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In the heart of South Africa, the Rainbow Nation

South Africa is called the Rainbow Nation given the rich diversity of its people. Aruna Rathod visits its capital, Johannesburg, which is a modern city with a soul seeped in history, and understands the moniker better

Johannesburg
Best time to visit: April-October
You need: 3-4 days

After our five-day-long stay in Durban, my Indian-South African friend drives me to Johannesburg. I listen to her rave about the city’s vibrancy, its cosmopolitan charm and wonder what lies in store at the end of the smooth highway.

As we near the capital, the urban panorama looms over the horizon. My friend tells me, “South Africa is known as the Rainbow Nation because of its diversity of people. It was a country that attracted people from all over the world. And Johannesburg, you will see, is a riot of colours.”

Johannesburg's skyline
Johannesburg’s skyline epitomises the speed, glitz and the buzz of the city

Once in the city, we drive through a maze of flyovers. All around me, I see the makings of a vibrant city — the connectivity, glitzy shopping malls, plush restaurants, fast cars and a lot of people.

Exploring the city
The morning after, I begin exploring the city. Sandton City, the glitziest part of Joburg, is my first halt. At 10.30 am, when the roads are easy to navigate, I head to Sandton, the most significant business and financial district of South Africa. It has opulent homes, towering offices, shopping malls with local and international brands. It is difficult to believe that this urban oasis was a wasteland just 50 years ago.

The Apartheid Museum
The Apartheid Museum in the city takes you back to a time when Jo’Burg was a far cry from its peppy self today

Shopping is a pleasure here with 300 retail stores — electronics, garments, jewellery — you name it, they have it. Eateries range from fine-dine experiences to fast food, and this mall has it all. After browsing at a South African store for animal print outfits and artefacts which are in vogue, we stop for a snack at the Muggs & Bean coffee shop. A Potato and Bacon Soup with toasted bread and a rich fruit milkshake is our lunch. Satiated, we continue our sojourn.

Attractions galore
The Nelson Mandela Square is very close to Sandton City and besides being home to a six-metre tall statue of Mandela, it is also a premium mall for international labels. The statue is quite impressive. Created by local artists Jacob Maponyane and Kobus Hattingh, it was commissioned in July 2002 and completed in 2004.

Rosebank
A street vendor plays a handmade sax at Rosebank, a cosmopolitan commercial and residential suburb in Johannesburg. Pic/Aruna Rathod

In South Africa, most malls shut by 5 or 6 pm, so if you are a night bird, the best place for action is the Monte Casino. Open 24 hours, it has enough entertainment for the entire day and night. It is a great place to have a meal with a choice of cuisines — Japanese, Italian, South African Braiis (barbecues) or just a coffee at Illys.

Old city tour
I am curious about the old town of Johannesburg, which was developed after the Gold Rush. Safety is an issue in South Africa, so it’s best not to walk alone or in deserted areas. Wearing jewellery is not a great idea, if you are a tourist. Armed with just a few Rand, I decide to explore the old part of Joburg by the Hop-on-Hop-off bus. To reach the starting point of an exciting tour, I take the Gautrain — a fairly new introduction in Joburg. It is a rapid rail underground that comes close to the S-bahn of Germany. Not very extensive, the network connects the airport, Pretoria, the administrative capital of SA and Sandton town. A security guard helps me get a ticket to Park Station where I board the bus.

Sandton city
In Joburg, indulgence is better known as Sandton City, which has an array of malls and restaurants

It is a cold and windy day, but I brave the breeze and sit on the open deck above. Massive, tall buildings surround me. The city has seen good times. As we begin the tour, the first stop is the Gandhi Square. It is difficult to imagine that the statue of the man in his lawyer robes, with a head full of hair, is Gandhi.

As the bus tours the city, I see that some buildings are being brought down, to be replaced by newer structures. One of the landmarks is the Carlton centre, with an observation deck on the 50th floor, and is the highest office building in Africa. The bus gradually moves to the suburbs and I see the Transport museum and see a huge Ferris wheel looming in the sky. This is the Gold Reef city, a theme park with bits of history thrown in about mining. Its main attraction is the huge casino and the theme park.

Nelson Mandela's statue
Nelson Mandela’s statue stands tall at the Nelson Mandela Square. Pic/Aruna Rathod

A slice of history
Opposite the Gold Reef City is the Apartheid Musuem that traces South Africa’s struggle with one of the darkest periods in its history.

The building is simple with a red brick facade, and a ground level structure. Well-laid out, it takes one through the history of SA, and apartheid is poignantly portrayed in the museum with photos, video clips and exhibits. Outside, a coffee shop and some stores sell a variety of literature on Nelson Mandela, among other souvenirs.

I pick up a hard bound copy of Wisdom from Africa for just 160 Rand (1 Rand is approx Rs 6). The museum is a huge attraction for children and people from all over Africa. Around me, I see children, college boys and girls walk in disciplined queues to visit this historical structure.

A few kilometres ahead of the museum, I am told, is Soweto, an area where the labourers of the gold mines lived. It has now developed into a sprawling township that has a local flavour of its own.

The bus then drives through office blocks of the mining giants and one of the squares even has a mining shaft. The last stop on the tour is the Constitution Hill, the site of the notorious prison where both Mandela and Gandhi were incarcerated, which now houses the highest court in the land.

Local feel
On Saturday I decide to visit the Bryanston Organic and Natural Market. I see tastefully decorated stalls that offer farm fresh vegetables, organic cheese, bread and lots more. A lady holds out wonderful ceramics in bright colours at a stall.

Hand-made jewellery, paintings, eco-friendly garments — you could browse here for hours and pick up wonderful artworks. After a round, I sample the culinary delights. Meera — an Indian stall run by ‘Chai’, short for Chaitanya — has dosas with chutney and sambhar.

The masala dosa is authentic, and so is the chutney and sambar. After having an Indian breakfast, I indulge in scones with cream and jam.

In the afternoon, I visit Rosebank — a fashionable street with trendy restaurants and street stalls to buy some African handicrafts as souvenirs. There are keychains and wooden animals. The giraffes, in particular, are gracefully sculpted. Masks, carved rhinos, hippos, elephants in wood and stone leave you spoilt for choice.

One artist makes animals out of beads, stringing them on an aluminum wire. I pick up a couple of giraffes, some beaded jewellery, small hippos and rhinos made from coloured stone. Bargaining in the street markets is easy — the hawkers are polite, and you are likely to get your way.

The next day, as I leave for the airport, I feel I am not yet done exploring this diverse city. Joburg is changing, but go deeper and you will not miss its soul.

Fact File
Getting there:
Ethiopian Airlines offers a great fare of just Rs 35,000 with a stop-over in Addis Ababa. Direct flights by South African Airways and Jet cost upwards of Rs 55,000.

What to do: Visit Sandton City for your fill of the new and the glamorous. The Apartheid Museum, on the other hand, takes you back to South Africa’s turbulent history.

Bryanston is a beautiful and refreshing change from the glitz and crowds of Joburg. However, plan a trip here carefully — it’s open only on Thursdays and Saturdays from 9 am-2 pm.

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