Around South Africa

Johannesburg and Pretoria

South Africa is rightly renowned for its natural wonders and magnificent wildlife. But its cities also offer plenty of entertainment. While Johannesburg and nearby Pretoria are not quite in the same league as Cape Town, visitors will find lots of attractions to keep them occupied. Here's a quick rundown on what's happening.


Johannesburg has not been getting much good press lately, largely because of the high level of street crime, especially in the downtown area. Actually, it is not an unpleasant city and as one who has lived there for many years, I can attest to the fact that it has a wonderful climate, nice hotels, great restaurants, a thriving cultural scene, and some world-class shopping centres. This dynamic, vibrant city also offers its residents and visitors very sophisticated entertainment choices and sporting facilities.

Johannesburg — aka Jo'burg or Joeys — has a thriving live theatre and performing arts community and on most any night of the week performances ranging from intimate cabaret to politically correct ethnic plays may be enjoyed. The best place to catch everything from current hit shows to celebrities of the future is in the entertainment pages of the Johannesburg Star, where information on more serious stuff such as opera, ballet and the symphony will also be found.

By all means take a tour of (part of) Soweto, an acronym for South Western Townships. Soweto is not all 'little boxes'; there are some nice neighborhoods, a lively informal economy, and you may even stop over at a shebeen for something to drink. You can even spend the night at a private home, and be treated to some 'pap' and 'wors'. Pap is a rather bland maize-meal porridge, somewhat like grits, but of a stiffer consistency, so that it can be rolled between the tips of the fingers, if desired. Pap if often eaten with a tomato and onion sauce. Wors is the local variety of beef and pork sausage.

Of course, Soweto is famous as the flash-point of the Soweto Riots which started at a local school (a mandatory stop on the proverbial"Cook's Tour" of Soweto) on 16 June 1976, now commemorated as a public holiday. The Soweto Riots, which spread throughout the country and caused great loss of life and damage to property, proved to be a seminal event in the democratization of South Africa. Essentially, it dramatically illustrated that black aspirations for freedom could no longer be ignored. By literally forcing the government of the day into a conciliatory position, the Soweto Riots signaled the real beginning of the end of apartheid. So don't miss this city, even if it does leave you somewhat depressed.

Another popular outing in Johannesburg is to the Gold Reef City complex, a replica of an 1880's gold mining village, complete with hotel (not a bad one, at that) and restaurants. Traditional African dancing may be seen at the museum on Sundays and there are opportunities to go underground and observe gold ingots being poured. One more thing to do in Johannesburg in the summer months is to go to a limited overs, night-time cricket match at the Wanderers. It will dispel any suspicions you may have harbored about cricket being a slow, genteel pastime.

Jo'burg is also synonymous with serious shopping. Take lots of plastic and tackle Sandton City, Sandton Square, The Mall and The Firs in Rosebank, Hyde Park Corner, the Carlton Centre and the Fisherman's Village at Bruma Lake, or the new Randburg Waterfront which has a great fleamarket attached.

Water sports enthusiasts will want to make their way to nearby Vaal Dam where sailing, motor boating, water skiing and fishing can be done. Other nearby places of interest include the Suikerbosrand Nature Reserve, Hartebeespoort Dam near Brits, and the scenic Magaliesberg mountains. Johannesburg is within easy driving distance of the Sun City complex. This gambling and entertainment complex is an eye-opener and fun-loving folks could spend several days there without touching sides. The Pilanesberg Game Reserve which is adjacent to Sun City is a wonderful reserve, which offers good game-viewing, with all members of the so-called 'Big Five' species available, being Cape buffalo, elephant, rhino, lion and leopard. The bird-watching at Pilanesberg is exceptionally good, especially in summer.


Pretoria is only about 35 miles or so down the freeway leading north out of Johannesburg. Drive it yourself, but be careful: South Africa has a deserved reputation for terrible driving. If you're at all interested in history, I'd say Pretoria is a 'must see'. There's a host of interesting monuments, museums & government buildings, and even a few good restaurants. The Voortrekker Monument is squat and rather ugly, but it can hardly be ignored. The inside is stark and cold, and the series of friezes depicting the history of the Great Trek, although interesting, does nothing to dispel the gloom.

The Union Buildings — where Nelson Mandela now occupies an office with a (terrific) view — is a charming sandstone edifice, designed by famed architect Sir Herbert Baker. In the centre of Pretoria is Church Square, which is dominated by a statue of Paul Kruger looking north. Church Square has a nice western facade, and the Ou Raadsaal, old Reserve Bank Building, and the Palace of Justice all date from the days of the South African Republic.

Unfortunately, Church Square also has lots of buses as the city council has, in its wisdom, turned it into a bus terminal. Melrose House, a well-maintained Victorian house on Jacob Mare Street is worth a visit, even if it is just to see the stained glass. The Transvaal Museum on Paul Kruger Street, between the station & Church Square, houses many fascinating exhibits of natural history. An hour or so spent browsing around the Austin Roberts Bird Hall is time well spent, and I recommend it as an introduction to the birds of South Africa. The Museum store has a good collection of natural history books at reasonable prices.

Even if you don't have official business there, you may want to drive by the American Embassy just to see how your tax dollars are spent: it is an imposing structure which must have cost an absolute fortune. If shopping's your thing, a mall that is as good as any is the Hyperama just east of Pretoria. It has everything from books & maps to clothing (good value at Woolworths), curios (at better prices than the airport's so-called 'duty free') & much more. Across the street from the Hyperama is a discount outlet, The Retail Centre, where you can buy some good — cheap — leather items, clothing and the like.

Although Pretoria is culturally a bit of a backwater compared with neighboring Johannesburg, its imposing downtown State Theatre complex does offer some first class fine arts performances. The city also has many good restaurants including several above-average steak houses. An old Pretoria favorite of ours is La Perla, on the fringe of downtown, where some pretty good Italian/continental fare is on offer. Their langoustines are fabulous. Another recommended eatery is La Madeleine, whose Belgian French chef offers excellent prix fixe fare. On a recent visit to Pretoria we had dinner at Villa do Mar, an interesting Portugeuse restaurant in Waterkloof, an eastern suburb.

Special thanks to Bert du Plessis of Fish Eagle Safaris for contributing his knowledge of South Africa's cities.

Story copyright © by Bert du Plessis.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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