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A love letter to Johannesburg, my hometown

Kids play in a new Soweto park in Diepkloof Extension, near hostels that once saw horrific political violence.

Robin Esrock/Robin Esrock

Imagine discussing Canada with a tourist: the beauty of the Rockies, the culture of Montreal. As for Toronto, well, that's just a city you fly into, and get out of as soon as possible. Sure, it's the centre of commerce and art, but isn't Toronto just one big urban sprawl, choked with traffic, rife with crime? No, but this is the conversation most Joburgers have to listen to. I should know. I was born and raised there.

It has been seven years since my last visit, and in a country famous for its breakneck speed of transition, Johannesburg remains the beating heart of South Africa, if not the entire continent.

"This song is for those of us who didn't take off to Australia," says Johnny Clegg, the White Zulu, one of South Africa's most endearing musicians. His 30-year anniversary concert is at Emperor's Palace, a huge Vegas-style casino resort on the outskirts of the city. He tells the audience that his concert is as much a tribute to Johannesburg - Egoli, the City of Gold - as it is about his music. A city founded on the world's richest gold reef, a booming frontier town, rebuilt four times, constantly reshaping itself according to the whims of its history.

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As Mr. Clegg belts out his biggest hit, Scatterlings of Africa, there's a chunk of gold ore in my throat.

You miss Johannesburg. You miss its average 12 hours of sunshine and its dramatic Highveld thunderstorms. You miss the red earth and the guys who watch your car for a one rand coin. You miss the change. My friends live in large houses, with maids, nannies and nice cars. Nobody is making a fortune, but back in Canada, this is the lifestyle of millionaires. The high walls, gated streets and electric fences are a sacrifice some choose to make, while most don't have a choice. The city's crime rate is still horrific. But violent crime in South Africa dropped 8 per cent in 2010, and the World Cup proved that tourists in Johannesburg are well looked after. "The World Cup was a month-long holiday from crime," explains my uncle. All holidays come to an end, but locals and tourists have noted what is possible.

Visitors inevitably find themselves in shopping malls, but nobody should leave Johannesburg without visiting the Apartheid Museum, in Gold Reef City, on the outskirts of Soweto. Sombre and powerful, the exhibits pull no punches. A special exhibition honours Nelson Mandela. As I relive the era's racist laws and oppression, it's strange to think how recent this was.

The walls that segregated blacks, whites, coloured (mixed race), Asian and Indians collapsed in the early nineties. During apartheid, media were censored, townships were off limits. As a teenager, my cousin took me into Soweto, the sprawling southwestern township that serviced the white elite from the other side of the mine dumps. It was my first exposure to true African poverty. Flies crawling on babies, garbage on potholed dirt roads, burning tires. We could have been arrested just for being there, for visiting her friends in the movement. Soweto was not too far from my house, but a world apart.

Today the "Welcome to Soweto" sign is bright and proud, under modern streetlights, and overlooking paved highways. Nearby, Soccer City, the calabash-inspired stadium that hosted the World Cup final, breaks through the mine dumps, finally connecting Johannesburg and Soweto. Parks with playgrounds have been built, with kids playing a stone's throw away from renovated mine hostels that once saw heavy political violence. Large shopping malls, such as Maponya, bring traditionally white Joburg shopping into the heart of Soweto.

The Orlando Towers, two chimneys from a power plant that once blackened the air with fumes, have been brightly painted with murals and converted into a tourist attraction, complete with a bungee jump. There's a four-star hotel, and a backpackers' hostel offering bicycle tours. Informal shantytowns and squatter camps are still here, but Soweto today resembles Nairobi or Addis Ababa - not the hell on Earth I remember. Some of its suburbs have beautiful houses, noticeably free of high walls and electric fences. Ngakane Street housed two Noble Peace Prize winners, Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. Today, street vendors sell craftwork to busloads of tourists arriving to visit the Mandela Family Museum, a tiny brick house where the family lived, and to which Mr. Mandela returned for a short time after being released from prison.

Johannesburg, too, remains a launching pad for other excursions. Get your animal fix at the Lion Park, cuddling baby lions, driving safari-style among zebras, impalas and giraffes. I drove to Sun City, a massive chunk of gambling glitz in the African bush. The Palace (not to be confused with the Emperor's Palace) is one of the world's most luxurious and romantic hotels, and has to be seen to be believed.

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When I lived in Parkhurst, it was a middle-class suburb; today, it has sidewalk cafés, art galleries and antique stores. With a strong Canadian dollar, shopping and dining present tremendous value throughout Johannesburg. The Bruma flea market or Rosebank's Sunday craft market is gift heaven. At The Grillhouse, one of the city's best steakhouses, a sizzling platter piled high with steak, sausage, chops and ribs costs me little more than $30. You can buy a good bottle of wine at a restaurant for less than $10. It seems Joburgers don't need mountains and ocean to live the good life.

This is still not a city to flash your jewellery or get lost in the wrong places. Not reading the newspapers, as locals advised me, kept me in a protective layer of ignorance. Without it, I could see Johannesburg for what it is. The heart of a great nation, just like New York, Hong Kong, Mexico City and Sao Paulo. Just like Toronto.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Catch up with Robin at or on the OLN/CITY-TV series World Travels.

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