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AA Gill: Why I love Johannesburg

November 2011

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Less safari, more urban rhythm – AA Gill reveals why he fell for the South African city
Johannesburg, South Africa
Alamy

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To walk through an African street is more entertaining and enthralling and a lot more inclusively hands-on than a drive in a game park

The last time I was in Jo'burg six or seven years ago, it was a frightening city, unravelling into medieval crime. On my most recent visit, I got out of the airport and was amazed – it's a new place, really astonishing. Areas you'd never have walked through have grown cafés and boutiques. There's an atmosphere. It feels like a collective decision to get better, to get on and up.

There's arts and music – loads of music. There's theatre and there's the new apartheid museum, which just rams a lump down your throat. There are very few artefacts. It's a journey through history commissioning an execution of apartheid, told with photographs and film and hundreds of televisions. If that sounds dull, then it's because I'm not explaining it properly. It's a cross between a moving scrapbook and an art installation. It's also the most thoughtful and emotional couple of hours I've spent in a museum for years.

The divisive story is told inclusively and if you've never been to South Africa, you can have no idea how difficult, restrained and courageous that is. The museum is a lesson in how history doesn't have to have consequences or at least not the ones that were written on the packet. Fate is open to apologies. A year ago, I'd never have suggested to a tourist that they take time to visit Jo'burg but now you've simply got to.

Not just the apartheid museum and the townships and the markets and cafés, the music and jacarandas, and the high, dry veldt, but you should go because this is the luckiest place in the unluckiest continent. This year, the UN pointed out that Africa tipped from being an agrarian continent to an urban one. More Africans live in cities than in the country. And almost all tourists who come to Africa with the best liberal intentions come to see animals and wilderness – very few come to see Africans.

No pride of lions is as exciting as an African market. To walk through an African street is more entertaining and enthralling and a lot more inclusively hands-on than a drive in a game park. If you want to feel the rhythm of the dark heart, then go to an African city. I'd go to Jo'burg.

This is an edited extract from AA Gill's Here & There: Collected Travel Writing (£12.99, Hardie Grant Books), published on 17 November. British Airways flies to Johannesburg. Visit ba.com.

Posted by AA Gill

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