The largest city of South Africa
and its main economic hub. It's also one of the two main entry points for foreign visitors (the other being Cape Town
), and for the dark tourist it offers a few exceptional attractions making it worth staying in the city for a few days.
More background info: Johannesburg, also known affectionately as Jo'burg or Jozi, is a relatively young city. There was just a remote farm here until in the mid-1880s large gold reserves were discovered, which were to transform the country's fortunes. Hence Johannesburg was also dubbed the modern-day African El Dorado. The gold rush made the place grow to over 100,000 inhabitants within just ten years.
Today it is a vast sprawling metropolis of nearly 5 million (officially, unofficially the number may well be much larger than that), even though due to the large area size the population density is much lower than in other cities of that population size. It is also much greener than most similar-sized metropolises – and it's all deliberately planted trees that make it so. Some parts of the city look like parks.
Yet you can still see lots of evidence of mining operations. Even though most mining has meanwhile moved to pits outside the city centre, there are still the spoil heaps and old shaft head frames to be seen. One of my drivers told me that these days some companies even process the old spoil heaps to filter out more residual gold with technology that hadn't been available at the time these were first mined. Some of these mines are amongst the world's deepest, reaching down up to 4 km underground.
The mining industry depended on plenty of cheap labour, and that was of course provided mainly by black workers whose status was actually quite akin to that of being slaves in all but name. This aspect of Jo'burg's history is illustrated especially in the Workers' Museum
With such a large black population, Johannesburg became one of South Africa's trouble hotspots during the apartheid
years. Since the city centre was more or less reserved for affluent whites, the black majority was confined (and forcibly moved) to townships such as Alexandra and the specially created Soweto
. The latter even grew to the size of Jo'burg itself, with up to 2 million people living there. Soweto, now incorporated into Johannesburg, was also one of the hotbeds of protests against apartheid – and hence a target for violent reprisals on the part of the authorities. The worst such incident was the student uprising in Soweto in 1976 which ended in bloodshed when the security police opened fire on the peaceful protesters. See under apartheid
and Apartheid Museum
While blacks lived in slum-like conditions in the townships, whites tended to live in high-security compounds with high walls, electric fences and all manner of security technology. And this is still the case and very visible when driving around town. White residences are largely invisible because of all those walls!
The old city centre fell into decline in the 1980s (the most violent years of apartheid) and the 1990s, partly because of soaring crime rates and partly because large decentralized developments with housing, business centres and shopping malls were established in places such as Sandton and Rosebank. Some inner districts are still regarded as practically no-go areas, but in recent years much effort has been made to revitalize parts of the inner city again.
Though Jo'burg is by far the largest city in South Africa
it is not a capital city. While the official capital is Pretoria, Cape Town
the seat of parliament, and Bloemfontein the seat of the judiciary, Johannesburg does however have the distinction of being home to the constitutional court, namely at Constitution Hill
What there is to see: The main reasons why Johannesburg features here are the following places, which are all given their own separate chapters:
In addition, there are Mandela references everywhere, on the side of skyscrapers, on adverts, and at sites related to his biography.
When I was in Jo'burg in the summer of 2018, I had a tour of Soweto and the Apartheid Museum booked, but the start of the tour was set so early that my driver-guide gave us an impromptu tour of the city, in particular downtown, which took in many of those extra sites. So we drove past the Mandela Foundation, Mandela's house that he moved into as president (and out of that in Soweto), and in the city centre stopped at Chancellor House at 25 Fox Street.
This was where Mandela and Oliver Tambo (another founding member of the ANC – see under apartheid
) ran a law firm before this was closed down, Mandela was tried and Tambo left the country. The building has been restored and the outer façade and windows now feature text-and-photo panels, plus a chronological timeline, that retell the story of the two men, their work at this site and their general involvement in the fight against apartheid. Interestingly, the building is right opposite the imposing building of the Central Magistrate's court
, and today a two-dimensional sculpture of Mandela as a boxer stands in front of it – as if taking on the police state with his fists.
There's also other street art with political messages to be seen all over Jo'burg, also in the form of wall murals, such as the rather optimistic one I spotted that celebrates equality in employment and access to resources … probably still a rather naïve wish.
Opposite the Central Police Station stands a monument entitled “Simakade” (which is Zulu for 'forever standing') dedicated to the resistance against the apartheid police state. The otherwise rather bland modern building of the Central Police Station is nevertheless an infamous location. It had solitary confinement cells for political prisoners, who were interrogated, and presumably often also tortured, here. And several deaths occurred here too – my guide told the rumour that the police would throw victims from the top floor and then claim it was suicide.
Johannesburg also offers a lot for those who are into modernist, in particular so-called brutalist architecture
. Its unique aesthetics are largely under appreciated by most, but a few of us have come to re-evaluate the style and have grown quite fond of it. There seems to be a certain movement of rehabilitation of these concrete monsters going on, and I admit I have come to like them more these days as well. You can find a few examples I spotted in Johannesburg in the gallery below
One particular building that is especially fabled amongst brutalism fans is the Ponte City
apartment building in Berea, Hillbrow. It's a 173m high concrete cylinder of 54 floors built in the mid-1970s, hollow on the inside to let a little bit of light into the core (though the bottom remains rather gloomy at all times). Once an icon of modernist, upscale residential housing, it became a landmark of urban decay, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when drug dealers, prostitution and crime took over and the building gained the dodgy reputation as being the world's largest vertical slum. Allegedly, rubbish piled five floors high at the bottom of the core, and going there would have been extremely “unsafe” to say the least. A refurbishing investment plan fell through with the financial crisis of 2008, but still, things have improved a lot, including security, and there are now tours of this unique building led by people resident on the top floors. Unfortunately I didn't have the opportunity to slot that in when I was briefly in Jo'burg in the summer of 2018, but if I ever go back this would be high on my priority list. Just google for images of Ponte City and you may understand why. It looks like it's been dreamed up by Terry Gilliam for one of his SciFi/fantasy movies
There's yet more modern architecture from more recent years, out of which one particular glass façade is worth a mention – designed for a diamond mining and trade company it is deliberately shaped like a cut diamond itself, providing intriguing reflections on its mirrored walls at sometimes crazy angles.
Jo'burg's mining legacy is also represented by the display of one of those gigantic yellow mine trucks by the road that I spotted somewhere en route between the city centre and the Apartheid Museum.
All in all, Johannesburg still struggles with its “gritty, edgy, dodgy” reputation, but it does offer a few extremely worthwhile attractions to the dark tourist that make it worth going there for a few days.
In the centre of the north-eastern part of South Africa
, in the province of Gauteng, ca. 800 miles (1300 km) north-east of Cape Town
, 35 miles (55 km) south of Pretoria, and ca. 250 miles (400 km) west from Kruger Park.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs: easy to get to, especially by plane, not too expensive.
Johannesburg is the No.1 transport hub of South Africa
and its OR Tambo International Airport is the principal entry point for a majority of foreign visitors to the country. It is also the hub for domestic flights and flights to neighbouring countries such as Zimbabwe
and Botswana (and also St Helena
Getting around within Johannesburg is a bit of an issue. Even though the once extreme crime levels have fallen significantly in recent years, the general advice is still for foreigners to go everywhere by taxi and not to walk anywhere outside areas with visible security in place. There is a public transport network too, but this is mainly for locals only. The extra costs for taxi transport add substantially to the overall budget you have to calculate if you want to go and see all the places outlined above.
Otherwise Johannesburg, as South Africa in general, can be surprisingly affordable. Accommodation
options are plentiful and good deals can be found. Costs for food & drink
are often astonishingly low for the quality (and amount) you can get. South Africa in general is a foodie's delight, especially its Asian-inspired fusion elements. Drinks, especially local wine, are often very affordable and of good quality (see under South Africa
Climate: due to its high elevation (at almost 1800m above sea level), winters can get cold, at least at night, but summers are comfortably mild. There is little precipitation.
Time required: to see all the places listed above, you need at least two full days, longer if you also want to explore some of the not-so-dark attractions of the city.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under South Africa
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
Johannesburg also has its fair share of not-so-dark attractions, though in comparison to other cities of its calibre, this is a bit limited. Apart from some art galleries, theatres and such like, the main point of interest is probably the MuseuMAfricA (yes, it is spelled like that, though it was previously also known as the “Africana Museum”), which contains all manner of African cultural items as well as geological samples. Like the Workers' Museum
this is located in Newtown, which has been undergoing redevelopment into a cultural precinct that is still ongoing. This also incorporates parts of the old power station, in particular the Turbine Hall, which is now an events centre.
A particularly massive events centre of sorts was the new large football stadium near Soweto
. It hosted several matches, including the final, of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which was the very first one to be held in an African country. Though that seems like a distant memory now.
Johannesburg is also – very currently as well – a hub for shopping, especially in the various large-scale malls, such as Sandton City and Rosebank. Apart from the usual international brands (how boring!), you can also find local South African items, in particular high-quality textiles.
And Johannesburg also has a zoo … but, why go to a zoo in South Africa
? After all it's a country that offers amongst the best opportunities for watching animals in the wild:
Given its location in the north-east of this vast country, Johannesburg is a better entry point than Cape Town
for those interested primarily in safaris in and around Kruger Park. To get there from Johannesburg it is even possible to drive overland in a day. Otherwise domestic flights connect to Mpumalanga Airport near Nelspruit or even airstrips right by the park and the adjacent private game reserves (such as Skukuza Airport).
- Jozi 01 - surprisingly green
- Jozi 02 - Nelson Mandela Foundation
- Jozi 03 - presidential house of Nelson Mandela
- Jozi 04 - Mandela is everywhere
- Jozi 05 - Mandela the boxer against the state
- Jozi 06 - where Mandela worked
- Jozi 07 - timeline
- Jozi 08 - downtown Johannesburg
- Jozi 09 - monument
- Jozi 10 - street art
- Jozi 11 - utopian illusion of equality
- Jozi 12 - chained heads
- Jozi 13 - infamous police station
- Jozi 14 - downtown architecture
- Jozi 15 - modernism, brutalism
- Jozi 16 - shooting at modern architecture
- Jozi 17 - old and new
- Jozi 18 - mining heritage
- Jozi 19 - diamond-cut building
- Jozi 20 - former turbine hall events centre
- Jozi 21 - World Cup stadium