You can feel the excitement building in Johannesburg - or Jo'burg, or Jozi - over the 2010 world soccer championship games coming to South Africa next June. Some of those games will play out in the newly refurbished Ellis Park Stadium, where South Africa won the Rugby World Cup in 1995. As the world watches, more than 3 million Jo'burgers undoubtedly will ask themselves: Can history be repeated?
Not all of Johannesburg's history bears repeating, of course. It's a city of contradictions. Capital of the country's wealthiest province, Gauteng (place of gold), Johannesburg is the global center of the gold and diamond trades, born of the 1886 discovery in the surrounding Witwatersrand Hills by Australian prospector George Harrison. His find brought on a massive gold rush. Blacks came from across the southern half of the continent to work as laborers and, within three years, Jo'burg was the largest settlement in South Africa.
By the turn of the 20th century, the city had grown to more than 100,000, and the British colonial government began relocating blacks from the city center to the outskirts. Those outlying communities became known as Soweto - an acronym for southwest townships - and the early relocation of black miners planted the seeds of apartheid, which became South Africa's official policy in the 1950s.
So it could be puzzling when, upon entering this city built with gold, visitors to the Federation Internationale de Football Association World Cup encounter mansions guarded by high walls topped with razor wire. Jo'burg's legacy of oppression is only too apparent; it takes a while to realize that it's also a city where commerce drives the economy forward, where the fine arts thrive and families relax in more than 2,350 public parks. Some call Jo'burg an urban forest for its abundance of trees.
This is a city of high finance and power deals. Because of the money and banking centers that grew around the gold and diamond trades, 70 percent of South Africa's companies have headquarters in the city. The largest stock exchange in all of Africa, the Johannesburg Securities Exchange, is located here, along with the government and consular offices that one would expect in a capital city.
Yet, unlike most large cities, Johannesburg is not a place where you can set out on foot to explore the neighborhoods. Not that the various communities don't have distinct identities: Sandton is the primary business center, while Hyde Park and Sandhurst are upmarket residential suburbs; and Roodeport is marked by hills, golf courses, two universities and new townhouse developments.
It's a tremendously diverse city region, but it's also vast and sprawling. Soweto alone, just one of seven city regions, includes more than 20 former townships, each with its own personality. Soweto's communities range from the tidy neighborhoods of Orlando West to the acres of matchbox houses erected for migrant workers of past decades. Poverty and inadequate housing, along with infrastructure issues such as plumbing and electricity, still plague some parts of Soweto, while other areas are abuzz with parks, schools, neighborhood centers and sporting and conference venues.
In 1976, Soweto was the site of the most pivotal episode in the black resistance movement. Supporters had been demonstrating against apartheid for more than a decade, and by 1976 Soweto's most famous resident, Nelson Mandela, had been in the infamous Robben Island Prison for nearly 14 years, confined for his revolutionary activities. A protest of young students ended in tragedy when police opened fire and 12-year-old Hector Pieterson died, yet it was another 14 years before the tide of democracy turned and Mandela walked free from prison.
When polls opened for the country's first democratic elections four years later in 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa. His neighbor in Soweto, Bishop Desmond Tutu, earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his work in fighting apartheid.
Although Soweto itself has evolved as a tourism destination, one site within Soweto holds its own these days as a tourist draw: the masterfully painted, 300-foot cooling towers of the now-discontinued Orlando Power Station, one of which claims to be the biggest mural in South Africa. Depicting personalities and episodes in Jo'burg's history as well as contemporary life in the townships, the towers were painted freehand by a local artist who, with the aid of a helicopter, drew a grid on the massive surfaces to guide her artistry. To draw even more visitors to the towers, a company has set up bungee jumping inside the empty concrete cylinders - an adventure almost as thrilling as watching the World Cup.
INFO TO GO
Visitors fly into O. R. Tambo International Airport (JNB, formerly Johannesburg International), about 35 miles from from the city center. South African Airways offers non-stop service from New York (JFK) and connecting service from other U.S. airports. JNB features a business center and small conference center. Visit www.joburgtourism.com.
HOW IS JOHANNESBURG PREPARING FOR THE 2010 FIFA WORLD CUP?
The South African government and private sector are investing millions in infrastructure and development for 2010. We have 90 new hotels (for a total of 130) and many new B&Bs. We are improving public transportation with the Bus Rapid Transit, Gautrain - a rapid rail from O. R. Tambo Airport (JNB) to Sandton - and funding for new taxis. Convention centers are upgrading as well. Playing on the city's original moniker as the City of Gold, Jo'burg's slogan for the World Cup is Score in the City with the Golden Touch.
WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO TOUR SOWETO?
Get to know Soweto by walking the streets and learning the township lingo, Tsotsi-taal. Play soccer with the locals or watch the big games on TV at a shebeen (once unlicensed taverns, now neighborhood pubs). Many popular walking and cycling tours take you through the vibrant streets of the township; visit places like the migrant workers' hostels and the informal settlement of Kliptown, where the Freedom Charter was signed in 1955.
WHAT FESTIVALS DOES THE CITY HOST?
Jozi offers terrific wine festivals. The Wine Show Jo'burg is held in late May and brings in wine producers representing most of South Africa's wine regions. At the beginning of September, more than 100 wineries feature more than 850 wines at the Soweto Wine Festival. South Africa's premier wine event is Winex in late October; visitors can select from more than 1,500 wines made by 250 Cape winemakers. And the Good Food & Wine Show, also at the end of October, is South Africa's most prestigious food, wine and lifestyle event.
IS JO'BURG A SAFER CITY TODAY THAN A DECADE AGO?
Since 2003, funding for the Safety and Security Ministry has increased by 43 percent, and will increase another 34 percent over the next three years. By 2010, close to 190,000 police officers will be on our streets. Other safety measures include closed-circuit television on street corners. Tourism continues to grow beyond expectations, and we work with the global travel trade to educate our visitors about staying safe.