“Welcome home my brother,” the immigration official said to me after asking had I been to Africa before. I had been planning this trip in my mind for a long time and it became a reality this past Christmas break.
Dear God, I finally made it to South Africa and the Motherland!
Almost 12 years ago while in London I had envisioned South Africa through the friends I had met while studying abroad. Their stories of injustice, the fight for equality, rights of passage and customs passed down always fascinated me. With this built up knowledge of what SA life was like through their eyes, I yearned to find out more for myself. I planned the trip with my nomad brother Jérémie; an avid traveler who has been listening to my stories for years. Both of us put a lot of thought into how we wanted the trip to unfold, but I had the added pressure of using this trip to gage how serious I was about my messaging around Nomade en Noir.
Is it truly my passion to visit black destinations and support businesses and communities that are within the African Diaspora?
My friend Brian picked me up at the airport in Johannesburg. Accompanying him were his sister Yolanda, Brother Dumezweni, and nephew Brandon. It was the best feeling to be greeted by my Zimbabwean family whom I met in London…I hadn’t seen them in years. Yolanda moved back to South Africa a few years ago and had found new respect for SA… she glowed in her tribal head wrap, earrings and necklaces. I hadn’t seen Dumezweni and Brandon since they were little boys and now they were grown men, just as tall as me. One of the first things I saw on the drive from the airport that made me stop and think was the first homeless people I saw…they were white. Yolanda told me that there are actually many poor whites living in Johannesburg and they have their own community that is similar to the townships. SA, post Apartheid tells an interesting story for both whites and blacks.
Instead of taking me to the hotel, Brian insisted that I visit with them at Yolanda’s town house in Ranburg and check-in to the hotel later, which I did. Yolanda made me a dish of Pap (Mielie-meal or Sadza); ground maize and a staple food of the Bantu people of Southern Africa. It is traditionally served with meat and sauce and greens, and is eaten by hand after washing your hands in a bowl brought to you at the table. I had eaten pap many times in London and this meal was the moment I embraced that I truly was home (video of that moment).
Yolanda introduced me to her son as uncle Joseph; it was accepted as a matter of fact and not a statement to be questioned on its validity based on blood. Both her daughter and son treated me during my stay as an uncle would be treated in any household. Yolanda’s mother, Mavis, became my mother and continually checked on my welfare. She made sure I had eaten everyday and kept me in her thoughts as any mother would.
The next morning after partying the night away and being reintroduced to South African music, to my family’s surprise I went out on my own to sight see. I took an Uber for a 30-40 minute drive from Ranburg to Soweto for the equivalent of 7.00 USD. That my friend is called winning. In Soweto, I stopped at Vilakazi Street where you will find the Nelson Mandela House and Museum. The house is not big at all, and before I went through the gates I took in the scene of the little children dancing and performing in traditional Zulu attire. It didn’t bother me at that moment, but something stirred up in my mind and it was a little unsettling. The tour of the house was informative and there were great artifacts testifying to the many atrocities of Apartheid. The house still had the bullet holes from assassination attempts …it still had the markings in the furniture from the bodies that used them years ago. The house, though small, gave me a view into just how unsafe the Mandela family was during that time.
What was special about Mandela House for me was that it showcased Winnie Mandela just as much as it did Nelson Mandela. That for me was reassuring, and is a testament of their loyalty to one another. In fact, Winnie Mandela’s house was around the corner from the museum and I had an opportunity to go there. I stood in front of the large gate of her “Beverly Hills” home situated in the heart of Soweto and was convinced that she truly has always been for her people. With all her success, she chose to build her home in the midst of what many consider a poor community.
When I left Mandela House I sat on a bench in front of the museum. It was a great view…I saw all the tourists get dropped off and picked up and their interaction with the locals. Most of them were not interested in engaging with the locals, but it had a lot to do with the fact that so many locals in the area were begging or soliciting donations by performing and singing, which was overwhelming to me. But there were locals doing good work, or visiting themselves as many were off work on holiday for Christmas and were out with their kids. I met two students, Sandile and Tati, who were doing research on the satisfaction of the Mandela House experience and because they were asking for something in the midst of the folks begging, many people just waved them off as beggars. I did the survey and had the most interesting conversation with Sandile about my thoughts on the performances, the positioning of the restaurants down the street, and the authenticity of the whole experience.
He shared the complex nature of trying to modernize South Africa to become a leading tourist destination in the world while remaining authentic even in the advent of a neo culture that is strongly influenced by native culture. For him, it can be done…the new can still be authentic and respect traditional values. This conversation led him to offer showing me Soweto and downtown Johannesburg through his eyes…beyond the tourist friendly parts. I agreed to meet Sandile and Tati the next day for an off the beaten path tour.
My friend Musa met me on Vilakazi Street and we had lunch at a posh little restaurant on the strip…Vilakazi Street is actually a popping place, especially on the weekends. Musa has always been that friend who likes nice things and I don’t knock him. He’s worked damn hard and is as down to earth as I am. I do indulge in the finer things at times, but it just has to be a little more meaningful for me. We caught up for a bit at lunch and talked about his life split between Italy and South Africa and how his new business ventures were going. Musa left corporate life to become a producer. He had followed a dream and was being rewarded for it. Its stories like this that impresses the hell out of me. After lunch, we headed to Sandton City Shopping Center to see the other side of Johannesburg. The mall was grand and all the upscale stores were there conveniently in one location for shoppers. I took in a Johannesburg that was a little bit too posh for my minimalistic nature. Nonetheless, I took it all in and saw black men and women with children strolling through with designer baby carriages and bags. It was actually a good feeling to see so many black people winning. By the time I got back to Yolanda’s it was late and I just crashed.
The next day I met up with Sandile and Tati and helped them solicit visitors to complete the survey questionnaire. Even I had a hard time persuading the foreign visitors to complete a simple survey. People panhandle so much that visitors just become numb to it and shut down, but we met the quota and then left. We walked from Vilakazi Street to Ikwezi Station and stopped along the way to buy local eats. I even ended up shopping at a local clothing store called Thesis; owned by a group of young black South African men. The walk was a bit long, but it was a great way for me to take in Soweto by foot instead of in the vans that provide township tours. They are big homes, or as the locals call them “Beverly Hills” homes, small homes, tin and galvanized homes, which aren’t that far apart from one another. It was amazing to see the range of wealth and status in Soweto so close to each other and functioning in a space of acceptance that wasn’t hierarchical. The haves and the have nots seem to understand there is a mutual relationship to those that have more and are able to uplift the community and the ones that have less and are in need of encouragement. So a local lawyer may fund the education of a child from a poor family, thus showing how the people help one another.
Honestly, it was a great sightseeing moment because it showed Soweto in its variety. We ended the Soweto tour and caught the train into downtown Johannesburg. This train ride is not one the locals recommend…the train doors manually shut and close and remain open sometimes during the ride. There are people gambling and playing cards…singing and arguing, and if you look to unfamiliar they say it might get you robbed. Being the person I am though…I was there to see for myself… I put on my symbolic headphones with the Bone Crusher song “I ain’t never scared.” Plus, I was with Sandile and Tati who were a source of reassurance that I was safe or at least had people there with me. What I got from them was that this train and the ones that go to the townships are mainly there to take people from the townships into downtown Johannesburg as a cheap mode of transportation for the poor, and there are similar trains in different parts of Johannesburg. The safety concern is one to share because not everyone is interested in going into potential danger. But it was mission to see the real deal Johannesburg.
We ended up in downtown Johannesburg at Gandhi Square, where there is a statue of Mahatma Gandhi. Like a sort of celebratory moment for getting out of Soweto and into downtown Johannesburg, we bought some drinks from a local spirit shop. We sat outside with our drinks and discussed life and travel. Sandile and Tati were both majoring in Tourism, so they analyzed my travel patterns…I was a purposeful traveler with drifter tendencies. I do enjoy a certain kind of travel and that involves learning about culture and people, and I do move from place to place so I didn’t disagree. As it got late and the sun went down we decided to get cabs and leave downtown…it’s also said that at night downtown Johannesburg can be dangerous (Musa refused to meet me that night lol).
The next day I returned to Sandton City, but I rode a regular taxi. It was filled to the brim with people, which made the trip slightly uncomfortable. However, it was an experience I needed to have. Being amongst the people was the best part to my daily excursions. My adopted family was really impressed with the way I navigated life and was less worried about me…to some extent they were impressed with my ability to just “get on with it” as Brian said. They also couldn’t understand how the American wasn’t scared to go to parts of the city they’d never been, but I was on mission and that meant breaking rules. Sandton City has a large statue of Nelson Mandela. It was worth going back there in the daylight and just taking it in…
Musa met me there for lunch. We ended up going back to Newtown and hung out there for a little before heading to the hotel to check in. The Vantage boast apartment style rooms that are decorated nicely and have all the amenities needed and was in Rosebank, which is a place I’d suggest anyone stay while in Johannesburg if you want convenience and safety. The convenience of the Guatrain to the airport cuts down on the need to use a taxi. Johannesburg has suburbs that are like mini boroughs similar to those in NYC where there’s no need to leave unless you truly have to. The city of Johannesburg itself rivals with that of any metropolitan city in a first world country.
I moved to my hotel that evening and said goodbye to my Zimbabwean family who had hosted me for three nights. Jérémie got to SA the next morning and we went back to Soweto with Musa. We had dinner and drinks and made a night of it (partying in Johannesburg is not for the faint of heart). I was glad Jérémie was interested in going to Pretoria and checking out another city altogether. Pretoria as a day trip is a great idea if you have a few days in Johannesburg and can take Guatrain, which was near our hotel.
What was really cool was it was Reconciliation Day. As the name suggests, it is a holiday to help heal the past wounds inflicted during Apartheid. While in Pretoria, Jeremie and I saw a city unlike Johannesburg. It had more public squares and green spaces and the architecture was distinctly European, but had engravings of tribal stories and statues of tribal leaders to remind people of the blended history. Pretoria City Hall honored its African, Dutch, and Afrikaans ancestry. A symbol of reconciliation I gathered, but we didn’t see this blend in the actual celebrations. It was like a 4th of July in America where blacks are celebrating in their way and whites in their own way…and somewhere there are ripples of togetherness.
We went back to the hotel and packed for our morning flight. We were leaving Jozi for Cape town, but honestly I had fallen in love with Johannesburg and hoped that Cape town would give me just as much life…I wanted a real sense of everyday people and everyday lives while seeing all the city had to offer and with that I headed to the airport…
To Be Continued…Next stop Cape Town!