Our Joburg Insider tour

Friday morning, February 26
The most interesting site from the tallest building in Africa, for my money, are the saffron-yellow hillsides visible in so many directions. They’re just a mile or two from downtown Johannesburg, which is where the tallest building, the Carlton Center, is located. But they’re not really hills but rather the tailings from the gold mines that put this city on the map 125 years ago or so. Danie Pretorius, the private guide we’d hired to show us around on our first afternoon in South Africa, says the government has ordained that the mine remains be restored to a natural appearance by 2012. He added that modern technology now allows for enough gold and uranium to be extracted from this one-time refuse so that the proceeds will pay for the restoration. But for the moment, they remain an exotic reminder of Joburg’s lustrous underpinnings.

When I first heard that Danie was going to take us to the top of the tallest building in Africa, I wondered if it was a good use of our time. When our plane had landed at 8:40 a.m., low-lying rain clouds were drenching the city. But the rain eased up by the time we met Danie. He drove us in his Suburu downtown, and we quickly realized what a good choice that was. Back in the 1980s, the center of Joburg was a cosmopolitan cluster of highrises from which the richest city in the richest country in Africa conducted business. According to Danie, you could walk anywhere, even after dark, and be free from crime or fear of it. But after apartheid ended in 1993, the area became the epicenter of the shocking criminal violence that exploded when Zulus and Xhosas battled for control of the new political regime. Brutal murders, terrorist bombings, and other atrocities quickly drove the corporations to flee to the suburbs. And even though the intertribal warfare has ended, the buildings for the most part remain vacant.

This is all Danie’s version of events, of course. But when we parked in the Carlton Center (in a handicapped space, for which Danie tipped the parking attendant), the scene there seemed to confirm his words. Shoppers, almost universally black, strolled around a bustling street-level shopping mall, but when we took an elevator to the observation deck on the 50th level, it was shockingly empty, except for us and one other pair of white tourists (and their guide). In every direction, Danie pointed out landmark buildings that had failed to find replacement tenants.

Despite that, the cityscape, viewed both from above and from ground level when we returned to our car and drove around, surprised me. It was shabby and filled with black people, but it reminded me much more of Detroit or Cincinnati than Cairo or Shanghai. Danie pointed out the enclaves, such as the neighborhood next to the university, that he didn’t feel safe entering at any time. Once it was a trendy student center, but now it’s a haven for violent and drug-dealing Nigerians. But for the most part, presuming one acted sensibly, visitors were fine there, he assured us.

Danie’s a white guy, I should mention, probably in his late 50s. His great, great, great-grandfather, Henries Pretorius, was one of the founding fathers of South Africa — the man after whom the capital, Pretoria, was named. Henries’s descendants became farmers and Danie continued that tradition (growing corn, raising some cattle and chickens, and dabbling in other crops) until the new South African government decided that he and some of his neighboring farmers needed to sell their land. They fought this edict in court for 9 years, but finally lost, and they received about 40-45% of the fair-market value (as Danie reckoned it). Yet he seemed appreciative things hadn’t turned out worse, as they had for the farmers in neighboring Zimbabwe (whose land was simply stolen outright). Searching for a new career, he’d trained for certification as a tour guide, and has run a tour business in the seven years since.

Given that history, Steve and I were fascinated by his empathy for what black South Africans had endured under apartheid and his optimism about the country’s future. (He thinks once Mugabe leaves power in Zimbabwe and things improve there, most of the Zimbabwean refugees who are so straining South Africa’s social networks will leave and South Africa will prosper, as it helps to rebuild its neighbors.) He seemed relaxed and full of good will as he took us into Soweto, the black township of more than 3 million people that was the flashpoint that eventually brought about the end of apartheid. But he also readily recalled his reaction back in 1976 when the South African police opened fire on a crowd of schoolchildren there, killing dozens of them. Far off in the countryside, he and even his black farmworkers (or so he claimed) assumed the kids were criminals. They thought the police should have been even tougher, Danie said.

Head-spinning stories like this seem part of the warp and woof of this country. And they only intensified after we left Joburg the next morning, picked up our tiny Tata rental car at the airport, and drove out to the bush camp where we’re now esconsced.

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