Johannesburg South Africa
Johannesburg: South Africa's City of Gold but one with limited cultural riches (Wiki Comms)

Although economically Johannesburg may be the most important city in South Africa, I can't say that it has either the charm or beauty of Cape Town.

Flying in for the weekend from the Mother City, you pass through scenery that morphs from green, fertile plains and soaring mountains to dramatic stretches of red desert.

As you near your journey's end, however, the landscape is transformed into the mud-coloured Highveld of winter, scarred by mine workings, pools of toxic chemicals and slag heaps - the unprepossessing byproducts of an industry that has produced a huge 35% of the world's gold.

Mining in all its forms still accounts for nearly 20% of the entire South African economy.

Nonetheless, the City of Gold prides itself on its "urban forest" of six million trees on its parks, pavements and gardens.

But because the indigenous trees of Highveld savannahs don't grow more than about six metres and their thorns have a habit of puncturing car tyres and piercing pedestrians, most Joburg trees are foreign imports - oaks brought by the first Afrikaner farmers from the Cape in the 1830s and 1840s; Australian blue gums planted during the Gold Rush to serve as pit props; as well as the planes and jacaranda trees beloved of colonial settlers.

For the average expat/middle-class city dweller, the northern suburbs appear to be where it's at. Green, leafy and pleasant, they're basically residential areas with uniform, soulless shopping malls dotted around in between - all very American.

It reminds me most of Los Angeles - a downtown you wouldn't walk around at night and suburbs acting like separate towns and villages.

Soap operas and theme parks

One of the pluses though of Jozi, as it's known locally, is that it's among the few South African cities that has suburbs with a bit of street life in the form of pavement cafes and restaurants - and I include Melville in that esteemed list.

Melville is a veritable mecca for fans, such as myself, of cult Afrikaans soap opera, 7 de Laan, which my Beloved was kind enough to whisk me off to as a secret treat.

Seventh Street and its multifarious shops, restaurants and bars have the five-day-a-week honour of being featured on the show's opening visuals. It's apparently a favourite hang-out of students from the universities of Johannesburg and Witwatersrand.

Another interesting little trip was to Gold Reef City in the southern suburbs, essentially a theme park based on the 1886 gold rush in the Witwatersrand hills surrounding Joburg.

Although the shafts originally went down for about more than 7,700 feet, we only ventured as far as 700 - quite enough for me.

While the site itself was sanitised, life working in a gold mine patently isn't. Of all of the different kind of mining, gold is by far the most dangerous, not least because the depths at which people have to work make rock falls much more common.

Even if they survive, the silica dust produced by drilling can lead to silicosis, a lethal lung disease.


Every six tonnes of rock blasted out of the earth produce only one measly ounce of gold. The cream-coloured slag or mine dumps are dotted around the less affluent southern suburbs of Johannesburg, including just outside Soweto.

Soweto, or South West Townships was an almost obligatory trip for us. Once a symbol of apartheid oppression and the heart of the "struggle", the vast township comprises quite distinct areas.

Much of it is made up of the old apartheid era "matchbox" houses, four-room units built to provide cheap accommodation for black workers.

Other neighbourhoods are made up of the decrepit, corrugated iron shacks of the informal settlements. Yet others comprise the homes of the prosperous and growing black middle class.

Local specialities

Winnie Mandela still lives in a huge mansion built for herself and Nelson before their divorce in the well-heeled Soweto suburb of Orlando West. We saw her being driven away in her flashy black Audi.

Somewhat more modest in stature, however, is the house of retired Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu. Located on lively Vilakazi Street, it is just down the road from Nelson Mandela's old home, now a museum, and just up the road from the Sakhumzi Restaurant, a tour-guide's favourite where we finished off our trip with local delicacies of mutton stew and tripe, white "mealie pap" or maize meal porridge and samp and beans (crushed corn kernels and sugar beans).

Life is always about the small pleasures, no matter where you find yourself.


My South African Adventure: Paarl, The Town Where Nelson Mandela Walked to Freedom when Apartheid Died [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: The Legacy of the San Hunter-Gatherers [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Lynedoch Eco-village Rolls Back Pain of Apartheid [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: How Living Abroad Brings out Green, Green Grass of Home [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Book Club Blues [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Having a Whale of a Time in the Freezing Cape [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: How to Beat the Cape's Wild Winter Weather [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: 23 Years after Apartheid, Townships Still Mired in Poverty [BLOG]

My South African Adventure: Missing the Charm of the English Pub [BLOG]

Cath Everett is a resting journalist who has written about business, technology and HR issues for over 20 years. She recently moved from the UK to South Africa with her husband