Travel in South Africa in the Age of Apartheid

When I was still a kid, my older brother, who’d been off to university for a few years, decided to travel around South Africa for a few months.

I remember when he came back and regaled us with his stories. He is a wonderful storyteller, and as an impressionable teenager I’d sit there and hang on his every word. My favorite story was the one he told about the hotels, or perhaps they were more like Bed&Breakfasts, that he stayed in while traversing the country. At the first one – I can’t remember where it was, probably somewhere in the Transvaal, just because I love throwing out that ancient-sounding name for what today is Limpopo, Gauteng, Mpumalanga and parts of the Northwest Province – he was baffled as to how to take a shower. There were two distinct spouts, you see, one for scalding hot water, and one for cold. How to get the water into the temperate zone somewhere in between? The solution was a nifty contraption he eventually discovered for sale when asking around, and which he subsequently christened “The Milking Machine.” Looking much like an oversize stethoscope, it came with two rubber cups that you fitted over the hot and cold water taps, and then you would stand underneath the dangling spout on the other end where both streams merged.

He carried the Milking Machine with him everywhere he went after that. It was not without its pitfalls, because those rubber cups had a tendency to pop off just as you’d gotten soap all over yourself, and then you would stand there and try to get those slippery suckers back on again while tap dancing on your feet to avoid receiving first-degree burns on one side and frostbite on the other. You simply didn’t have enough hands to hold on to all the loose ends at once, and so most showers resulted in flooded bathrooms.

He also told us other stories and repeatedly tried to explain his impressions of apartheid to us, and what it meant for everyday life. I remember that it all sounded mind-boggling to me, defying any kind of logic, but I didn’t pay close attention. It was the tale of the Milking Machine that stayed with me the longest.

It is this same brother who recently unearthed the ancient travel guide he had used back then. It is called South Africa: On R10 and R20 a day and is dated 1981-82. Looking for a better home for it, he bequeathed – and sent – it to me, which is how I now find myself in the possession of this gem.

South Africa travel in the age of apartheid

Of course, I immediately peeked into the Johannesburg section. Some parts sound just like today, for instance:

There is a vitality and vibrancy in the air, the rush and bustle of a city intent on making the most of every business opportunity and the edge that comes with such keen competition. It is obvious in the traffic that moves with determination, drivers taking the smallest gap given them, always aggressive, intent only on reaching their destination in the shortest possible time.

And that was before the advent of minibus taxis. One can only imagine how slow-moving the rest of South Africa must have been in those days. Because “making the most of every business opportunity” would require, to my Western expectations at least, that people actually call you back the same day when they say “just now.” And yet, the words vitality, vibrancy, bustle, and of course traffic are still the ones most often used to describe Johannesburg today.

But then I chuckled when I came across this:

The various attractions and activities in the city are spread between the Carlton Centre in the south and Hillbrow in the north, a distance that can be walked within about a half an hour…

You won’t find many South African travel guides, especially those geared towards foreign visitors, promoting taking a walk anywhere near Hillbrow. Most South Africans I got to know haven’t been there in decades and likely never will go again. To be fair, things have changed dramatically since the late nineties when Hillbrow was known as one of the most dangerous places on earth, where you’d only set foot if you were heavily armed and certainly never after dark. Even Johannesburg hasn’t escaped the modern trend of urban revitalization, and many of its formerly taboo inner-city areas are once again hip and quirky and, yes, vibrant, drawing especially the younger artsy crowds. Walking is making a comeback too, something I got a glimpse of when joining the Joburg Photowalkers during jacaranda season (for which it is just now the time of year again!) and when going on a graffiti tour with Past Experiences. If you’d like to find out more about this newly-emerging trendy side of Joburg, read Heather Mason’s blog 2Summers (see all links below).

graffiti in johannesburg
Graffiti walking tour in Braamfontein with Past Experiences
South Africa beautiful country
Jacaranda tour in Rosebank with Joburg Photowalkers

My shock, even though it shouldn’t have been unexpected, came when I turned the page. The following subheading was staring me in the face:

Accommodation for Non-Whites

Then came a short list of men’s and women’s hostels in Alexandra and Orlando und below that, curiously, a list of international hotels. In the equivalent section for Cape Town, this was explained with “All International Hotels in the city cater for all races.” I guess it makes sense that those, in 1981, would not officially condone apartheid and therefore open their doors to everyone. But not so fast – when you then scrolled through the Johannesburg listings, you found that all rates are for “bed only.” Apparently, you were allowed to sleep there, but couldn’t be seen mingling with the whites in the dining room.

I’m glad that South African travel guides have changed in this regard.


I’m sure no one would really want to buy this travel guide, but I was impressed that it was listed on Amazon:

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