Fast-paced, frenetic JOHANNESBURG has had a reputation for immorality, greed and violence ever since its first plot auction in December 1886. Despite its status as the largest and richest city in the country, it has never been the seat of government or national political power, allowing it to concentrate fully on what it has always done best: make money and get ahead. Those priorities have, over the years, cut across political and racial lines: only in Jo'burg would ambitious black Africans like Nelson Mandela have been able to train in a white law firm; only in Jo'burg would creative hotspots like Sophiatown and Alexandra exist at all; and only in Jo'burg would white liberalism have been given any intellectual recognition in the dark days of apartheid.
Even so, the divisions of the old South Africa are as apparent here as anywhere else. Ridiculously opulent white mansions in leafy suburbs are protected by high walls and razor wire, only a mile or two from sprawling shanty towns housing millions of intensely poor blacks. As the new political dispensation sees formerly white areas administratively yoked with the black townships, so the city struggles to cope with massive pressures on housing, services and law and order. Nowhere is the new tension more in evidence than in the previously all-white central business district, where an influx of poor blacks, and a soaring crime rate, has caused a mass exodus of shops and restaurants to the northern suburbs.
As the centre readjusts, so the fringes expand: there will be a continuous ribbon of development between Johannesburg and Pretoria, originally 50km apart, within a decade. Meanwhile, the black middle class, much more evident in Johannesburg than anywhere else in South Africa, is moving from township to suburb, while tens of thousands of immigrants from elsewhere in Africa flood into inner-city suburbs like Hillbrow and townships like Alexandra.
There are very few conventional tourist sights in Johannesburg, and some visitors fall into the trap of retreating to their hotel room, too intimidated by the city's reputation to explore, venturing out only to the bland, safe, covered shopping malls of the northern suburbs while making hasty plans to move on. However, once you've found a convenient way of getting around, either by car or in the company of a tour guide, the history, diversity and stimulating energy of the city can quickly become compelling. Johannesburg offers fascinating museums , most notably the Museum Africa in Newtown, as well as excellent art galleries. A number of suburbs have a thriving café culture , which by the evening transforms to a lively restaurant scene. There are shops with excellent contemporary African art and design, striking buildings, and of course the townships , most easily explored on a tour but, in some places, somewhere you can get to under your own steam. Johannesburg is also a great place to watch sport : Ellis Park was the scene of South Africa's emotional victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the IAAF World Cup was held at the neighbouring athletics stadium in 1999, and the massive FNB soccer stadium on the edge of Soweto, which fills to capacity for local derbies or international fixtures, remains the principal venue for the country's most popular sport.
Johannesburg is large, sprawling and poorly planned, with few conventional sights and a bewildering number of districts. The central business district (CBD) is the Manhattan of Africa with tall crowded office blocks crowded together and
Johannesburg is large, sprawling and poorly planned, with few conventional sights and a bewildering number of districts. The central business district (CBD) is the Manhattan of Africa with tall crowded office blocks crowded together and lively street life. Nearby, the Newtown Cultural Precinct is the place to head for jazz bars, theatre and the highly informative Museum Africa. The inner-city districts of Berea and Hillbrow are packed with migrants from all over the continent, and are generally no-go areas for visitors. This label is now also being given to Yeoville , once the city's trendiest and most integrated suburb.
The city's seemingly endless northern suburbs , the preserve of white, middle-class Johannesburg, dominate the northern half of the city. Despite the lack of real sights, they do offer a few pleasant surprises, notably Parktown , the original home of Johannesburg's richest residents, leafy Melville , with its trendy street cafés and lively nightlife, and Rosebank , an easy-going suburb with some decent galleries and craft markets. The archetypal northern suburb is opulent Sandton , full of brand new offices and mind-boggling shopping malls. Strangely enough, only the highway separates Sandton from one of Jo'burg's poorest areas, the vibrant but risky Alexandra township. Southwest of the centre lies the city's most famous township, Soweto , the single most popular tourist destination in Johannesburg, with its evocative memories of the struggle against apartheid and poor but lively neighbourhoods.
Central Business District
Johannesburg's central business district , the grid of streets and tightly packed skyscrapers just to the south of the Witwatersrand ridge, is the most recognizable and feared part of the city. From the time of the first mining camp, located on what is today Commissioner Street, and for nearly a century, it was the core of Jo'burg's buzzy commercial and financial life. Then, in the 1980s and 90s it became riddled with crime, precipitating a mass evacuation by businesses, shoppers, restaurants and tourists. When the Jo'burg Stock Exchange moved out in 1999 in favour of safe, opulent Sandton, the city centre was all but written off. However, determined efforts over the last few years to clean up the streets, make them safe, and reopen some of the neglected buildings have been surprisingly successful. With upgrading now going on precinct by precinct, and yellow-bibbed "city ambassadors" a common sight on street corners, many parts of the CBD are now not only safe, but they are drawing businesses and tourists back. Though the prospect would still horrify most white Jo'burgers, a visit to the CBD offers a rare chance to get a feel for the real Jo'burg. Refreshingly multiracial, the mix of office workers, shoppers and street traders probably comes closer to reflecting the overall demographic mix of white, black and coloured South Africa than anywhere else in the country. Here you can see people going about their everyday business, observe buildings and institutions with a fascinating history, and get a taste for the bustle, sounds and thrill of a genuinely African city.
If you're coming into the city centre by car, park either in the Carlton Centre or underneath Gandhi Square. Scheduled city buses from the northern suburbs terminate at Gandhi Square, while the City Slicker tour bus comes right into the city, stopping at the Carlton Centre and Newtown. Another good way to see the city centre is to see it in the company of a guide : Dumela Africa (tel 083 659 9928, ) offers expert and interesting walking tours of the downtown area as well as Jo'burg as a whole
South of the CBD
The suburbs immediately south of the city centre were traditionally the preserve of the white working class, but since the repeal of the Group Areas Act in 1990, blacks have started moving in; unusually in contemporary South Africa, many are wealthier than the original residents. Aside from Gold Reef City , the only attraction of this area is the sizeable Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve, just south of the N12, in Winchester Hills. Few Jo'burgers know about this undeveloped, unspoilt parkland, which provides wonderful views of the city to the north. To get there, take the N1 heading south, turn left into Columbine Avenue (M68), and then right a kilometre or two further, at Ormonde Street. .
Amongst the oldest of the city's suburbs, and home for years to Johannesburg's Jewish and Portuguese communities, the suburbs of Kensington and Bezuidenhout Valley (better known as Bez Valley), immediately east of the CBD, have also changed dramatically in recent years, with whites moving out of much of the old housing to make way for township and immigrant blacks. Exuding a very different flavour, Cyrildene , to the east of Observatory, has become the city's new Chinatown, with a fascinating collection of Chinese supermarkets, businesses and authentic restaurants along Derrick Avenue near its junction with Marcia Street.
Most visitors to this area, however, come to Bruma Lake , an artificial stretch of water which has proved a disappointing attraction save for its popular and lively Flea Market (Tues-Sun 9am-5pm), one of the best places in Johannesburg to find inexpensive curios, as long as you don't mind pseudo-traditional dance troupes entertaining you while you browse. Nearby is one of central Johannesburg's more accessible green spaces, Gillooly's Farm , a park set around a dam and a safe place for walkers, joggers and picnickers.
Grouped around the CBD are various suburbs which, with Johannesburg's itinerant population and fast-changing demography, seem to be in a state of constant change. Some, particularly Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville , were once the "grey areas" of Johannesburg, where apartheid first started to break down in the Eighties. The police turned a blind eye as large numbers of blacks started moving into these previously all-white areas from the townships. Today, most whites have left, and migrants from all over the continent, but especially Nigeria and the Congo Republic, have flooded in. All three suburbs have their moments of architectural excellence, though their hectic street life and fearsome reputation will probably leave you disinclined to savour them at leisure.
Safe, prosperous and packed with shops and restaurants, the northern suburbs seem a world apart from the CBD and its surrounds. The name is actually a catch-all term for the seemingly endless urban sprawl running over 30km from Parktown, beyond the N1 ring-road and into an area known as Mid Rand which is itself creeping toward the southern edge of Pretoria. With the notable exception of Alexandra, this is a moneyed area, where plush shopping malls and well-tended parks are often the only communal meeting points, and most streets have a fortress-like appearance with high walls, iron gates and barbed wire used by the majority of home-owners to advertise how security-conscious a life they lead. Despite the often numbing sheen of affluence, however, interesting pockets do exist, such as the centres of the suburbs of Melville, Rosebank and Parkhurst. As most of the suburbs are close to major arterial roads, they're best explored by car.
South Africa's most famous township, SOWETO (short for South West Townships) is a place of extreme contrasts. The area has the only street in the world where two Nobel Peace Prize winners once lived, yet suffers one of the highest rates of murder and rape in the world; it is the richest township in South Africa, but has some of the most desperate poverty; it is the most political township, yet has the most nihilistic youth.
Soweto is huge, stretching as far as the eye can see, with estimates of its population ranging between three and four million. Like any city of that size, it is divided into a number of different suburbs , with palpably middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods among them. At first sight, it appears an endless jumble of houses and shacks, overshadowed by palls of smoke. Once inside, parts of it have a villagey feel, especially if you are exploring on foot, and unlike anywhere else in Jo'burg, Sowetans will often stop to greet you or to chat, regardless of your colour.
Most of Soweto's tourist highlights are famous for historical reasons and are physically unimpressive. That history, however, is enthralling, not least because here it is told with a perspective and context rarely found in the rest of South Africa. For visitors it means an insight not just into a place famous from 1980s news bulletins for funerals and fighting, but into a way of life most Westerners have rarely, if ever, encountered.
A visit to Soweto with one of the many tours is the single most popular attraction in Johannesburg. Where once these had a whiff of daring and originality, a well-trodden tourist trail has developed, and unless you're content to follow the herds of minibuses and coaches around the conventional sights, it's well worth using an operator who mixes the highlights with lesser-known sights. And where once taking yourself to Soweto would have meant a display of bravado bordering on foolhardiness, it's now possible to drive there, though you'll need good navigational skills (the lack of obvious landmarks amidst the mile upon mile of bungalows can be highly confusing), and to stick to the main sights - exploring less-visited areas by yourself, or going after dark, isn't recommended for safety reasons. However, your time will be your own, and you'll be able to check out the growing number of bars and eating places catering to tourists.
Taking a minibus taxi to Soweto is more confusing than dangerous, as it isn't always easy to ascertain which part of the township it's heading for, for which reason it's not recommended. The best place to pick up information about visiting on your own is from the new Soweto Tourism Centre at 49 Madlala St in Orlando East (Mon-Fri 8.30am-4.30pm; tel 011 938 4929), located very close to Soweto's one distinctive landmark, the huge cooling towers of a former electricity plant.