Top 5 Places for History Lovers in Johannesburg

I’ve written about so many different things to do in and around Joburg that I decided I needed to bring these to my readers again, this time in a slightly more structured fashion. So I’ve decided to pick different themes and summarize my Top 5 recommendations for each.

Today’s theme: History in and around Johannesburg. It wasn’t an easy pick as there are many other worthwhile attractions, but here we go:

1. Apartheid Museum

Any tour of Johannesburg’s and South Africa’s history has to start with the Apartheid Museum. You can’t help but be touched by the weight of history when issued your entrance ticket classifying you as “white” or “non-white”, letting you experience the violent days when armored trucks roamed township streets and trials were held to convict freedom fighters for treason against the state as if you had been there yourself.

And while you’re in Soweto, continue on to the Hector Pieterson Memorial about 20 minutes away, which is the jelly equivalent to the Apartheid Museum’s peanut butter, to learn about Hector Pieterson, the 12-year old boy who was killed during the Soweto Uprising of 1976. On your way you might also stop at Nelson Mandela House on Vilakazi Street where the great man once lived (and within walking distance of another great man’s house, that of Archbishop Desmund Tutu), Walter Sisulu Square where the Freedom Charter is on display, and Regina Mundi Church where you can see bullet holes next to beautiful stained glass windows. Don’t worry if you can’t fit it all into one trip, because for sure the giant bustling township of Soweto will lure you back in with its siren call, having become quite the tourist hotspot with many attractions like wine tastings, music festivals, and bike tours.

Read A Trip Back into South Africa’s History and Soweto for more information.

2. Liliesleaf Farm

Liliesleaf Farm, while also inextricably linked with South Africa’s Apartheid era, makes for a very different experience than the Apartheid Museum and is best tackled on another day. But it is no less fascinating. Located nowhere near Soweto but rather in what’s now the Northern Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia, Liliesleaf Farm today looks like a peaceful country retreat, belying its part in the violence that tore South Africa apart in the days when Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed faction of the African National Congress, embarked on a campaign of sabotage and bombing to draw attention to the civil rights struggle. Here you will learn all about the Rivonia Trial and how Nelson Mandela came to be captured the second time and locked away on Robben Island. With South African municipal elections just completed, a visit to Liliesleaf Farm is a great way to go back in time and learn how the ANC came of age, who its major players were, and why it still holds such political (if waning) power today.

Read Liliesleaf Farm and the Rivonia Trial and Nelson Mandela for more information.

3. Maropeng Visitor Center and Sterkfontein Caves

This might strike you as an odd selection for this blog post, but then again the Cradle of Humankind is one of South Africa’s oldest historic sites. It’s located about an hour to the Northwest of Johannesburg surrounded by beautiful hilly country, worth the trip in its own right. Learn about the earliest hominids at Maropeng, which admittedly is a bit of a Disney-like attraction, though much smaller in scale, with a boat ride through evolution and a series of educational displays. Combine it with a visit at Sterkfontein Caves where 2 million years old “Mrs. Ples,” was discovered.

With Professor Lee Berger recently in the news with the Homo Naledi discovery, the Cradle of Humankind should be on your shortlist if you’re at all interested in archaeology or anthropology, but it also makes for a fun and educational outing for the entire family. You could top it off with a balloon safari and a dinner at nearby must-experience Carnivore Restaurant (or the equally unique Leafy Greens Cafe if you’re a vegetarian).

Read Back to the Cradle for more information.

4. The Rand Club

For some reason, my previous blog post about the Rand Club created quite the controversy, which may be the only reason why I’m including it again here. I had gotten an invitation for two at some event there, I’ve long forgotten what for, and so my husband and I decided to try it out. I took many pictures and went home to blog about it, with special mention of the food, which we found mediocre, and the “faded glory” look of the place, which I described as having lived past its heyday from when gold was discovered near Johannesburg until well into the Apartheid years.

You wouldn’t believe the outpouring of venom I received as a result, from people who take great pride in the Rand Club and its selective admissions policy. To them it must have seemed like I attacked the very symbol of their pride and nationalism.

Whatever you may think of it, it’s worth a visit. If you go, I’d love to hear about it, as it has recently been renovated and reopened to the public (or only to members and their important friends, for all I know). You can’t help but think back to Cecil Rhodes and his grand African ambition when you sit in the wood-paneled bar or look up into its magnificent glass dome.

Read The Rand Club: Truly a Bygone Era for more information.

5. Kruger House Museum

More captivating than even the house was the railroad car in which Paul Kruger left South Africa to go into exile
Technically not in Johannesburg but rather Pretoria, so I hope you’ll forgive me for misleading you a bit. The thing is, you absolutely should go to Pretoria when visiting Johannesburg, as much of the nation’s history lives on in the nation’s capital (or one of its capitals, to be exact). There are many other places to visit there (Voortrekker Monument, Church Square with the Palace of Justice, where the Rivonia Trial mentioned above took place, and Union Buildings, to name a few), but for our family the most memorable was Paul Kruger’s former home. It’s not nearly as grand as you’d expect the house of a former president, especially a president so universally beloved as “Ohm Kruger,” and that exactly is its appeal. It reminded me of my grandparents’ home in Southern Germany, down to the musty smell of old furniture.
If you don’t know much about South Africa’s history, a visit of Kruger House Museum will pique your interest enough to delve into it deeper and go beyond what you know about what came later during Apartheid and after its fall the transformation into a democracy.
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This article is part of the Joburg Expat Top Five series. You might also like: