Gauteng (pronounced how-teng) may be a small province but it also is the economic heart of the nation. Its epicenter is Johannesburg, the country’s largest city. And what a city! Johannesburg’s old downtown area is undergoing an astonishing rebirth. Once considered a place to avoid, Jo’burg is now one of the most inspiring and happening metropolises in the world. For a change of scene, head to Pretoria. The country’s administrative capital may not be quite as dynamic as Jo’burg, but it still offers stately buildings, good museums, and beautiful jacaranda-lined streets. It’s also a short drive from here to the attractive village of Cullinan, famous for its diamond
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The densely populated city of Johannesburg is the country’s financial and commercial heartland. The city has many names, and most of them, including Egoli and Gauteng, means “place of gold”. Indeed, gold and glamour are close companions in this place, which grew from a primitive mining camp to a metropolis in a little over a century. The city pulsates with entrepreneurial energy while, at the same time, retaining the spirit of a frontier town. It lies at an altitude of 5,784 ft above sea level, but at the Western Deep gold mine, the shafts reach an astonishing 12,388 ft below ground.
This remarkable development is a living museum documenting South Africa’s turbulent past and its transition to democracy. The site incorporates the Old Fort Prison Complex, a notorious jail for more than a century where many, including Nelson Mandela, were imprisoned. South Africa’s Constitutional Court, established in 1994 after the country’s first democratic elections, now occupies the eastern side of the complex.
The darkest days of South Africa’s turbulent past are chillingly evoked at this fascinating museum. To set the mood, there are separate entrances for whites and non-whites. Documenting the triumph of the human spirit over adversity, the displays recall the National Party’s apartheid policy, which came into force in 1948 and turned 20 million non-whites into legally defined second-class citizens. Particularly powerful exhibits include a room with 131 nooses representing the number of political prisoners hanged during apartheid, BBC footage taken in 1961 of Nelson Mandela when he was in hiding from the authorities, and a series of evocative photographs taken by Ernest Cole before he was sent into exile during the late 1960s. Allow at least two hours to visit the museum, but note that it is not suitable for children under 11 because of the harrowing nature of the material on display.
Soweto is the oldest, largest, and best-known of the so-called “townships” in Gauteng. Its oldest quarter, Pimville (originally Klipspruit), was established in 1904; the suburb of Orlando sprung up in the 1930s; another settlement of 20,000 squatters took root in the 1940s, and Meadowlands was created to accommodate people evicted from Sophiatown in 1959. This cluster of settlements was formally amalgamated as “Soweto” in 1963. Several pivotal events associated with the anti-apartheid struggle took place in Soweto, most notably the drawing up of the Freedom Charter in 1955 and the student uprising of 1976. It has also been home to some of the country’s most revered figures, including Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who once lived a few houses apart on Vilakazi Street.
MANDELA HOUSE FAMILY MUSEUM
This small museum preserves 8115 Orlando West, the modest house where Nelson Mandela lived from 1948 until he was imprisoned in 1963, initially with his first wife Evelyn Ntoko Mase, then from 1958 with his second wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. It was restored in 2009 and now functions as a museum dedicated to the Mandela family.
One of Soweto’s most distinctive landmarks, the 330-ft tall twin towers were constructed as cooling towers for the coal-fired Orlando Power Station, which was established in 1935 and decommissioned in 1998. Their once-bleak concrete façade received a facelift in 2002 when they became the canvas for a colorful mural featuring local icons such as the Soweto String Quartet and Nelson Mandela. The disused towers now also double as a commercial vertical adventure facility offering activities such as bungee jumping, abseiling, and zip-lining.
The monuments and grandiose official buildings, some dating back to the 1800s, are softened by Pretoria’s many parks and gardens. Each spring, the flowers of the jacaranda trees add splashes of lilac to the streets of South Africa’s administrative capital, which is also one of the country’s foremost academic centers. The South African government has changed the name of the larger municipality to Tshwane, the Setswana name of the Apies River, but the city center itself has retained the name Pretoria.