Six Things To Do in Johannesburg

City Travel, Health & Safety, Shopping & Style, South Africa, Wildlife & Animals — By on October 13, 2009 at 10:21 am

All this semester, LG intern Courtney Brooks will be sending us reports from the field in Johannesburg, South Africa. Got a question about what it’s like to live and work in Jo’burg-a city with one of the highest crime rates in the world? Send us an email at

Top six cultural things to do in Jo’Burg, in no particular order:

1. Take a Township Tour and see the Hector Pieterson memorial

I have mixed feelings about township tours, but the most important thing is to make sure you find some way to see how the majority of people in South Africa live. The only one I have been on was a free perk of a press conference I flew to Johannesburg for last year, and consisted of 25 people sitting on a bus and snapping pictures of locals and shacks in Soweto while I slunk down in my seat and tried not to look like I was at a zoo. I decided to do it both because I wanted to see what a township tour was like and because I didn’t think I would have another chance to see Soweto. A township tour run by a local will bring you to local spots such as a “shebeen” for a drink and a “braai” (the Afrikaans word for barbecue) to sample (very) local cuisine including – for the brave – a grilled sheep’s head, otherwise known as a “smiley”. Trust me, you don’t want to know why. Many tour guides will also take you to a traditional healer and their home to meet their family as well. In my opinion, the best way to see the townships is through a local friend. Second best is on a good tour with a local South African, which any guidebook will have a list of. I would definitely not suggest the kind of tour that throws you on a bus and drives you around. You won’t learn as much and, if you are like me, will probably feel like kind of a jerk.

The Hector Pieterson memorial and museum is one of the most heart-wrenching places I have ever been, but in a good way. When I go to huge museums – like the apartheid museum – all the information can sometimes just leave me feeling overwhelmed and drained. The Hector Pieterson museum, which is in Soweto, focuses solely on the township uprising of 1976 (which is now marked by National Youth Day) in which young South Africans protested against the government forcing them to speak Afrikaans in school. Police opened fire on the protesting school children and 12-year-old Hector was one of the first killed. The memorial is a beautiful representation of the spirit and bravery of the children in protecting their own culture and protesting apartheid.

2. Apartheid Museum

The Apartheid Museum is one of the most powerful museums I have ever been to. It is designed to feel like a prison, and as you enter you are given a card marked either “white” or “non-white” and walk through the corresponding door. It takes about two hours to see the whole museum. The journey includes graphic footage of protests in the townships, blown up passbooks and identity cards indicating race, nooses representing political prisoners that were hung and cages full of weapons used by security forces. At the end, just when you feel like you can’t take anymore, you walk into a quiet, peaceful space with South Africa’s new constitution in a glass case and videos of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison and inauguration as the first black president playing. It is a very intense experience, and a great education on the country’s tragic and amazing history.

3. Gold Reef City

Right next to the apartheid museum is gold reef city. The complex has an awesome amusement park and casino, but the really interesting part about the park is that it is built on an old gold mine, with the one of the ancient-looking wooden mining shafts turned into a tower of terror-esque ride, dropping you from the top below ground level down into the shaft. Joburg became what it is today because of the discovery of gold in the late 1880’s, which brought people from all over the country there in the search of riches.

4. Constitution Hill

The new Constitutional Court building was built on the site of a 100-year-old prison complex where liberation leaders, including Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, were detained. Sections of the prison were destroyed to make way for the court and other sections, such as the Old Fort and one of the more notorious sections of cells, were left intact. There is an art gallery, coffee shop and guided tours of the complex. It is a great example of something South Africa is so good at – turning a symbol of its brutal past into a place of reconciliation and justice.

5. Shop at an African market

Johannesburg has about a million African markets, ranging from tiny strips with about 10 stalls to massive markets that would take you days to get through. One of the easiest ones to get to and navigate is located in the suburbs in the Rosebank mall every Sunday, and is huge. A bonus to this one is it is in a super safe area and you don’t have to worry about not knowing the neighborhood. My favorite place to go was Newtown, located the city center. It’s best to go there with someone and early in the day, but there are very cool stands and amazing jewelry. Newtown is also a up and coming neighborhood with great restaurants, museums and shopping, and feels much more authentic than going to a market in a mall. There are other markets scattered throughout the city, some of which are open only on the weekends and others which are open everyday except Monday.

6. Joburg Zoo

I typically hate zoos. They depress me. For what it’s worth, the Joburg zoo did not depress me. I actually went there while doing a feature story on the volunteers taking care of animals during a municipal workers strike, and accidentally wandered into the rhino pit because it was 7am and I was half-asleep. So minus their tendency to leave the rhino pit gate open before opening hours, it is great. They have tons of African animals that are really well taken care of, and they have lots of rules such as that the animals have to live on grass instead of concrete and the enclosures have to be a certain size. I took the rest of the morning off after I finished reporting so I could see the whole place, and I would definitely recommend it. For the record, never go to a zoo in Cuba.

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  • SouthAfrica says:

    Nice post, good to hear about your experiences. I've also got most of them on my Johannesburg activities list.

  • courtney.carr says:

    I went to South Africa last Spring, and I definitely recommend a township tour. Bring stickers and stuff for the kids, they really enjoy that. There are a lot of tours available, and the kids enjoy the tours as well. They understand that these tours promote the awareness of their conditions. The only thing that it necessary is that we, as society, do something to help these conditions.