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Johannesburg: Food, glamour and history in South Africa's largest city

Last updated 9 November 2020

Johannesburg is the city of my heart. I can’t simply write about it like I would write about travelling to any other city: It is the city of my childhood and of my memories. It is the city where I have never really belonged and will never be able to entirely leave. I love Johannesburg.

This isn’t a sentiment that is shared by many others. Although Johannesburg is the first stop in South Africa for most international tourists, a large number simply pass it by. Their reasons are simple; it’s not a pretty city, and it’s not an easy place to visit. There’s no real centre, walking places isn’t really an option, and there are endless warnings about crime. Yet, with a bit of effort, you can burrow beneath the gritty exterior of Johannesburg and discover an integral piece of South Africa that so many people miss.

We stay in Sandton, Africa’s economic capital, where people live now in compounds and Alexandra, Johannesburg’s most notorious township, is just down the road from multinational corporations’ offices and designer boutiques. We find cafes and shopping centres and wander through Sandton City with its glossy shops and restaurants.

Heading north towards Pretoria we find ourselves driving past tree-lined suburbs, with villas tucked into the hills in a way that’s surprisingly reminiscent of Tuscany. The sense of Italy increases when we visit Montecasino and find ourselves standing in an indoor village that could almost be Verona. Slot machines and gaming tables are just along a cobbled road and the flashing lights add to the surreal surroundings. A night staying at the African Pride Hotel in Melrose Arch completes our peek into the glitzy side of Jozi.

Venturing out of the Northern suburbs, we bypass the botanical gardens and Emmarentia dam where I remember playing as a child. Instead, we visit Neighbourgoods Market, discovering an overwhelming array of cheeses, breads and spreads, with a seemingly endless supply of options for lunch, from paella and crepes to oysters and champagne. Not far away is the new urban precinct of Maboneng, an early effort to revitalise the inner-city with art, food and entertainment.

Just a little further south is Gold Reef City, an amusement park themed around Johannesburg’s Gold Rush and, our destination, the Apartheid Museum, a new addition since I left the country. The Apartheid Museum is cool and quiet, and I appreciate my time there. I find the stillness respectful and I value being able to share some of my country’s history with my husband, giving him an opportunity to understand a little of the struggles of so many South Africans.

I remember other places we have been, where we have shared a little of the horrors of those countries’ pasts, and I find myself thinking how the pain of a people is truly precious. To come to South Africa and not learn about its heritage is to miss out on part of its soul.

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