Ever since learning I would spend 6 months in Zambia I was eager and determined to visit South Africa, a country high on my bucket list since childhood. Growing up we had close South African family friends and were frequently exposed to the quirky accents, beaded keychains and salty biltong.
I had the opportunity to visit sooner than I would have thought due to a work summit happening just outside of Johannesburg this past weekend. Along with 3 other co-workers I headed down 24 hours early to soak up as much food, shopping, and culture as possible!
We stayed at the Curiocity hostel in the trendy Maboneng precinct in downtown Johannesburg. The hostel had a very cool, urban vibe and a constant stream of interesting international characters coming in and out. Though we loved the vibe the hostel was a little TOO cool… like literally FREEZING. Our dorm room had no insulation and an ineffective space heater. Luckily I was tired enough to sleep despite the cold.
The Maboneng neighborhood is essentially one street called Fox street. It had a Brookyln vibe with tons of street art, cafes, galleries, vintage stores, bars and restaurants. In order to secure the safety of this exciting area surrounded by so much poverty and violence, the street had 24 hour security!! I’ve never heard of a street with security guards.. but needless to say after finding out about a recent murder in the area, I was happy they were around.
Neighbourgoods market: As soon as we dropped our bags at the hostel we headed to Neighbourgoods market to meet up with my friend Craig! I met Craig when he was on transfer to Bain’s Boston office (he is from Johannesburg and located here most of the time). He suggested the market, after some googling I was very much on board. Though the food in Lusaka is adequate most of the time, our options are limited. So the idea of eating so many fun, international, ‘hipster’ foods was exciting and novel.
Al Lado: We spent a while walking around Maboneng to optimize our dinner decision. There were so many restaurants to choose from! This was also Steven’s last chance to eat out before heading to Northwest Nigeria for several months so he was eager to make a good choice. We started out at a sushi restaurant that had a fairly limited menu and not too many patrons. This seems suboptimal so we walked along the street to assess our options. We know we had found the right place when we walked in to be met with velvet curtains, candles and mystery.
We ate tons of food you cannot get in Lusaka – Ceviche! Octopus! and delicious cocktails. I had a Tiki cocktail as is standard for me… it was perfect – tropical vibes but with a smokey edge that made it appropriate for our venue.
Speaking of our venue… it had this slightly edgy vampire den vibe which devolved into full out weirdness when one of the guest ‘DJs’ came on. The music consisted of – loud “oms” on repeat 10x too many times (given the religious origins this felt maybe disrespectful), the DJ walking around the restaurant with bongo drums to augment the oms, other sounds that were not music and a saxophone came out to play intermittent notes right before we left…
Eat Your Heart Out: We stopped by this Israel deli for a quick bite before heading to Constitution Hill. Our hopes had been raised regarding the quality of the bagels but I think we received bad intel… The food was yummy, the staff were wonderful, the bagels were not bagels.
Wits Art Museum: We realized that Neighbourgoods market was in close proximity to the Wits Art Gallery so we had about 20 minutes before closing to run around. The museum was small but curated in a really interesting way, centered around a few pieces that the university students had been studying.
Constitution Hill: We woke up bright and early Sunday morning to go on the first tour of the day at Constitution Hill at 9am. We knew we only had a few hours Sunday morning to learn some history so were originally torn between Constitution Hill and the Apartheid museum. We settled on Constitution Hill thanks to some recommendations and the conclusion that actually being in a place of significance is harder to recreate with books/ films later on.
I’ve learned a fair amount about apartheid in the past due to my Junior Paper (like a junior thesis) focused on the U.S. role in ultimately ending apartheid. I knew about how horrific, inhumane and blatantly unapologetic apartheid was. However, touring one of the most notorious prisons and hearing from a black South African about the racism and horrors which only ended very recently really drove it home.
Constitution Hill is the site of what used to be a notorious prison which gave rise to many gangs that still exist today, many prisoners died while incarcerated due to the horrible conditions and disease. Making this even worse is that only 20% or so of prisoners were actually criminals, most were political prisoners. Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi were both incarcerated here.
Today Constitution Hill is home to South Africa’s constitutional court which upholds the rights of all South Africans. The symbolism for the new building is incredible, but also necessary. Touring this prison and hearing about the recent history really makes me wonder and awe at how South Africa is as peaceful as it is today.