South African Airways flight 204 landed early Tuesday in Johannesburg and my weary legs breathed a sigh of relief. Having been cooped up for our 14 hour journey across the Atlantic, I was anxious to regain the feeling in my toes and to begin my day of sightseeing in South Africa. Fortunately, when flying through Johannesburg there are ample opportunities for relaxation or excitement. For instance, one might take advantage of the newly renovated facilities at O.R. Tambo International, a welcome remnant from the World Cup. However, another option for the beleaguered traveler is a city tour of Johannesburg to help pass the time. Given my 12 hour layover before my flight to Malawi, I thought it wise to choose the latter.
My tour guide for the day was a kind-hearted man named Mdo, a South African native, who has found his passion working in the tourism industry. After meeting me and another college student from Montana, Mdo whisked us off to our first stop on our tour of Johannesburg's city center: the Red Light District. As we careened the crowded streets, Mdo pointed out all of the local hangouts with a keen sense of awareness, explaining how Nigerians had immigrated to the area in mass. We then continued to the South African Constitutional Court, the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, and took in a view of the city from 50 stories up at "The Top of Africa." However, upon leaving the city center, I found myself perplexed as to why Joburg is advertised as an iconic African city. While some call Johannesburg the NYC of Africa, I found its polluted and bustling streets failed to offer an equivalent to New York's dazzling Broadway culture of the financial capital of Wall Street. What was the missing piece that truly gave Johannesburg its splendor?
Leaving the confines of downtown, the view soon changed to a picture of gated suburbia where behind towering walls, Joburg's upper class live their private lives. After passing a sign that read, "Welcome to Soweto," our tour guide explained that Soweto was the suburban area of Johannesburg where the resistance movement against apartheid first took hold. Meandering through the streets, I saw the scenery quickly transform again from one of European wealth to shanty towns, where public outhouses and rampant disease are a part of daily life. As we toured Soweto, we had the opportunity to see the house in which Nelson Mandela used to reside as well as monuments erected in honor of those who were killed in the Soweto uprisings against the apartheid regime. Viewing these memorials and learning about the heroic Nelson Mandela who championed equality for all brought a new sense of meaning to the ethnic diversity that abounds in Johannesburg. While ethic diversity in America also carries great cultural and historical importance, the story of overcoming apartheid is more than just a lesson in the horrors of racial discrimination for the South African people. Rather, the liberation from apartheid represents a newly found freedom from the cultural practices of the colonial empires that ruled South Africa earlier in the 20th century. No longer bound by the remnants of the Colonial Era, South African's are a newly freed people that are vibrant with the spirit of liberty and equality. Perhaps this deep seeded spirit was the piece I had been missing.
We ended our tour with a visit to the Apartheid Museum, possibly the best museum in all of Africa. As we roamed through the halls, we had the chance to walk in the footsteps of Africans afflicted by the apartheid regime. This experience, coupled with the glowing legacy of Nelson Mandela, allowed me to leave South Africa at the end of the day with a renewed sense of understanding for why Johannesburg is known to be such an iconic African city. Johannesburg is the birth place of South Africa's independence. However, the actions taken within its borders also serve as a guiding light for all African nations seeking to acquire their own freedom from Colonial Era policies that continue to hold them back from achieving their true potential.