October 8-10, 2008

It’s Monday, October 13.  Pnina and I are in Nelspruit, a town that serves as a gateway to Kruger National Park.  We just spent a day inside the park on a guided tour, driving around and looking at animals.  We’re about to go back into the park for two more days, this time on our own.  We have our tiny white Kia and, yes, we’re driving on the left side of the road.  Or, I should say, Pnina is driving on the left side of the road because she’s doing all the driving (I don’t know how to drive manual…yet).  So far she’s done pretty well.  Once in a while she flips on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal, but no harm done 🙂

Before getting into our experience in Kruger, I should go back and recap the few days we spent in Johannerburg…

Our Hosts

Here’s a photo of our hosts:

From left to right: Banolo, Bareng, Sydney, Kereng, Pnina, Shahaf, Patriciah.
Safety in Johannesburg

Joburg is pretty notorious for its high levels of crime.  The city had a Detroit-like phenomenon where rich people abandoned downtown for subburbs.  By now the buildings downtown are half empty and full of seedy people.  As our Lonely Planet guide says: “You’d be crazy to walk around central Jo’burg at night.”

As for the subburbs, people everywhere live in gated communities.  And by “gated” I mean surrounded with tall stone walls lined with barbed wire, electrical wire, or broken glass, and often attended by security guards or monitored by several cameras.  It’s a very weird feeling.

I hesitate to say this because I know my parents are reading and they’ll worry, but for the sake of posterity, here goes.  Sydney himself had a couple of near car-jackings in the relatively recent past.  When I say “near” I mean that he reached the point where a gun was pointed at him but somehow he managed to get away with his life and his car.  One of those occurrences was near the “chemist” (pharmacy) nearby.  Sydney parked the car not far from the store; a few people were sitting on a fence near the parking spot and two of them stood up to steal his car at gunpoint.  Sydney ran to the store and told everyone what just happened, and the crowd from the store ran outside to chase the carjackers away (amazing how curagious people are, and their sense of justice!).  Another occurrence was right here in Sydney’s complex.  He drove in and waited for the gate to close behind him, but before the gate was fully closed another car wedged itself in.  Sydney at first thought that this was a neighbor, and it made him cringe to think that his neighbor almost had his car damaged by the closing gate.  But of course this wasn’t a neighbor, it was a couple of guys who came to steal his car.  Sydney actually grappled with one of the guys, keeping his gun away and using him as a human shield to protect against the other guy.  Then he turned around and escaped though the gate.  There was enough noise to cause other people to see what’s going on, and the robbers took off.  I find it pretty amazing that Sydney came out of these situations.  He has remarkable poise under pressure.

At any rate, all these stories caused Pnina and I to be a little bit paranoid here in Jo’burg.  We didn’t go out at night and we didn’t wander anywhere by ourselves except in a particularly posh area called Sandton City.  I definitely felt “captive” in this city and I’m glad to head out to the broader South Africa where, from what we hear, safety is not nearly as much of an issue.  Nonetheless, I’m glad we spent time here in Jo’burg.  It was fun to be with Sydney’s family and we learned a lot about South Africa’s history.

Malls and Fast Food

In our first day here, Patriciah took us to a couple of malls.  The first was Balfour Square here in their neighborhood (Kew), a walking distance away.  The other was the aforementioned Sandton City mall, the posh one.  One of her sons, Bareng, works in an REI-like store at Sandton City called Cape Union Mart, so we stopped by to see him.  We also grabbed some food at a burger joint called Wimpy, probably named for the popeye character.

I think Patricia was looking to show us the nicer parts of Johannesburg, and frankly I _was_ pretty impressed.  Sandton City feels a little bit like Vegas.  Inside the mall you can find every luxury brand name store, and outside you see every kind of luxury car.

But if you know Pnina and I, you can probably guess how we felt about all this time spent in malls — it’s not what we had in mind when we set out on this world trip.  It was nice enough to hang out with Patriciah.  Also, it was probably a good way to ease into the trip since we were still pretty jetlagged (on the first few days we totally crashed around 3 PM).  But we were anxious to spend our time site-seeing, preferrably outdoors.

The Cradle of Mankind

On our second day (Oct 9) Sydney had the day off work so we planned to take a trip to an amusement center called Gold Reef City.  This site was highly recommended by Sydney’s sister, Lynnie; apparently it includes a tour were you descend into a mine and learn about the gold mining process.  Unfortunately the mine was closed for repairs, so we skipped it.

Plan B.  We went to an area called the Cradle of Humankind.  This area has a number of archeological sites where some of the oldest and most well-preserved fossils were found.

In particular, there’s a site called Sterkfontein Caves where one of the most important bones were found: Little Foot.  The Little Foot fossil got its name because initially only a foot was found; eventually, 95% of the body was also found.  Little Foot is 3-4 million years old!  It was discovred about 11 years ago and it’s still in the process of being excavated; moreover it’s still 80% submerged.  Why is it taking so long?  Because the rock that surrounds it is incredibly tough and the paleontologists are forced to use dentist tools, brushes and drills, to remove it.  We didn’t get to see Little Foot itself because it’s precious and us clumsy tourists are likely to damage it.  Makes sense.  But we did walk through the cave right up to the tunnel that leads to Little Foot.

The site of the Sterkfontein Caves used to be occupied by gold and limestone mines.  In the process of mining those minerals, it’s likely that many other fossils were destroyed.  However, it’s also because of mining that any bones were discovered at all.

The reason the bones here were preserved especially well is that there was a geological process whereby “stuff from above” (soil, animal carcases, etc.) periodically collapsed and dropped through the cave and became preserved below in a mineral called Dolomite.  By the way, Dolomite is named after a French mineralogist and has nothing to do with the similarly named Dolemite.

The Strekfontein Caves included a visitor’s center that had a good brief summary of life on Earth.  It goes something like this:
* The earth is 4.6 billion years old
* Oldest life on earth – 3.8 billion years ago (blue-green algea and such)
* One of the oldest multi-cell life forms: jellyfish
* Earliest human-like species: 3.5 million (not billion!) years ago, as we learn from Little Foot
* Earliest stone tools: 1.7 million years ago
* Earliest use of fire: 1 million years ago
* Earliest homo sapiens: 200,000 years ago

The Cradle of Mankind area has a bunch of other famous fossils.  First off, millions of years ago this area was submerged in water, so there are *really* old fossils of those blue-green algea.  There’s also a fossil of a human-like woman, Mrs Ples, that was discovered before Little Foot but is only around 2 million years old.  There are also some of the aforementioned stone tools and evidence of fire.

The Cradle of Mankind was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999.  At that point they started building steps and lights inside the cave, such that today it’s accessible to anyone (there were a few really old people on our tour).  Sydney remembers visiting as a schoolboy.  Back then they had to slide and scramble through the caves.  As he said: “we thought it was great fun”.

Final thought.  There’s a lake in the caves, and because of this lake we don’t actually know how big the caves are.  Years ago some scuba divers attempted to explore the watery part of caves, but one of them decided to split off, got lost, and died inside the caves.  Apparently he died of starvation sometime after his light ran out of batteries.  He was discovered two months later.  Pretty spooky way to go, right?  So now they don’t allow scuba divers anymore, or perhaps scuba divers simply choose not to repeat the mistake.  But the lake is receding, so with time more areas will be accessible.


Soweto is a “township” outside of central Johannesburg.  It was established during the Apartheid era by the ruling class as a residence for black people.  For many years people lived in pretty bad conditions in Soweto – the town didn’t get electricity until the 1980’s.  But the town also played a central role in the resistance movement.  Nelson Mandella lived there.  Desmond Tutu still lives there.  And in 1976, it was the site of student-lead protests that were the seed that eventually lead to the toppling of the Apartheid system in the late 1980’s.  By the way, South Africa didn’t have a democratic election until 1994, when Nelson Mandella became the first president.

Our Lonely Planet guide recommended doing a tour of Soweto.  Our initial reaction was that it would be weird to “drive around looking at the poor people”.  But eventually we were convinced to go after all.  As the book says: “It might seem odd, even voyeuristic, to treat these places as a tourist attraction, but to get any kind of appreciation for South African reality, you have to visit them.”  And now, having done the tour, we agree.

For the tour, Pnina and I went to the Santon Sun hotel where the bus was going to pick us up (yup, we just kept ending up in Sandton City).  The “bus” was actually a small minivan and with us we had four other people.  There were a couple of kiwis – Peter and his 11-year-old son Ethan.  And there was a german couple – Anna and Bjorn.  We started introducing ourselves and Pnina mentioned that she spent a few weeks in New Zealand and that so far it’s her favorite place.  To which Peter replied “I like you!”  🙂

With everyone in the car, we first drove to Houghton Estates, which is like the Beverly Hills of Johannesburg.  This is where Nelson Mandella now lives, and in fact we drove by his home.  The estates here are really big and the street is beautiful, but it has that same eary feeling with tall walls, electrical wire, and armed guards.

From there we drove towards Soweto.  On the way we passed by the home of the richest family in South Africa: the Oppenheimers.  I always associated Oppenheimer with “funds”, as in financial services, but apparently the Oppenheimers made their money in the diamond business.  Also, the Oppenheimers in some ways were very good to South Africa.  Oppenheimer spent money building tens of thousands of homes for black South Africans.

When we reached Soweto, Pnina and I expected to find absolute abdject poverty, the kind we both saw in parts of India.  Not to take anything away from the difficulties in Soweto, but it’s not all like that.  About 20% of Soweto residents are upper class, and when I say upper class I mean it.  Their homes were not quite as nice as the Houghton Estates, but they were damn nice.  our guide, Messi, said that these homes run 400,000 to 1 million Rand (about $40,000 to $100,000).

Interestingly enough, these homes often did not have big fences or other security mechanisms.  Messi said that there’s a very effective neighborhood watch system.  If you go anywhere, you tell your neighbors to watch your place.  If someone is caught stealing from you, the neighborhood will literally beat him to death.  In many ways, this makes Soweto a safer place than downtown Johannesburg.  Messi said that the trouble in downtown comes largely from immigrants to South Africa from other African countries, people who come looking for a quick way to get rich but then find themselves out of a job and eventually turn to crime.  This sounds like an insider’s view of the problem, but maybe it’s correct.

Messi pointed out a few specific rich people homes.  One of them, Toby, owns a lot of the land – people rent his spaces for their stores and that keeps him rich.  He has two wives.  Yup, you can have as many wives as you want in South Africa although a woman cannot marry more than one man.  More interesting is that the wives live on the other side of town in identical homes, one next to the other, and with identical cars in the driveway.  Also, their homes are purple.

We asked Messi why rich people would bother to stay in Soweto when they can afford to move to some of the nicer neighborhoods around Jo’burg.  He said that they stay because Soweto is their roots – it’s where they know and love their neighbors.  He used the term “ubuntu” to describe the warmth people have for each other in Soweto and how different it is from life in the subburbs, where people drive to work, then drive home, and rarely know their neighbors.

From there we drove to the middle class part of Soweto, which accounts for 60% of the population.  There was a distinct drop in quality of life here.  The worst of these homes are Apartheid-era “hostels” – long rows of matchbox size homes.  The better ones are small detached homes, though often they have major issues (e.g. asbestos roofs).  We got a chance to visit one of these middle class homes, a home owned by one Percy Dlodlo, a friend of Messi’s.  Again, not to take away from the difficulties in Soweto, but the home was not as bad as we expected.  For example, he had a decent size TV.

Then we drove past some of the really poor parts of Soweto.  We didn’t even stop by.  It was a real shanty town.  No electricity, no plumbing.  Really bad.

The government is now spending money to replace the poor and middle class homes with better homes.  Some people have already moved.  They hope to move the rest by 2015.  People who can afford it will pay rent.  People who can’t will only pay utilities.

Which begs the question – how do people make money?  Many different ways.  If nothing else, people set up little stalls to sell fruit or snacks or random nick-nacks (e.g. locks, sunglasses, etc.).

One thing that surprised both Pnina and I is that we didn’t see a single begger!  I asked Messi and he said that it’s part of the culture.  People simply look down on begging and every person has aspirations to try to do a little better.  That’s freaking awesome.  I told him that I’ve been in places in the world that were much better off than Soweto where I still saw a lot of beggars (Seattle included!).

We stopped by the only 4-star hotel in Soweto, a Holiday Inn.  From the outside it was an ugly gray cement structure and I was thinking to myself “4 stars, yeah right”.  But inside it was actually really nice.  The hotel was just finished recently so it doesn’t get much traffic yet, and the traffic it does get is from government officials mostly.  I can’t imagine many people in Soweto can afford it.  On the other hand, we also passed by a surprisingly swank new shopping mall and Messi said that it’s actually doing really well.

We also stopped by a cone-shaped memorial for the Freedom Charter, a 10-point charter adopted by the resistence movement in 1955 that detailed their dream for an equal-rights South Africa.  In many ways it resembles the United States Bill of Rights, but it especially repeats the parts about equality between different racial groups, and it goes as far as saying that the wealth of the state should be shared among its people.

From there we went to a church that served as a focal point for the resistance movement.  Desmond Tutu gave many sermons here.  Upstairs there was a photo exhibit that showed actual scenes from the 1976 protests – people marching, police charging with tear gas, dead students.  It also included photos showing the rise of Soweto from this grim past – black and white kids side-by-side in student radio, that sort of thing.  It was well done.

We ended the tour with a visit at the Hector Pieterson museum.  Hector was the first boy to be killed in the student-lead protests of 1976.  At age 13, he was also the youngest.  He became a symbol for the resistence so it makes sense that Soweto would dedicate its museum to this boy.  The museum was top notch and did a good job capturing the racist views of the ruling class at the time and the way the resistance movement grew.  I found it interesting that initially the black students in Soweto were actually protesting against the mandated use of Afrikaans as the language of education.  What did they prefer?  English!  Apparently Afrikaans (which is closely related to Dutch) was associated with the opressive ruling class, while English was considered a totally reasonable international language.  I also find it interesting that it was high-school kids who were responsible for rekindling the resistence initiated by Nelson Mandella and others at least 20 years earlier.

Messi, who is now 34, was just born in Soweto when these student-lead protests were happening.  He said that he doesn’t remember too much, buthe does remember one thing: his dad lost a finger!  How?  His dad’s manager at work (the “foreman”), who himself was black, told Messi’s dad to avoid the protests.  Messi’s dad refused.  As punishment, the foreman chopped his finger off with some device.  My god.  It must have been a crazy situation.  You put yourself at risk if you join the resistence, and you put yourself at risk if you don’t.

Throughout the visit, Peter turned to his son, Ethan, and said things like “how would you like to live there?” and “you’re pretty lucky, aren’t you?”.  It’s all true.  Pnina and I, we’re lucky to have been born in a stable place.
Cultural Exchange

On a lighter note…

Pnina and I tought Sydney’s family how to play one of our favorite dice games: 10,000.  OK, maybe it’s the only dice game we know.  We played a bunch of rounds.  Bomolo and Bareng won the first couple, then I went on a long winning streak.  All this makes me think of Tyler and Sarah’s World Tour of Dominos.

We also showed them the Chuck Norris Facts website and the Evolution of Dance video.  There must be something lost in translation because they just didn’t get why Pnina and I were on the floor laughing.  Which left Pnina and I in that awkward situation, like where you keep raving to your friends about some comedian, then they go and see him and return saying he sucked.  Anyhow, we tried.


5 responses to “Johannesburg

  1. Wow, you’ve barely started your journey and I already can’t wait to see all the pictures! And your story-telling is great, dude.

  2. Great entry, Shahaf. And, I think you did a good job conveying the often surreal complexity of life in South Africa. I definitely felt that, in some ways, South Africa challenged Sarah and I more than any other country. It definitely wasn’t the most difficult to get around or get through the day… but morally it’s a really different and complex place.

    Plus, the South African’s obsessions with malls (and highway rest stops, for that matter) is just bizarre. When we’d ask a South African where a good place to eat was… it was invariably the foodcourt of some mall. And, half the time the restaurant would be “American themed.”

  3. Hi, Shahaf and Pnina! Sounds like your reactions to Jo-berg were very similar to ours, with the malls, the safety issues, the security, Soweto. It did generally feel safer in other parts of the country (though our one sketchy moment of our whole trip happened in Capetown, so you still have to exercise caution there). Hope you have a great Kruger experience! Can’t wait to hear more. Wesley and Buttercup are doing great.

    PS I also don’t drive a manual and had Tyler do most the driving. The turn signal/windshield wiper is the hardest part!

  4. Dear Pnina and Shahaf, I’ve spent nearly an hour reading the stories of your travels so far and learnt a lot about Jo’burg and its surrounding areas.I’ve only spent one night there and did stay in the “posh” area of Sandton, saw nothing but Mandela Square then flew out to Tel Aviv ( in 2004). Enjoy and will read your blog again soon,lots of love, Susie

    P.S. Gary and Jo are living at my place till they find a house, they are busy with work and Jo with her final project am sure Gary will write soon. We received the DVD and CD of the wedding yesterday that Adi sent with your thank you note and the great photo of you two !!

  5. Pingback: Kibbutz Gal Ed « Honeysun

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