To suggest that one could experience Johannesburg and Soweto properly in 24 hours is almost patently absurd. But you do what you can, you make the best with the time you have. That’s what we did. And here’s how we did it.
Nighttime in Melville
7 PM: Stroll around Melville at Night and Find a Book Lover’s Heaven
Johannesburg is vast and varied, so one of the big decisions you’ll have when visiting is where to stay. We knew we’d be visiting downtown Johannesburg and Soweto the next day, so we opted to spend the night in one of Johannesburg’s neighborhoods. We chose the suburb of Melville as we heard it had a good creative scene, was laid back and had some fun restaurants, bars and cafes.
Most of the action in Melville is along 7th Street. In addition to checking out some of the cafés and restaurants, consider taking a side trip or two down 4th and 5th Avenues to see a taste of traditional Melville and its old school style butcher and barber shops.
But our favorite find of the night was the Book Dealers of Melville on 7th Street. A reader’s dream, visually attractive, too. Stacks and stacks of books, story upon story. There’s a risk you might emerge over-stimulated.
8 PM: Drinks and Dinner on 7th Street in Melville
Ratz Bar (#9 7th Street, Melville): One part dive bar, another part throwback 80s lounge, Ratz Bar attracts a cross-section of local humanity and makes for a fun hour of people watching and chilling out.
Ant Café (#11 7th Street, Melville): We were drawn to this place during our walk around Melville as the inside looked homey and warm, full of people and lively conversation. Although the thin crust pizza at Ant Café is good, it’s the atmosphere and the owner’s sense of humor that you’ll remember most. It’s also very affordable (i.e., around $12 for two pizzas and half liter of South African wine).
Daytime: Melville, Johannesburg, Soweto
8 AM: Morning Walk and Quick Breakfast in Melville
Café de la Crème (corner of 7th Street and 4th Avenue, Melville): We didn’t have time for a long breakfast so we just grabbed coffees, a croissant, and a pain au chocolat and ate standing up in the bar section of this café. The pastries were surprisingly good and inexpensive. The breakfast menu was vast. Plates emerging from the kitchen looked really good, so we’d recommend spending some time and getting a full breakfast if you can manage it.
9:00 AM: Johannesburg: A History Lesson and Street Art in Newtown Cultural Precinct
Johannesburg has been — and still is — South Africa’s business center. The foundation of the city itself was based on the discovery of gold and other minerals in the late 19th century. To the point, Johannesburg’s downtown area has mining museums and monuments dedicated explaining that dimension of the city’s development.
We chose to spend our time focused on street art instead.
Sophiatown Jazz Bar in Newtown Cultural Precinct:
Location: Intersection of Jeppe and Henry Nxumalo Streets
The entire area of Newtown in Johannesburg is filled with public art – wooden statues of heads line the sidewalks, murals and paintings take over city walls. If you stop by the Sophiatown Jazz Bar you’ll get a crash course by way of all the photos and memorials to Johannesburg’s great jazz artists. On the brick wall nearby you’ll find portraits of famous South African artists from the 20th century.
10:00 AM: Mandela & Tambo Law Office
Location: Chancellor House, Fox and Gerard Sekoto streets
A stop at the Chancellor House tells the incredible story of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo and how they represented thousands of people from this Law Office between 1952 and 1956. They used the word of law to defend people who otherwise had no voice against the apartheid regime and who were accused of “crimes against the state.” Mandela’s and Tambo’s experience gained here set the foundation for a fight against apartheid they would carry out for most of their lives.
The actual office where Mandela and Tambo practiced is still closed to the public, but the history and photos are displayed across the ground floor windows. Definitely worth a visit.
11 AM: Apartheid Museum
We have a mixed relationship with museums, but the Apartheid Museum is a near-requirement during any visit to Johannesburg. When you enter, you are given a pass indicating whether you’ll experience the entrance hall of the museum as a white person or a black person. Your corresponding walk will indicate the privileges and discrimination afforded your race. A jarring, disturbing, and creative way to communicate the metaphor and split life in South Africa that was apartheid.
It’s easy to get lost in the museum and spend hours reading through the exhibits and watching films. During our visit, there was a in-depth exhibit on Nelson Mandela’s personal life that will likely be replaced later this year. Each time I read the story or see photos of Mandela wearing the Springbok jersey for Rugby World Cup final in 1995, I choke up. I remember working in London at that time and hearing news of this. I had no concept then of what it all meant. Only years later when I read John Carlin’s Playing the Enemy did I begin to understand. Such a powerful story demonstrating Mandela’s strength, creativity, and faith in humanity and his country.
1:30 PM: Lunch in Soweto, Sakhumzi on Vilakazi Street
Vilakazi Street in Soweto is unique in the world. It’s the only street where two Nobel Peace Prize winners called home. And so it was on the historic street — where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu once lived — that we took lunch at Sakhumzi Restaurant for a crash course in South African food.
At Sakhumzi, the buffet offered a chance to try pap (a porridge made from ground maize), umngqusho (boiled maize kernals mixed with beans) and our favorite, chakalaka (spiced cold salad with Indian and Malay influences). As Soweto is so diverse with various South African ethnic groups and immigrant groups from across Africa, it seems a fitting setting to highlight the country’s food and its backstory diversity.
“My daughter is six years old and speaks four languages. That’s just how it is in Soweto; people come from everywhere and you want to communicate. If you learn a language you get insight into their culture, too.” TK, our guide’s son said amidst his response to our barrage of questions about Soweto.
2:00 PM: Soweto Bicycle Tour
Soweto. Just the name features a certain ring or mystique. We think of people fighting for freedom, uprisings under the apartheid regime – even a dangerous place.
But what of Soweto today?
That’s what we were hoping to find out in our Soweto Bicycle Tour. Our bicycle tour guide began with a historical overview of Soweto.
Soweto, news to us, is an abbreviation for South Western Townships. It was set up in the 1930s as a place for black workers to settle. It was also the site of the famous Soweto Student Uprisings in 1976 and a hotbed area for anti-apartheid and union worker demonstrations in the 1980s. Surprising to some, Soweto is actually more populous than Johannesburg (3.5 million vs. 2 million people).
Another thing that may also surprise: Soweto, to a certain degree, appears rather ordinary today. There are residential areas, shops, restaurants, bars, big roads, small roads, and people going about their daily business. Sure, certain parts of Soweto are much better off than others and poorer areas still suffer from a lack of public services (e.g., running water and electricity). But life at its most basic looks like something familiar; this perspective is something that the bicycle tour attempts to show.
We even visited a shebeen (local drinking hall) in one of these poorer areas to get a feel of the difference from one side to the other. In a lesson in contrasts, while the shebeen was dark and full of men drinking, the areas surrounding it were filled with kids playing on their way home from school.
Our visit ended with the site of the Student Uprisings in 1976 and a look at Nelson Mandela’s home. Joe, our guide, told stories about his own role as a leader in the student uprisings and the anti-apartheid movement. Our visit was grounding, as it afforded an opportunity, however quick, to see where it all happened — and to contrast it all to the relative peace on local Soweto streets today.
When we asked Joe later about integration today in South Africa, he said, “It will come, more and more, with each new generation. My grandchildren go to school with all sorts of children. They just see them as other children to play with, not as black, white, or colored. It’s through this and through investing in education that real change will come.”
5 PM: Johannesburg Airport
Since traffic is notoriously bad in Johannesburg we got an early start to the airport to catch our flight. Joe, as unassuming as he was, mentioned off-hand that he was set to pick up Miss America the following day.
We haven’t tricked ourselves into thinking that we’ve even begun to remotely understand Johannesburg and Soweto, but we’re glad we took the opportunity when we had it.
If you happen to be traveling through South Africa and you have even the whiff of opportunity, check out Johannesburg and Soweto, even if for a short time. They’re an important part of South Africa’s past and present.
A word of thanks to our guide, Joe Motsogi, for not only sharing his knowledge of Johannesburg and Soweto history, but for sharing his personal stories of being a leader in the student uprisings and anti-apartheid movement.