Johannesburg Day 1

Wed, 30 Jul 2008 09:19:34 +0000

Windhoek to Jo'burg Index Johannesburg Day 2

I'd been warned about what to expect from Johannesburg, and it doesn't disappoint. Crime here is so appalling, and public transport, or indeed any kind of urban planning at all, so non-existant, that getting around or doing anything is stupidly difficult. It feels like living in an urban prison here.

Well, perhaps that is a bit of an exaggeration. I got a nice breakfast, for example. There's a bakery just up the road from the hostel, and they served me an excellent fruit salad with muesli and yoghurt for breakfast. And there are at least two big shopping centres within walking distance. But this is the suburbs, and I always want to get into the city. I haven't managed that in Johannesburg yet, and it's likely I never will.

After breakfast, the next thing to organise was the bus to Botswana. My plan is to briefly visit Gabarone over the weekend, then go back to Johannesburg to apply for a Mozambique visa and travel to Maputo. Or that was the plan. The Gabarone bus is all booked out for both today and tomorrow. I can't go to Mozambique until I've got the visa. So it looks like I'm stuck in Johannesburg for the next three days. Just like Cairo, it's always the visas that slow me down.

I wanted to do at least some touristing today. Johannesburg itself doesn't offer an awful lot of that, but the Apartheid Museum seemed like the pick of the bunch. Since public transport here is non-existant, you have to take a taxi, which of course is expensive. The woman at the front desk did suggest that a driver would be able to take me at around 1:30 for the relatively cheap price of 50 Rand, so I decided to wait for that. I went to one of the shopping centres and grabbed the latest news off the web, and I had lunch at the same bakery as before. A pretty laid-back morning.

At 1:30 the taxi arrived, although the fare turned out to be 75 Rand each way rather than 50. This taxi seemed to have a two-man crew - I have no idea what the second guy was there for. They talked loudly in Zulu for much of the way, breaking off occasionally to question me about my life story. The driver's tone was a little aggressively friendly, and just basically loud, so I struggled a bit with the journey.

So what about the museum? My initial impression was that it was suffering a particularly debilitating attack of museology: the walls painted with colossal panoramas of nothing in particular, boxes of random unlabelled detritus supposed to represent in half a cubic metre the entire lives of some notable person, and the seven pillars of the constitution overly literally represented by seven two-storey concrete pillars with "liberty" and "justice" or whatever inscribed on them. (I've already forgotten what the seven pillars are, they're that vague and generic.)

However. Once you appreciate that it's not so much a museum as a memorial, it gets quite interesting. The news during my childhood was constantly filled with stories about South Africa, but it was a movie that I came into halfway through. The whole history of apartheid was presented in the museum, and it started to make a bit more sense. The "petty apartheid" of whites-only beaches and so forth was shown to be a desperate act of a failing regime, more than a realistic foundation for a society. You could see in the early speeches on both sides, everyone must have known what the endgame would look like. In fact it was rather reminiscent of the current situation in Zimbabwe: as the economists say, "if something cannot go on forever, it will stop".

By contrast, I spent a lot of time wondering about the parallels between South Africa and Israel/Palestine. During the 70s and 80s, the two didn't look much different. I read a couple of economics blogs, and I like them because they frequently delve into dispassionate, amoral analysis of why particular regimes succeed or fail. So I really missed a satisfying, believable story for why the two diverged so dramatically. Maybe the underlying demographic imbalance in South Africa is too strong. Maybe it was accidents of history, the timing of the rise and fall of the Cold War. Maybe it was the attitudes of the patron great powers, Britain and the USA. I don't know nearly enough about either to be sure, and I didn't get enough out of the museum to change that. I'm sure the comparison would make an excellent mid-length pop-sociology paperback. Maybe someone could point me to one?

I did get more information about South Africa's shenanigans in neighbouring countries, which went some way to figuring out what Namibia was doing between 1945 and 1994. They were being occupied by South Africa, that's what. And acting as a conduit for sending arms and funds to UNITA in Angola, to complement South Africa's other oar that it was busily sticking into Mozambique. I'd consider those two wars to be more serious South African crimes against humanity than the whole of apartheid, certainly going by bodycounts, but they only warranted a little corner of this museum.

There were plenty of other snippets worth mentioning. The cage of decommisioned arms contained some extremely unlikely-looking firearms, basically pipes with handles welded on. The video clips of officials defending apartheid: "The African is a warrior, so we had to teach them how to be workers, and now they enjoy working" - was incredible to see. I'd been trying to twist myself into the world view that could see apartheid as a good idea, but there's no way any intellectually honest person could come out with this stuff. And I enjoyed watching Mandela's first television interview, where he coyly toyed with the idea of switching from non-violence to guerilla warfare, without actually committing himself to anything at all. The man's a politician, not a saint, and I respect him the more for it.

I also really want to know who owns the trademark rights to "Bantu Beer". This was the beer that the government brewed for the blacks to drink, in wonderfully plain-wrapper, Soviet-looking cartons. And they erected an entire infrastructure of miserable, soul-less drinking factories for the blacks to drink it in (reminded me of Oktoberfest). I couldn't figure out if this was a genuine attempt to be able to say "hey, look, we even throw parties for them, we're not repressive at all!", or whether it was just another insidious way of keeping the black man down. Whatever, I bet that if a brewer started marketing "Bantu Beer", with the original packaging and a suitably ironic marketing campaign, it'd be a hit.

But it was the 20 minute film focusing on the rebellions in the 80s which was the most affecting part. There were interviews with the leaders of the insurrections, who are still disturbingly young men, explaining their motivations for turning to molotov cocktails and burning tyre necklaces. It really brought into focus the delicate border between submission, activism, and blind destructive warfare. South Africa was very, very lucky to safely steer a path down the centre, and this gets forgotten in all the back-slapping and birthday parties for Mandela. If things had gone just slightly differently, maybe there wouldn't be so much difference between South Africa and Palestine after all.

So I've written quite a lot about the Apartheid Museum, which shows that despite its occasional pretentiousness and its horribly confusing layout, it does a very good job of provoking thoughts. Well done.

It kept me occupied until five, when it shut, and I emerged to find my taxi driver, who'd promised to be there to pick me up. He wasn't there. I waited. The various groups of tourists dispersed to their pre-arranged rides, and I started to worry how I'd get home if my driver didn't show up. I don't know enough about Johannesburg to know where it's safe to be after dark, what's paranoid and what's genuinely dangerous.

There was a taxi rank with two cars. The first was taken by some passengers, leaving just one remaining chance to get home safely. It was only quarter past five, but the sun was well on its way to setting, the place was almost deserted, and I wasn't prepared to let my chance drive off. So I took that taxi. It cost 170 Rand, which at about EUR 17 isn't disastrous. But it underscores what a difficult city Johannesburg is.

After arriving back at the hostel, I needed some food. I thought this would just be a simple question of wandering around looking for a fast food joint. It was dark, so I locked my bag in the safe so that a mugging wouldn't be a disaster. I stupidly forgot to put my wallet in there too, so despite this I was still terrified of being mugged. I walked down to the one shopping centre I'd visited earlier, but soon found that there weren't any real restaurants open, just cafes. So I decided to try in the other direction, where I'd heard there was another shopping centre. I didn't know exactly where though, and after walking for an unreasonably long time, I decided that it was a silly idea to explore in the dark, and walked back. I ended up going to the supermarket part of Woolworths and buying myself some cold couscous salad, rolls and bananas. Which was nice enough, but not what I was trying for.

So that seems like a good summary of Johannesburg. There are very nice places to be in Johannesburg, and they are generally surrounded by high, spiky, probably electric, fences. Between these fences lie interminable tracts of hellishly terrifying suburbs, through which you can only pass in an expensive taxi with the windows wound up. It's really not my kind of place.

Windhoek to Jo'burg Index Johannesburg Day 2