South Africa: Model for the Future

Touring Johannesburg by Day and dining on Zebra at night

By Kent E. St. John
GoNOMAD Senior Travel Editor

Zebra, anyone? Dining in the town of Muldersdrift at the Carnivore Restaurant. photo: Kent St. John.
Zebra, anyone? Dining in the town of Muldersdrift at the Carnivore Restaurant. photo: Kent St. John.

While channel surfing, I popped a malaria pill and chased it down with a ruby cabernet. My friendly South African Airways flight attendant continued to stop by and fuel my growing anticipation of arrival in Mama Africa; South Africa to be more precise, a long time travel dream.

Beginnings and endings, diversity and diversions are what South Africa is all about. The value of dollars to experiences makes South Africa a bargain that any nomad will appreciate. Even a hardcore budget wanderer needs a little luxury now and then. With that expectation I deplaned with Paul Simon’s “Graceland” playing on my mini disk player.

There is Gold in Them There Hills

Johannesburg has a reputation that would fit any gold rush town; rowdy, dangerous and thrilling. What I found was a wonderful city that showcased the diversity that followed me throughout my journey.

This onetime gold mining camp has sprouted into a metropolis and South Africa’s commercial center. It is also a city that is dealing with some big problems. It is a city that is best explored by day yet lodged in the suburbs at night.

The warning page in Lonely Planet’s South Africa should convince you. Most accommodations are in the satellite towns around the city and they range from hostels to luxury.

The good news is that the luxury is about the price of a Holiday Inn in Baltimore. The better news is that the luxury is in step with New York, London or Rome. From my room at the Westcliff I could look across the hill to the city’s zoo.

Better yet the roar of lions while dipping in the horizon pool proved good foil to the six-dollar bottle of great South African wine cheerfully placed before me. “I know, I know, six dollars can get you a five-course meal in Budapest.” I am living large and that can best be done in South Africa. This isn’t a contest about budget; I am here to write about value!

Around Town

Public transportation in Jo Burg is minimal and care should be exercised, but by all means the city center should be explored. Following the advice of every guidebook written about the city, I hooked up with a tour company. In general I am not a, “follow the leader,” traveler. The people at ExecuPlaytime may have given me a useful lesson.

This was most evident when I joined four others to visit the Townships of Soweto and Newtown, really parts of downtown. The owner of ExecuPlaytime, Thabiso “Tabs” Magodielo, and guide Patrick were the most entertaining twosome in guiding I’ve encountered. Facts, figures and fun best explain this expedition.

Dozing lions aren't afraid of the truck. Just don't get out! photo: Kent E. St. John.
Dozing lions aren’t afraid of the truck. Just don’t get out! photo: Kent E. St. John.

The Market Theater Complex is Johannesburg’s best attempt at revitalizing downtown. It seems to be working. Included within are the South African Breweries Museum, Workers Museum and MuseumAfrica.

There is also a diverse collection of restaurants, galleries and of course theaters. My favorite spot was the MuseumAfrica. The museum vividly covers the city from pre-goldrush days through apartheid. This information was invaluable for our visit to Soweto. Check the links at the right for other Jo’Burg sites.

Sights and Sounds on the Township Trail

It’s funky and somber, confusing yet revealing. It is also probably a name that stirs many travelers’ thoughts of South Africa. As Patrick proudly pointed out, Soweto is also the only place in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize recipients live on the same street, Vilakazi Street. As we passed Nelson Mandela’s house, I had to picture Bishop Desmond Tutu dropping by for coffee.

My original thoughts of Soweto were one of shanties and slums. In truth that is a part of the Township. Soweto is much more; it is monument to the fall of apartheid and a growing vibrant Black South African scene. Soweto was originally designed as a place to house Black mine workers and Blacks that served the Whites as workers and domestic help.

The Township was originally called Orlando and was situated about 20 miles from Jo’ Burg. Soweto and its encompassed regions cover 120 square kilometers and is home unofficially to four million people. The services of specialized tour companies (see right) is the best way to understand Soweto. Whether with a small group or alone the booklet Soweto Township: the Complete Guide is a must. It can be purchased at many of the sites in the town.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

The most powerful aspect of the battle for freedom for Blacks to me was the student protest on June 16, 1976. The protest was to be against the government’s instruction that Afrikaans (the language of White oppression) was to be the medium of instruction.

Pupils at the Naledi and Thomas Mofolo High Schools initiated a massive peaceful protest that soon drew 10,000 students from the area in front of the Orlando High School. It turned into gas and guns.

The world was shocked and by June 24th the death toll was at 140, mostly children. Hector Pieterson Square and Museum is the best place to understand how determined children can change the world. Hector was 14 years old and one of the first shot. The pictorial exhibits provide dramatic looks into that fateful day.

The other site that awed me was the Regina Mundi Church and Square. This Catholic Church has been the scene of mass gatherings, including impassioned speeches by Bishop Tutu and many other leaders against racism. It is also the home to one of the two Black Madonnas in Africa. On my visit hundreds of school children were inside the church learning songs and traditions. Other Soweto websites can be found on the column on the right.

Crafts Food and Vibes

Booths and makeshift stands promise everything from bobutie (curry) to sandals. A haircut under a tarp is also a trip. The best part is that you are watching a community build and grow. A great experience in Soweto is stopping at a Shebeen, once illegal drinking establishments from the days when alcohol was forbidden to Blacks.

Afrikaans school girls. Photo: Kent E. St. John.
Afrikaans school girls. Photo: Kent E. St. John.

Today they sell food and drinks and still remain a gathering place. The best known is Wandie’s Place in Dube. Some of the others are Tyson’s in Pimville, Vardos in Mapetla and The Rock in Rockville. With 60 percent of the people in Soweto unemployed, it makes good sense and safety to use a guide. For contact call 011 327-2000 or e-mail

Seconds on the Giraffe

My Malarone pills (Malaria) had kicked in and it was time to head to the bush. As a farewell to Jo’Burg Tabs and Patrick decided that I should experience the taste of some of the animals I would see on safari.

We headed to the town of Muldersdrift to the Carnivore Restaurant. The rustic restaurant lived up to its name, the smell of grilling meats drifted through the parking lot. Inside the huge open grill was packed with various cuts of crocodile, ostrich, giraffe, zebra and kudu. The waiters circulate with Masaai swords loaded with various meats, and cut pieces onto your plate. They keep doing it till you drop the little flag on your table in surrender.

After eating I was ready for part two of my trip, the safari. I could only hope that the animals I’d be viewing were better looking than they tasted!

Heritage Tours
121 West 27th St.
Suite 1201
New York, NY 10001
Phone: 800-378-4555 Fax: 212-206-9101

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Kent St John

Kent St John

Kent St. John was GoNOMAD's Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.