There is no where else on earth like South Africa. Its incredible diversity, recent political struggles, uniqueness in Africa and stunning beauty makes it truly special. It thrills, frustrates and captivates the visitor. And the best part is, until two weeks ago, I never would have expected to be here.
I was invited in the last week of November to join the Gearing for Growth media tour, a press trip to showcase South Africa’s development to a group of international journalists. The visit was organised by the International Marketing Council for South Africa, who want the outside world’s views on their government’s promise to create 5-million new jobs by 2020.
I happily accepted my invitation and packed my bags for the economic hub of the country. It was so surreal, standing in central Johannesburg (Jo-berg to the locals) in burning hot sun having left the freezing cold UK not over 24 hours ago. I was slightly apprehensive about being there, as the city gets more than its fair share of press about violent crime. However, during the day our group felt completely safe, the streets buzz with life, people just going about their business. There was also a significant police presence and besides, not every Jo-berger is out to get you!
Johannesburg is not an attractive city with a wealth of tourist sights, but it is interesting nonetheless. The centre is a mass of tall office blocks, although many businesses have fled to the suburbs leaving their premises up for grabs. Landlords saw an opportunity to pack them with the cities poorer citizens, often with no hope of employment and voila, the cities reputation for street crime flourished. Many people I interviewed admitted that they would never venture into the centre and live out their lives in gated communities and security protected suburban shopping malls.
What was uplifting was seeing the government’s efforts to reclaim central Jo-berg and get businesses back into the centre. According to the statistics, crime has fallen and we encountered no problems. The World Cup had certainly left its mark on the city with the excellent new Rea Vaya bus rapid transit system and Gautrain rapid rail link from the airport to the suburbs and beyond.
It was only my first couple of hours in Jo-berg and already the energy and optimism of its inhabitants had inspired me. People were just getting on with it, plain and simple. Considering the apartheid only ended as recently as 1994, there seemed a remarkable lack of bitterness and different cultures and races interacted freely. If there was segregation, it was economic rather than racial.
We took the Rea Vaya bus down to Soccer City which caused quite a few jaws to drop. The stadium in Johannesburg is one of the most impressive I have ever seen, not least because of how quickly they put the thing up. Visitors are welcome to explore the stadium and I strongly suggest you do. Refreshments came in the form of a feast from Nandos at their headquarters. Like everyone else I always presumed the brand was Portuguese, but it was founded in Johannesburg by Robert Brozin. Amazing to think it grew from one tiny branch into a global brand in a few years.
Before we left the bus stopped at Soweto and the group got a snapshot of the most famous township in Jo-berg. Township implies slum which implies poverty and low grade housing right? That was our initial impression but Soweto is actually incredibly diverse, with different grades of housing, access to amenities and what seemed to be a thriving community. I am wary of using poverty as a basis for tourism but I do suggest you visit Soweto during the day, if only to see the amazingly positive attitude of its citizens. I felt ashamed for complaining about life in the UK, I don’t know I’m born sometimes.
By now the group was getting used to the very flexible notion of time in South Africa. Everything is 15 minutes away in this country. We asked the driver how far to the hotel, 15 minutes he replied. How far to the airport – 15 minutes. How far to the centre – 15 or maybe 16 minutes, at a push. How far to Kenya – yes, you guessed it, 15 minutes.
Pretoria, the states capital also merits a mention. Although small, it houses the Union Buildings which form the official seat of the South African government and also house the offices of the President of South Africa. Built from sandstone, the circular amphitheatre which forms the central building was designed in the English Monumental style and draws visitors far and wide. Otherwise Pretoria is a nondescript city, only worth visiting for the Union Buildings alone.
During our journey we noticed people working on the train connection from Johannesburg to Pretoria. When it is finished the awful grinding 2 hour car commute people have to endure will be over for those who take the train. Another example of World Cup investment changing peoples lives for the better.
Arrived back at the hotel, (more like 50 minutes than 15) after an exhausting and exhilarating day. I fell asleep wondering what surprises were yet to come.
Catch Part 2 next week – visiting Durban, a mountain of sugar and house trained Cheetahs!