For our latest adventure, this time in Africa, the city of Johannesburg served as our gateway to the continent. Johannesburg is South Africa’s largest city. It’s also the largest city in the world without a waterfront of any kind. No river, no lake, no coastline. That lack of natural beauty, coupled with the city’s enduring (if no longer entirely accurate) reputation for endemic crime and poverty, make it easy to understand why Johannesburg is not generally considered a prime tourist destination.
Fair enough. Johannesburg hasn’t really tried all that hard to build its tourist trade. The city is a financial and industrial powerhouse. A city that grew up and grew rich on the gold in them there hills. And though the vast majority of tourists who arrive to the southern part of Africa from elsewhere in the world must pass through Johannesburg before heading on to other, presumably more appealing destinations, many of them choose never to glimpse Johannesburg beyond the airport tarmac.
But passing up an opportunity to explore a foreign city is just not the way George and I like to travel. And I don’t think that approach would have suited our five companions on this trip either. Instead, the seven of us decided to hang in Johannesburg a couple of nights while we worked out the kinks from too many hours in an airplane.
Though Johannesburg is much safer than it used to be, it does still have some very poor areas, and it’s still not a place where ragamuffin tourists should wander around independently. So we hired a car and a guide, and got out there to see what Johannesburg is all about.
What we discovered about the city was more or less what we already knew, though previously only in the context of television footage and newspaper articles. Johannesburg is the historic heart and soul of South Africa’s shameful legacy of racism. The place where Apartheid was most visibly and ruthlessly enforced, where it was bravely and famously challenged, and symbolically at least, where it was ultimately defeated. What was formerly for us only a disconnected understanding of those profound world events was now very much up close and in our faces.
It didn’t necessarily make for a carefree first day on vacation. Just an enlightening one.
Our first stop was Constitution Hill, the site of a former jail where white prisoners were treated reasonably well while black ones were horribly abused. It’s now the site of South Africa’s highest court. The 27 people’s rights are carved into the courthouse doors in all eleven of the country’s official languages.
Next we made a brief detour to Johannesburg’s downtown, near the spot where a young Mahatma Gandhi set up his law office and did his best to oppose racial discrimination and defend its victims. He did pretty well, until he was thrown in that old prison himself.
Then we visited the Apartheid Museum, where the systemic segregation and oppression of South African blacks is documented all too well in photographs, videos, political posters, tee-shirts, artwork, and all sorts of unpleasant relics. Fortunately, Apartheid’s demise is also prominently on display.
Finally we toured Soweto, the township where Apartheid had its fullest effect, often with violent consequences.
We walked through Nelson Mandela’s modest house in Soweto, where he lived most of his adult life (at least, the part of it when he wasn’t also in prison) and where his wife during those years, Winnie, dodged fly-by bullets and raised their children between episodes of her own repeated arrest and torture.
At this point in our travels, George and I have grown heavy of heart from the many places we have visited where human cruelty is chronicled for all the world to see. From the killing fields of Cambodia to the atomic bomb remembrances in Hiroshima, from the museum of torture in Budapest to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam and the remains of concentrations camps scattered across Europe, from the incomprehensible stories of slavery to the tyranny over native peoples throughout the Americas, we sometimes wonder how it is that so many people still believe human beings are the pinnacle of God’s own creation. Some insist there can’t possibly be alien life out there in the universe because it would contradict the idea that God specifically chose us to serve a holy purpose. Really? We’re the holy, chosen ones? Of course, more secular and scientific types say such thinking is nonsense, that extraterrestrial life surely does exist. It’s just that the chasm of light years must be too great for them to reach out and communicate with us.
But after a day of touring Johannesburg, after yet another reminder of man’s incessant inhumanity to man, it occurred to me that there might be a third possibility. The aliens may indeed be out there, but maybe the reason we haven’t heard from them isn’t because they’re too far away.
Maybe it’s because they just want nothing to do with us.
Fortunately, Johannesburg offers a message of hope for the future to counterbalance its sins of the past. Indeed, all of South Africa now lives under a constitution that speaks to the rights and dignities of all human beings. Theirs is a new social contract founded on a universal kind of faith and holiness: a belief that if there’s ever a chance of truly knowing peace in our world, first we need to stop hating each other just because of what we look like, how we worship, and who we love.
If nothing else good came of it, hopefully Apartheid at least taught the human race something useful about itself.
And just in case we’re not really the least bit superior to any of God’s other creatures, it seems like a good idea to find out what else we can learn about ourselves from observing some of those creatures in their natural habitat. Okay, maybe that’s way too philosophical of an excuse to go on safari. Maybe we just want to let the little children inside us come out and play. To experience the same innocent exhilaration every kid feels going to the zoo for the first time. In any case, having ventured across this gateway to Africa, this densely populated city of gold they call Johannesburg, now we’re going to spend some time in a place where there are far fewer people around.
A place that – who knows – even the aliens might not mind paying a visit.