Johannesburg: Capital of sub-Saharan Africa

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The Independent Travel

Cairo may outshine Johannesburg as capital of the continent of Africa (see table), but the sub-Saharan prize is, from a visitor's point of view, arguably more important. For all its flaws and fractures, Johannesburg has transformed itself from outcast to world class in less than two decades and is way ahead of the likes of Lagos, Nairobi and Addis Ababa. Built on the world's most productive reef of gold, it has been a centre of wealth and opportunity since the first prospectors started digging in the 1880s, but its development was hampered by that crude ideology, apartheid. Only after 1994, when Nelson Mandela began shaping the new "rainbow nation", could Johannesburg look the rest of the world in the eye.

The changes since then have either been astounding or grindingly slow, depending on your vantage point. The most obvious signs of progress are downtown, where a giant suspension bridge bearing Mandela's name has vastly improved traffic flow; formerly dilapidated, dangerous streets have been bulldozed away, to be replaced by galleries and museums; and thriving street markets have sprung up. In the leafy inner suburbs and the townships new malls, hotels and apartment blocks spring up by the month.

The biggest enterprise of all is a rapid rail system, the Gautrain, being forged between the city and nearby Pretoria, also linking the commercial hub of Sandton with the busiest airport in Africa. Most of it should be ready for the 2010 football World Cup. But the most symbolic change is the transformation of Constitution Hill, the site of the notorious prison where both Mandela and Gandhi were incarcerated, which now houses the highest court in the land.

Like its new rail system, Johannesburg is a work in progress. Violent crime is falling, but remains a hazard. There are still glaring disparities between the white communities who live behind high walls and electric fences, and the families living in shacks. In some cases, it's only a 10-minute drive from one side of the tracks to the other. The commercial capital of the rainbow nation must find the energy and resources to address this and the clock is ticking.

Johannesburg scored for flights (2,000 a week), for having Africa's leading stock exchange and the only symphony orchestra among African cities surveyed. It also did well on the "Google-o-meter"