I’ve lived in Gauteng, Johannesburg in particular, my entire life, although I must admit I’ve always taken this bustling economic hub of South Africa for granted. I constantly tried to break out of the big city and explore other local tourist destinations, often overlooking my own backyard.
This changed on a warm summer morning with my friend in tow as we explored the city as tourists for the first time. The rules were simple: Learn as much as we could, enjoy the sights textures tastes and sounds, and most importantly – have fun!
Our first stop was Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein, and it lived up to all my expectations. Johannesburg has no shortage of markets, including Mabongeng, Arts on Main, The Sheds and Fourways Farmers Market, to name a few. Every Saturday, the Neighbourgoods Market’s industrial building comes to life with various fresh food, drinks, clothing stalls and ambience created by the music, smiling faces and the detailed Johannesburg skyline.
It is here where I met Viva, a young man who runs his stall on the weekends and is also a freelance photographer and graphic designer during the week. One has to admire the entrepreneurial spirit in this country. Viva prepared freshly baked cornbread with an assortment of fresh fillings, including spinach, lettuce, mice and different sauces to choose from.
While walking through the market, we were attracted to a group of young men with infectious spirits at another stall nearby. They sang and chanted war cries as a tactic to attract patrons to their stand. Their charm rubbed off on us. We were served deep-fried chicken strips topped with parmesan cheese, a sweet sauce and watermelon and purple flower to garnish.
The next stop was Constitution Hill, a sobering reminder of the challenges South Africa faced to gain democracy. Home to the highest court in the land, Constitution Hill was once a maximum-security prison that held political and common-law prisoners during the Apartheid regime.
The tour was facilitated by Collin, a passionate guide who walked us through different areas at Number 4, including the cells, eating facilities, torture chambers, the Mandela and Gandhi memorial centres and finally, the Constitution Court.
Some interesting learnings from the tour:
- Political prisoners were left in solitary confinement for 23 hours and were only released out of their cells for one hour in the morning between 6 am-7 am. These cells are 3m long x 3m high x 1m wide. There have no windows and only a tiny opening at the door.
- Black prisoners were given small portions of food prepared in a separate pot from other racial groups. On “special occasions”, they were served rotten fish dished on dirty tin plates that were not washed for up to three months.
- Gangs were rife and dictated the way of life for other prisoners.
- Toilet facilities with no doors were dug into the ground, forcing prisoners to assume an undignified squatting position. The toilet facilities were positioned close to the eating facilities—a further impingement on prisoners’ dignity.
- Torture methods included electrocution of the genital areas. Post-mortems were often faked to hide the actual cause of death.
The highlight of the Constitution Hill visit was the Constitutional Court. One can almost feel its stature and importance from the first step into the great reception area with layers of symbolism built into its architecture and a theme of “Justice under a tree”. This is brought to life through various elements including overhead tree branches made of wire and a carpet which emulates branches of the tree.
The entrance to the Constitution Court is an 8m door and has the 27 human rights imprinted on its wooden surface.
Some notable judgements handed out from the Constitutional Court include:
- 1995 – The abolishment of capital punishment in South Africa
- 2004 – The right for prisoners to vote
- 2006 – The right for gay and lesbian couples to enter into the institution of marriage
- 2016 – President Jacob Zuma’s verdict to pay back some of the public money used to upgrade his residential home in Nkandla
The second half of the day was spent at Mai-Mai Market and the Newtown Cultural Precinct.
Dating back many years, Mai-Mai is one of the original traditional (herbal) markets in Johannesburg’s city centre. The settlement is also a homestead or hostel of sorts for migrant workers. The economic divide is quite prevalent in this part of town, however, this has not tainted the mood as we were greeted with a warm welcome from stall owners and admirers alike.
Although Mai-Mai is known as a traditional herbal market, one can find everything there from traditional herbs and medicine, to local delecacies, traditional Zulu clothing and accessories.
I purchased my one of a kind traditional sandals here. They are crafted from a car tyre which is used as the sole and animal hide as the top as the strap. The young man who sold me the shoes was working on his homework when we stopped to admire his craft. He told me that he is currently enrolled in a learnership with the Shoprite group. An encouraging story which warmed my heart.
SAB World of Beer was a sanctuary and a welcome escape from the hot afternoon sun. For R40 we were treated to two beers of our choice at the pub and a delicious lunch at a reasonable cost. The city centre’s modern and historic architecture presented a beautiful backdrop as we enjoyed our afternoon lunch.
SAB World of Beer forms part of the Newtown Cultural Precinct which is also home to other tourist attractions including the Market Theatre, Museum Africa, Baseline for live musical performances and the recently constructed Newtown Junction Mall.
Our Jo’burg-day tour drew to an end with a walkabout around the busy Newtown Precinct which is home to other tourist attractions including the Market Theatre, Museum Africa, Baseline for live musical performances and the recently constructed Newtown Junction mall.
All in all, the tour was rewarding and insightful. We barely scraped the surface, and we still have plenty more sights to visit but this was a great start!
Before you hit the road…
- We planned our tour for mid-month as opposed to month-end. The city is less crowded during that period.
- Flat comfy shoes are a must for the walking we did.
- Keep plenty loose cash for street parking.
- Keep an open mind ☺️