Johannesburg in Transit

A four-hour journey through one of Africa’s biggest and most complex cities

For many Harvard students, Johannesburg is a place to change planes en route to other destinations in southern Africa. Quite frequently, foreigners associate the city with violence and crime. Even though I was living in Johannesburg for a month this summer, I felt like I didn’t really get to see the city. A friend and I had returned to the city after a long weekend in Cape Town. He had a four-hour layover between landing in Johannesburg and departing for Harvard, and we decided to spend that time getting a crash tour in the economic hub and third largest city in Africa.

“Johannesburg has a black cloud hanging over it; it is not a ‘preferred’ destination,” Milady Tshandu, manager of African Eagle Johannesburg Day Tours explains. “The idea of the day tours started during the World Cup because we saw that people wanted to do more in the city. Johannesburg is the economic powerhouse of Africa, and it’s trying to rid itself of the images of the 80s and 90s.”

The tour seeks to provide people with the most comprehensive experience and views of the most vibrant parts of Johannesburg in the short hours people would spend killing time in the airport in-between flights.

Our guides picked us up at the airport at noon. We started on Mundro Drive, which offers a panoramic view of the city. Noting the lush vegetation covering the city, our guide Hlowante pointed out that Johannesburg used to be a savanna and has little air pollution because of the tree-planting initiative.

We stopped by the Fort, built by Paul Kruger in 1896, to protect the South African Republic from British invasion. Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and members of the African National Congress were arrested there at different times in the last century. It now serves as the Constitutional Court of South Africa.


Immediately after The Fort, Tshandu pointed out the Miner Statue, signifying the discovery of gold in Johannesburg in 1886. The discovery sparked a mass influx into the city, and for this, Johannesburg is the only large city whose location wasn’t determined because of a large water supply. Currently, 20 percent of the national gross domestic product comes from mining.

Our last stop within the city limits was Muti House, a traditional medicine store. “Around 20 percent of South Africans still believe in it,” Hlowante noted. We stepped into the dimly lit store and were instantly hit with the sight of bones and animal skins dangling from the ceiling. When asked if she could make me a love potion, the woman behind the counter nodded but warned, “if you weren’t raised with the knowledge of this kind of medicine, you won’t understand it or appreciate its powers.”

Leaving the city center, we passed Gandhi Square, commemorating the Indian leader’s 20 years in South Africa. Though Gandhi is known for peaceful activism on a large-scale, Hlowante told us of one of his lesser-known points of persuasion. “Right there, at Alexandra Restaurant, he used to stand outside and petition people to become vegetarians.”

After an hour in Johannesburg proper, we headed to Soweto, South Africa’s largest township at 1.3 million people.

We ate a traditional lunch of pap, mqushu, pumpkin, and mogodu at Sakhumzi Restaurant, located next to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house. The Archbishop can often be seen walking with the youth of the township. After lunch we passed Nelson Mandela’s house. Mandela later donated the house to the Soweto Heritage Trust.

Up the road from Mandela’s house was where Hector Pieterson was killed. Pieterson was only 13 when he was fatally wounded by police officers in 1976, and his death is considered the first of the Youth Movement, a period between 1976-1977 during which police officers killed 600 students who peacefully protested the government decision to change the medium of instruction in schools from English to Afrikaans.

Each year on June 16, students take to the streets and congregate here to honor the legacy of those whose lives were lost in the movement.

“When I was growing up in Soweto,” Hlowante recalls, “I remember being afraid to go to school because of the police,” he paused. “Can you imagine, running from the people whose job was supposed to be to protect you?”

After our whirlwind four-hour tour, we headed back to the airport so my friend could catch his flight.

“The people who live here understand and appreciate the beauty of Johannesburg,” Tshandu stated. “This is just a glimpse of what makes our city so great.” It was a wonderful overview of the city and people—and one that might entice people to spend a little more time here during their next layover.

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.