Best Places in Johannesburg to Learn the Shocking History of Apartheid

Johannesburg 1Informally known as “The City of Gold”, Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa that bears the harsh reality of life under Apartheid from 1948 until the early 1990s. The word apartheid literally means “segregation”, is a system of institutionalized racial segregation that existed in South and Southwest Africa (Today’s Namibia Republic) to secure the white domination of politics, society, and economics. In fact, the minority of the population was white. Accordingly to the system, white citizens, however, enjoyed the highest status, followed by Asians and Coloreds, then black Africans. The policy was successfully abolished between 1990 to 1994, and today apartheid (while still has its impact now) is a crime protected by international law against humanity.

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It was a tragic time when millions of people were forced to relocate due to the government’s resettlement or slum clearance programs. People included, but were not limited to, inhabitants who were laborers on farms owned by white people, whose families lived in townships close to the homelands, and the excessive population in urban areas. One of the most large-scale forced removals happened in the 1950s in Johannesburg, when 60,000 people had to uproot their lives and move to Soweto.

Johannesburg – the First Impression

I have heard about the term “Apartheid” as a kid, but I didn’t know much about the concept and what people had suffered by then. It sounded like some stories that happened a long long time ago; and in fact, it was quite recent. Before we headed out to Cape Town and Kruger, we landed in Johannesburg and had a day or two to settle down. I didn’t know much to see and do in this densely populated metropolis. Johannesburg is a young and sprawling city without a major body of water. The grids of streets in the downtown spread out like a complex and tangled web, lacking a convenient public transportation system.

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For a tourist, it is quite difficult to get around freely in Johannesburg due to its immense city size and complexity. Attractions are not packed in certain districts of the city center, and it could be complicated (and time-consuming) to take a bus or train to move from one point to the other. Besides, cycling and walking (especially at night) are not considered safe choices. Minibus taxis may try to speed past traffic jams using the cycle lanes, making cycling in the city quite dangerous. Walking alone downtown is not recommended, and even if you do, keep valuable items out of sight. Metered taxis are available throughout the city (and can be flagged down), and it’s possible to rent a car if you really want to have absolute freedom moving around town (and you could use the same car if you made plans to Kruger, but we flew there from Cape Town). The easiest way for a short-term stay in Johannesburg, in summary, is probably hiring a driver; and that’s what we did; it makes the travel more convenient having a local on the way to remind you all the dos and don’ts.

Mandela House 5Johannesburg was not the most populated city in Africa (it placed fifth after Lagos in Nigeria, Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Cairo/Giza in Egypt), yet it’s the wealthiest city on the entire continent. Compared to Cairo in Egypt (where I have also visited), Johannesburg certainly looked more modernized with straight roads, skyscrapers, and infrastructures. Among these developments, I could still see a hint of chaos like in any developing country in the world. I didn’t stay a long time in Johannesburg, so I couldn’t actually write an in-depth travel guide – and so in this post, I am going to focus on places that give you a sense of what Apartheid was like. Then, I will write about another UNESCO Heritage Site on the outskirts of the city, which had some very interesting finds of primate fossils, called the Cradle of Humankind.

Mandela House

Mandela House 6It is almost impossible not mentioning this important figure, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918 – 2013), in South Africa: “He was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, political leader, and philanthropist who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the first country’s black head of state and the first elected in a fully representative democratic election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid by tackling institutionalized racism and fostering racial reconciliation”. 

He was arrested multiple times and faced many trials associated with his revolutionary activities for decades. He and his family endured an immense amount of physical and emotional torment from the opposition, while some of them lost their lives. Mandela received numerous honors in his life, including the Nobel Peace Prize; and he is often referred to as the “Father of the Nation”. Head to Mandela’s former home in Soweto where you may have a glimpse of how the entire campaign started. 

The Mandela House, or the Nelson Mandela National Museum, is located at 8115 Vilakazi Street, Orlando West, Soweto. It is the residence of Mandela from 1946 to 1962, which showcases photographs, facts, and Mandela’s citings about Mandela’s life and his revolution. Mandela moved here in 1946 with his first wife, Evelyn Ntoko Mase, and his first son. They divorced in 1957, and in 1958 he was joined in the house by his second wife, Nomzamo Winifred Madikizela (Winnie). Nelson Mandela was to spend little time here in the ensuing years, as his role in struggle activities became all-consuming and he was forced underground, living a life on the run until his arrest and imprisonment in 1962, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964. 

Mandela House 3

Nelson Mandela returned to 8115 for a brief 11 days after his release from Robben Island in 1990. He then moved in with his wife in Beverly Hills, Soweto, before finally moving to his present house in Houghton. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, herself harassed by the security forces and imprisoned numerous times, lived in the house with her daughters until her own exile to Brandfort in 1977, where she remained under house arrest until 1986. The family continued to occupy the house until after Mandela was released from prison. The house was subsequently turned into a museum, with Nelson Mandela as a founder Trustee of the controlling body, the Soweto Heritage Trust.

Mandela House 4The house was eventually donated to the state in 1997, with a mission to provide an effective, efficient and meaningful experience to all visitors, informing them of Mandela’s story, both in the context of his home and in the context of his life as a whole, in a manner that promotes human rights, democracy, reconciliation, mutual respect and tolerance amongst the people of South Africa. 

Each visitor’s ticket to the museum has randomly classified as either “white” or “non-white”

“That night, I returned with Winnie to No. 8115 in Orlando West. It was only then that I knew in my heart that I had left prison. For me, No. 8115 was the center point of my world, the place marked with an X in my mental geography.” – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, on his return to 8115 Orlando West after his release from 27 years of imprisonment on 11 February 1990.


Soweto 7Soweto is an abbreviation of “South Western Townships”. It was formerly a separate municipality and it is now incorporated into the City of Johannesburg and is a frequently visited location by tourists to revisit the Apartheid’s past. However, the road to incorporation was not easy. The district still remained unsafe with the operation of a right-wing extremist terrorist group, Boeremag, while there was a bombing attack that damaged buildings and train lines in 2002. Apart from the Mandela house, the Hector Pieterson Museum is 2 blocks away which honors Hector Pieterson, who was shot and killed in 1976 amidst the anti-Apartheid Soweto Upspring. 

Soweto is also credited as one of the founding places for Kwaito and Kasi Rap – a South African style hip hop music genre. Walk along Vilakazi Street as it is now filled with souvenir shops, local grocery stores, restaurants, and street arts – at the beginning of the street are eight giant hands spelling “Vilakazi” in sign language.

Soweto 5 Street Art

Soweto 8 Orland Power Station ChimneysAnother iconic landmark in Soweto is the former Orlando Power Station’s painted chimneys that could be seen from afar from anywhere in the district. Today, the two towers are known as the Soweto Towers and they are vibrantly painted and transformed into both advertising billboards and entertainment spots. The towers are used for bungee and BASE jumping from a platform between the top of the two towers. If you are to visit the two towers now, I believe they would have painted something different on the chimneys already. 

Soweto 5 Hector Pieterson Memorial

Mbuyisa Makhubu scooped up the body of Hector Pieterson / Hector’s sister, Antoinette, ran alongside. Photographer Sam Nzima captured the moment, and his images communicated Soweto’s anguish in newspapers across the world. Mbuyisa, who fled the country never to return, and Hector, became icons of the uprising of June 16.

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The racially segregated entrance to the museum

Apartheid Museum

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Mandela’s Commemorative banner at the museum’s entrance

To have a full picture of the entire history of Apartheid, the Apartheid Museum is the best place to be. It is also a unique attraction in Johannesburg because it is definitely one of its kind in the world. Part of the exhibition does not allow photography and some pictures were simply too gruesome to be recaptured out of respect. The museum journey began with an explanation of how segregation started – by the end of First World War I. South Africa faced an urban crisis at that time when thousands of black and white immigrants flooded the towns. This created a desperate housing shortage. Tens of Thousands of poor moved into Johannesburg’s inner-city slums.

Soweto 6 Hector Pieterson MemorialLand Act reserved roughly 8% of South Africa’s territory for Africans and 92% for whites. Africans were not permitted to own land outside of these reserves and some designated land on the borders of reserves was later opened up to them. This eventually raised their share to 13%. Whites were not permitted to buy land in African reserves. The Land Act was the foundation of territorial segregation. From 1913 to the year 1920, both strikes and Spanish influenza hit the city. The epidemic resulted in 150,000 deaths, and the White public united in a moral panic blaming the slums for promoting miscegenation, militancy, and disease. 

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Panorama at the top of the museum where you may see the modern Johannesburg skyline

It was later concluded that racial mixing and miscegenation in the slums were the fundamental sources of model degeneration. The commission recommended that Africans should only be allowed to remain in the towns so long as “they ministered to the white man’s needs”. In the early 1930s, the Depression hit again and tore the city apart. 

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The entrance: Taxi rank signs that were used during the Apartheid

The Act of Union united whites in South Africa, while simultaneously denying most Africans the vote and other rights. The South African Native National Congress (SANNC), later renamed the African National Congress (ANC), was formed in 1912 to unite Africans to secure the vote and defend their rights. The ANC was overshadowed in the 1920s by the more radical Industrial and Commercial Worker’s Union (ICU), the first mass black political organization in South Africa. The ANC believed that violent resistance to white domination had failed in the past and would fail in the future. It was also convinced that black disunity had weakened their struggle to defend African rights to land.

The Apartheid exhibition examined both social and political forces that gave birth to apartheid and those who resisted this process. The most heart-sinking part of the exhibition was the photo showcase of the daily under the apartheid laws when violence was received against those resisting it. The violence, to me, was not only limited to physical abuse (and under apartheid’s various terrorism laws, 131 government opponents were executed, some of them were even tortured to death) – it was also the violation of human rights, moving people to massive controlled townships and separating them from white towns. The rigid racial separation and firm social control are clearly not the universal values that we strive to achieve, and it was hard to take when I knew there were so many people suffering from it. It has been a long road for the country to fight for what they believed was right, and until reformation was put in place to abolish the policy.


The Journey Exhibit: Johannesburg immigrant’s descendant

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At the entrance and the exit of the museum, three huge words were shown on the word, and truly it’s the key takeaway of my visit: “Equality. Responsibility. Democracy.” I do hope it inspires the people, who are still fighting for their rights, to stand up and be strong.

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