Not far from Alex, as it's popularly called, is a casino named Caesars. I don't usually go to casinos when I travel, but Johannesburg has acquired several over the last few years and they are impressive — and difficult to ignore. Before 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected president, South Africa's casinos were hidden away in the homelands created by apartheid. Since then, gambling venues have sprung up all over the country, although nowhere do they seem more appropriate than in Johannesburg, where countless fortunes were made and lost.
Few people, so the story goes, expected the city to last longer than the gold. But it did, and that's when the landscapers got busy. Trees were planted with almost fanatical abandon, and even the suburb names tried to make up for the recreational space that was lacking: thus, Parktown, Parkview, Parkhurst and Parkmore. And today, the city is so verdant it has been called the most treed city in the world; it is possibly also the most birded. Even the unsightly mine dumps have been prettified, and if plants wouldn't grow in their cyanide-rich soil they were used for something else, such as an elevated drive-in or a snowless training slope for skiers.
I passed on the mine dumps, choosing instead to take in a view of Johannesburg's green-mantled ridges from the Westcliff hotel, a cluster of villas owned by the Orient-Express company. From where I ate breakfast, near the pool, a carpet of trees stretched away below me that was so dense, it was hard to imagine that only a few hundred yards away was the Johannesburg Zoo, while all around the hotel were mansions built at the turn of the last century by men who got rich off gold.
Little remains of Johannesburg's original mining town, although a facsimile has been created at Gold Reef City. There you can wander through 19th century streets and even take a trip down a mineshaft, although most people go to play at the casino or enjoy theme park rides.
The best reason I found to visit Gold Reef City, however, had nothing to do with Johannesburg's days as a mining town but with its role as a center of politics. The new Apartheid Museum, an oddity given its casino-theme park surroundings, recalls how much of the struggle against apartheid took place here. Gandhi lived here and so did Winnie Mandela for much of the time her husband was imprisoned. In its streets, women wore black sashes every Friday to protest apartheid. Nelson Mandela was arrested in Rivonia, now a fancy northern suburb.
The Soweto uprisings of 1976 focused world attention on racial injustice and Hector Pietersen — in whose name a new Soweto museum has been created — was the first child in those protests to be fatally shot by police.
Solemn and richly evocative, the Apartheid Museum helps you understand Johannesburg and South Africa. Its exterior is made of stark concrete, and its walls are covered in wire, like a prison, while inside, segregationist signs, videos and exhibits take you through almost a century of racism and the protests that ended with the country's liberation. Some people see it as tacky, having a theme park and a casino right across from a museum that has such an important message. Yet to me, those two extremes sum up the harsh beauty of this addictive city just perfectly.
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Jewels of Johannesburg
From LAX, connecting service to Johannesburg is available on American or Delta to New York's JFK International Airport, connecting to South African, Lufthansa, British, Virgin Atlantic, Air France or Swiss airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,794 until Dec. 7 and from Jan. 7 to March 31; fares begin at $2,214 from Dec. 7 to Jan. 6.
To call numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), then 27 (country code for South Africa) and 11 (city code for Johannesburg) and the number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Ten Bompas, 10 Bompas Road, Dunkeld West, Gauteng, Johannesburg; 325-2442, fax 341-0281, http://www.tenbompas.com . This boutique-style hotel has 10 individually designed suites in a garden setting. Close to prime business centers of Rosebank, Sandton, Hyde Park, Randburg and Johannesburg; a 30-minute drive from Pretoria. Doubles start at $290 a night, including breakfast.
The Westcliff, 67 Jan Smuts Ave., Westcliff, Johannesburg; 646-2400, fax 646-3500, http://www.orient-expresshotels.com . This 115-room luxury hotel overlooks the northern suburbs and Magaliesberg Hills. Rooms are strung along a ridge with wonderful views. Most have private balconies. Doubles from $356 per night.