A Tale Of Two Cities

Cape Town and Johannesburg offer visitors different looks at South African culture, food and local flavor

November 05, 2006|By Stephanie Hanes | Stephanie Hanes,[Special to the Sun ]

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA // When my husband and I moved to the heart of South Africa from Baltimore, we were terrified.

We had heard stories about big, bad, scary Johannesburg and kept our eyes peeled for attackers with AK-47s. We locked and double locked our doors. We lived behind a security wall and kept our electric fence on.

We had come to post-apartheid South Africa for my husband's work as a foreign correspondent for The Sun and accepted that living in Johannesburg was part of the deal.

But for visitors, we passed along the advice of our newly purchased guidebooks: Fly into Johannesburg if you must, but get to your safari as soon as possible. The city to see in South Africa is on the other side of the country: Cape Town.

When we finally started venturing out, peeling off the fear layer by layer, we found a different Johannesburg.

Despite a high crime rate, the city was full of life, a buzzing place that residents boasted was the "New York of Africa." It had the boomtown energy of deals to be made and opportunities to be seized -- even in the poorest areas. There were sidewalk cafes crammed with people morning to night, music clubs jamming with Rainbow Nation crowds and galleries that were edgy but true to African roots. Yes, there were parts of Johannesburg that were unsafe, but most areas gave off an upbeat vibe.

When my mother came to visit, she declared this one of her favorite international cities. Then she said something shocking.

"Johannesburg," she said, "is much better than Cape Town."

I'm not sure I would go that far, but I see her point.

Over the past year and a half, we have explored Johannesburg and Cape Town, cities that have become regular points of entry for the growing number of travelers to southern Africa. Johannesburg is fast-paced, edgy, capitalistic; in many ways still the gold rush city it was at its founding in 1886. Cape Town is beautiful, historic, relaxed -- a place for celebrities and surfers, night clubbers and hikers, a spot where Africa has mixed with the rest of the world for centuries.

They are as different as two major cities can be. But they do have something in common: Both cities are often misunderstood.

Johannesburg is much more than a place to fly in and out of, bulletproof vest in tow. Cape Town is more than a collection of shiny tourist spots. Both are cities to live, to visit, to enjoy. Together, they offer different, but equally delicious slices of today's South Africa.


It is a Tuesday in July and the Parkhurst neighborhood is buzzing. The restaurant tables spilling onto the sidewalk are filled, giving the place the feel of a never-ending weekend. Women in sunglasses and men in hipster jackets sip cappuccinos as the obligatory little dog perches under a chair.

"What do people in Johannesburg do for fun?" my mother asked the first time she visited us.

I thought for a moment. "They eat," I said.

There are tourist destinations in the city for sure. A visit to Soweto, the sprawling township southwest of downtown, is a must. So is the Apartheid Museum, a well-done, if text-heavy, look at this country's history of racial oppression. Constitution Hill, once the site of a notorious prison and now home to the country's top court, is also worth a stop.

But the best advice for visiting Johannesburg is to do as the local residents do: Sit at a cafe, walk through a neighborhood, browse through boutiques.

It is not that Johannesburg is a frivolous city. This metropolis of 6 million is the financial heart of South Africa, and increasingly the business center for the entire continent. It has a rawness, which comes in part from decades of racial struggle. During apartheid, the northern sections of the city were almost entirely white, although even modest houses had "staff quarters" for black maids and gardeners. Other blacks were forced to live in the townships.

To a large extent, this divide still exists. There are townships and squatter camps whose residents are almost entirely black. Whites, who make up 10 percent of South Africa's population, still live primarily in the "northern suburbs," the city neighborhoods north of downtown. In these leafy enclaves, it's still common to see black nannies, housekeepers and gardeners working outside the large, gated homes.

But there is also a rapidly growing black middle class in Johannesburg, and these "upwardly mobiles" are increasingly living in those big houses behind the security walls. Shopping malls and parks draw integrated crowds, as do many of the city's restaurants and bars. In some trendy areas, the racial mixing is far better than it is in Baltimore.

Cafes, in particular, seem a universal, citywide destination.

There are the Soweto restaurants with outdoor seating, where patrons sip beer and eat lamb stew while the crowds walk by on dusty, red streets. My favorite is Sakhumzi on Vilakazi Street -- a road famous for being home to Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.

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