Johannesburg is a sprawling city, and it's very difficult to orient oneself amidst the rolling hills and huge walls that surround private property along the streets. Johannesburg was chosen for its proximity to gold mines, and remains among few cities not located near a major body of water. The heart of Johannesburg, the Central Business District (CBD), had been classified as a whites only area under the Group Areas Act, imposed during Apartheid, and is home to many skyscrapers. The CBD is now largely vacated, as whites have moved their homes and businesses to areas like Sandton, where our hotel is located.
Today we visited another neighborhood of Johannesburg: Soweto. Soweto is an abreviation for South Western Townships, an historically black neighborhood.
Soweto strikes a stark contrast to the Sandton, the wealthiest square mile in Africa. Some of the homes in Soweto are seemingly "middle class", which we're told has grown since 1994, but others are decidedly for the poor. We took a brief walking tour of the neighborhood and stand among friendly people, who make pleasant conversation and ask politely for any assistance, food or monetary. Many don't have running water or electricity and live in shanties.
We also visit the former FNB stadium, renamed "Soccer City" for the 2010 World Cup. It's difficult to overstate the impact on the national psyche that the World Cup had on South Africa. Billboards a-plenty use World Cup imagery to convey what a world-class country South Africa is. It's a nice stadium for certain, and our tour guide is obviously impressed with the significance of the World Cup. The stadium is surrounded by the smooth trapezoidal hills of soil excavated for gold mines, and there are walls within the players' quarters of the stadium that have the appearance of those of a mine.
The huge physical distance that separates Soweto from Sandton is reflected in the status of the people who live there. The era of apartheid is only recently over (16 years) but the intent of the system, to physically and economically separate people based on the color of their skin, has lasting impact. Johannesburg remains a segregated city, and the lack of public transportation makes difficult the mixing of people of different economic status. BRT (bus rapid transit) lines are in place, but people are afraid to use them, due to violent terrorist acts conducted by the taxi "mafia" whose business will be threatened by the lower-cost mass transportation options. The Gautrain high-speed rail line connecting the airport and Sandton with planned lines extending to Pretoria is expensive with visible police presence everywhere.
ACCESS group meets with Ann Harris, wife of the late S.A. chief rabbi and activist on behalf of S.A.’s poor, and Wendy Kahn, executive director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.
We close the day at a restaurant with members of the young South African Jewish community. In contrast to a day where we see how differently people live within the same city, we see how easily Jewish people from disparate parts of the world can relate to one another.