A Day of Art and Culture in Johannesburg and Soweto
We chose to end our South African trip (and in fact our two months in Africa) in Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city. This was mainly because our ten-year anniversary trip package ended there, rather than any particular desire to see the city. Johannesburg doesn’t have a great reputation for safety and unfortunately, that reputation tends to overshadow any other aspects of the city.
For that reason, we only allocated two days In Johannesburg before flying out. We still wanted to see a little of the city while we were there but to be honest we weren’t expecting much and we were mainly focused on what we could do without getting mugged!
Looking for a Unique Day Tour
Cindy looked around for day tours that we could take. We were quite keen to find one that could show us some of Johannesburg, as well as taking us down to the township of Soweto. After a little bit of googling, she came across Ilan Ossendryver’s Tour Soweto.
Ilan is a photojournalist with an incredibly interesting background. He grew up in South Africa during the Apartheid period and used to sneak down into the townships of Soweto and Alexandra to document the lives of people living under that cruel regime. Afterwards, Ilan headed to the Middle East to develop his career as a photojournalist. Upon returning to South Africa, he had the privilege of photographing Nelson Mandela on his first day of freedom!
Ilan now runs tours of Johannesburg and its surrounding townships such as Soweto. He also offers a street art tour of Johannesburg. Ilan’s tours are very much focused around getting out of the car and wandering around, meeting the locals, enjoying the sounds and smells unique to the area and of course, taking lots of photographs along the way. You’ll also learn a lot about the history of the places you visit.
We only really had one full day in Johannesburg but Ilan was very flexible and offered to combine bits of two tours. He took us down to visit Soweto and also around Johannesburg to see some its street art.
Our First Look at Johannesburg’s Street Art
Before we headed down to Soweto, Ilan first drove us around downtown Johannesburg to look at some of the large scale street art that you can find there. Our hometown of Melbourne is known for its excellent street art scene and it was interesting to compare the street art in Johannesburg with that back home. Two differences stuck out straight away, the use of colour and the abundant representation of African animals.
Ilan always keeps an eye out for new pieces of street art and he personally knows several of the artists whose work he points out. Ilan makes discovering street art lots of fun. For example, several times he had us walk around a corner without looking backwards. Only when he gave the go-ahead would we turn around and enjoy the unveiling.
Ilan described how the nature of street art in Johannesburg has changed over time. Whereas it used to be much more political for obvious reasons, it has almost shed that purpose, now embracing South Africa culture, its people and its wildlife.
Driving Down from Johannesburg to Soweto
After enjoying several pieces of street art in Johannesburg, we headed out of town and down to Soweto. As with the townships around Cape Town, Soweto was essentially a dormitory town where non-white workers were made to live in the racially segregated society under Apartheid. There, they served as a workforce for Johannesburg.
Soweto is known for 1976 student uprising which spread all around South Africa. It’s also home to Nelson Mandela’s home which is now a museum.
Today Soweto is a large city in its own right, home to people from all over Africa. Its numbers have swelled due to a large intake of refugees and economic migrants. When you visit Soweto you can meet immigrants from a variety of African countries.
In Soweto, we visited Kliptown. Kliptown is a suburb of Soweto that is best known for holding the Congress of the People in 1955. This gathering led to the crafting of the Freedom Charter, a document that outlines principles for a South Africa where everyone is equal and free from oppression.
Walking through a market in Kliptown, Ilan introduced us to some of the people he has carefully built up relationships with. For example, we met some ladies from Mozambique who were selling vegetables and their own special type of street food.
We then crossed the road and walked down to one of the communities in Kliptown that Ilan supports. We walked around and met some of the locals, including a young man who has become one of the community leaders there.
The government has put a lot of money into the monument to the Freedom Charter just across the road. But unfortunately, this community has not seen a similar level of investment. It’s been left to community leaders and private individuals such as Ilan to help the community develop and to encourage its large youth population.
While visiting the community, Ilan took us to see a couple of the projects that he’s involved with. The first of these was a playground where young children can safely play under the supervision of young adults. Rather than just supplying the resources for the playground, Ilan also tries to nurture their entrepreneurial spirit. He encourages them to make the playground a self-sufficient enterprise.
Next, we visited the creche that Ilan supports in various ways. For example, on our visit, he brought along exercise books that helped the kids learn how to count. We also dropped off some of crayons and pens that we had brought along.
We met some of the teachers there who do a great job teaching the kids. The kids are so energetic that you’d have to have a lot of stamina just to keep up with them! We had a lot of fun meeting the kids themselves. Their spirit was infectious and you could tell how much they loved having us there.
We met several other Kliptown locals, including this lovely lady who knits jumpers and Rastafarian hats with her friends. I bought one from her and it made her day. It was meeting people like this lady that made our visit to Kliptown so special.
We had a chance to interact with some more of the children in Kliptown. As you can see they were full of energy and also super keen to learn.
Visiting Nelson Mandela’s Home
On the way back to Johannesburg, we stopped in front of Nelson Mandela’s former home. It is now a museum with a lot of tourists and hawkers out the front of it. So unfortunately, it’s hard to gain an appreciation for how it looked originally. Ilan also took us past several other old houses in the area. He noted how the original houses in Soweto only had a stand number, rather than proper street names and numbers. That was just one of the ways that people were dehumanised under Apartheid.
We also drove past Soweto’s decommissioned Orlando Power Station whose towers now display colourful painted advertising.
More Street Art and the Sounds of Johannesburg
Last but not least, we headed back to Johannesburg where Ilan took us to see a lot more street art. He also took us down some of the busy streets, including one containing the building where he went to university! He emphasised to us just how alive the streets of Johannesburg are with music. It’s true and it’s a bit like being on the streets of a south-east Asian city. In fact, in many ways, Johannesburg is much more of a melting pot of cultures. That’s largely due to the volume of refugees flowing into South Africa in recent times.
Give Johannesburg a Shot
If you visit South Africa, don’t be put off by what you might have heard of Johannesburg. Head there for at least a couple of days and give it a chance. Just like us, it may well surprise you.
If you do visit Johannesburg, we absolutely recommend taking one or more of Ilan’s tours. The day we spent with him was easily our best experience in Johannesburg. In fact, it was one of the best we had in Africa.
Accommodation in Johannesburg
- We stayed at the Signature Lux Hotel in Sandton which is well located next to Nelson Mandela Square which has lots of nice restaurants and good shopping. It’s clean and relatively new.
- Orangerie Guest House: Best value on booking.com
- 58 on Hume: Best rated on booking.com
Search for more accommodation
If none of the above hotels takes your fancy, you can use HotelsCombined to search across all the top travel sites using the search box below. We use it all the time.
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