This Week in Africa…Joburg.

We’ve now been in Johannesburg (“Joburg”) for one month. We planned to be here for about a week but it’s taken much longer than expected (weeks vs. days) to get our Traffic Registration Number, the document that allows foreigners to register a South African vehicle in their name. Apparently bureaucracy is bureaucracy no matter where you go. And, as we’ve been told repeatedly, “this is Africa.” So, while we may not have visited Joburg otherwise, we’re glad we did.

Click HERE to go directly to the slideshow or click “Continue reading” to read more abut our time in Joburg.

Joburg is South Africa’s largest city (population: 4,434,827). It encompasses a large, bustling downtown area surrounded by sprawling suburbs. The city was established in 1886 following the discovery of gold in the region, hence the province’s name, Gauteng, “place of gold”[1].

While in Joburg, we’ve been staying at an eclectic 2-bedroom house appropriately called “The Artist House” that we found on AirBnB. Drew, the owner, is an artist who has a long history of community art projects around Joburg. The house is part of a compound that includes “our house”, Drew’s house, several small cottages, and the Spaza Gallery. Drew’s intricate mosaic pieces, paintings, drawings, pottery, and the work of other artists, are strewn throughout the residences, terrace and garden. Besides the other foreigners, Tomer (American) and his girlfriend Lena (Russian), Corwyn (American), and Rike and Claudia (Germans), who’ve stayed/are staying at the compound, several locals, Mbali, Lungi, and Tanz, also call the compound home. It’s been great hanging out on the shared terrace and garden, sharing stories and music, and getting to know everyone better.

From our homebase, we’ve explored Joburg by foot and by public bus. The locals are shocked that we walk, especially in central Joburg. Most people use the bus, combis (taxi vans), or taxis to get around. Some areas of central Joburg are…..rough, with trash piled on street corners in front of dilapidated-looking apartment buildings. However, there are signs of the ongoing efforts to revitalize the inner city, including new trendy apartments, quaint cafes, stylish shops, theaters and art galleries in the hip neighborhoods of Maboneng and Newtown.

During our self-guided tours through various inner city neighborhoods, we’ve enjoyed walking through crowded street markets where venders sell everything from fruit and veggies to shoes, clothes, gadgets, and toys; through university areas filled with studious-looking young adults; and through large city parks where locals relax under tall, beautiful trees. We also spent time commemorating a few of the many historical figures, including Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, who fought for racial equality in Joburg and throughout South Africa, and admiring the amazing street art that adds color and character to this dirty, noisy, ironically interesting city.

On one day, we took the train to Pretoria where we explored South Africa’s administrative capital. On another day, we took the bus to the Orlando West area of Soweto. Now part of Johannesburg, Soweto originated as settlements on the outskirts of the city, populated mostly by native African workers from the gold mining industry. Soweto had been separated as a residential area for Blacks, who were not permitted to live in Johannesburg proper in accordance with the policies of apartheid, a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South Africa from 1948 until the early 1990s [2]. We spent the day learning about the evils of apartheid and the struggles to end it. At the end of our educational day, we reminisced about what we’d learned while sampling beers at the Soweto Brewery “Born in Soweto; Brewed for all.”   

 During our explorations, we are often the only tourists on the streets and on the bus, which is a great way to immerse oneself in a new culture. It’s also a great way to hear some of the over thirty-five currently spoken languages indigenous to South Africa. Of these, twelve are official: Afrikaans, IsiNdebele, SeSotho sa Leboa, SeSotho sa Borwa, SiSwati, XiTsonga, SeTswana, TshiVenḓa, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, South African Sign Language, and English (the second language of many South Africans)[3]. Everyone we’ve met is multilingual, speaking one or two indigenous languages as well as English, giving us the opportunity to talk to people and discover more about their lives.

While people have repeatedly reminded us to be very careful in this high-crime city, we’ve had no issues. People have given us unsolicited help when we looked lost and have helped us figure things out when we’ve asked. We’ve taken people’s advice to avoid certain areas and have avoided walking at night (except a few quick trips to the local grocery store). Unfortunately, unlike other countries I’ve visited, I don’t feel comfortable walking around solo. But together, we’ve had a good time exploring.

So, it’s been an interesting start to our African adventure. We’ve been in Joburg way longer than expected (still waiting for our paperwork) but it’s OK, it’s given us time to get to know this surprisingly charismatic city and some of its wonderful people a bit better,  especially Drew, Mbali, Lungi, and Tanz, our Joburg crew!

Enjoy the slideshow!

[And our African adventure continues…..stayed tuned!]


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