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Journey to Jo’burg: A South African Story


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Book Review

This book has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Plot Summary

Thirteen-year-old Naledi lives with Nono (her grandmother), Tiro (her brother), and Dineo (her baby sister) in a small South African village 300 kilometers from Johannesburg. After her father’s death, her mother, Mma, has had to work in Johannesburg for money for the family.

One day, Dineo becomes sick. Naledi is afraid Dineo is dying. Nono and Mmangwane (her aunt) try to help Dineo, but nothing works. Naledi coerces her 9-year-old brother to walk to Johannesburg with her to tell Mma.

Before they leave, Naledi’s friend Poleng gives them sweet potatoes to eat on their trip. She also agrees to tell Nono where they’ve gone once they’re safely away. Naledi and Tiro don’t want Nono and Mmangwane to be angry with them or keep them from going.

The siblings walk alongside a lesser-traveled road. When they come to another village, they walk quickly so as to not attract the attention of the police because policemen in this area are often corrupt.

Outside of the village, they meet a boy who works in an orange orchard. He lets them eat a few oranges and hides them in a shed for the night. They leave early the next morning so as not to anger the orchard’s owner.

The next day, a driver with oranges in his truck gives them a ride to Johannesburg. He also gives them money to take a bus to the area where their mother works. After accidentally trying to board a whites-only bus, the siblings find the right bus and meet a young woman named Grace.

Grace helps them find their mother’s workplace and offers them a place to spend the night in Soweto. When Naledi and Tiro find their mother, they learn she is a maid for a wealthy white family. Their mother is able to get time off, beginning the next day, to take her children home and help Dineo.

That night, Naledi and Tiro travel toward Grace’s home by train. At one stop, the kids are pushed off the train by the exiting crowd and are separated from Grace. On the train platform, there is a surprise pass raid by the police. Adults without passes are taken to jail. Naledi and Tiro are not arrested because they are not yet 16, the age when a pass is needed. Soon after, Grace finds them, and the three complete their journey to Soweto.

At Grace’s house in Soweto, Naledi learns about the Soweto riots. Thousands of school children demonstrated against what they were being taught in their schools. Their subjects were cleaning, washing, cooking and gardening. Their schools trained them to be servants. When they demonstrated, the police shot many of them. Some died, some were wounded, and some were arrested. There also was tear gas, and many public buildings were burned. Grace’s brother eventually left South Africa for an education. He hopes to return to fight for their freedom.

The next day, Naledi and Tiro travel with Mma by train to their village. At Naledi’s asking, Mma tells how hard her life is. Once in the village, Nono watches Tiro, and Mma and Naledi take Dineo to the hospital. They must wait all day to see the doctor. After Dineo is kept in the hospital for three days, Mma is able to take her home.

The next day, Mma must return to Johannesburg to work for all the money she just spent. Meanwhile, Naledi realizes that she wants to be more than someone’s servant. She wants to be a doctor and intends to take steps toward a better future.

Christian Beliefs


Other Belief Systems


Authority Roles

Nono and Mmangwane watch and care for Naledi and Tiro. They do everything they know how to do to keep Dineo alive. Nono was the caretaker for Naledi and Tiro, but they didn’t tell her about their travel plans. They thought she would be cross with them. It is apparent she loves her grandchildren though, through the worry on her face when Naledi and Tiro return and her relief when Dineo is healed. Mma is kind and loving. She does not like being away from her children but must work in Johannesburg to provide money for food, clothing and an education after their father died. Their father, when he was alive, only visited the family once a year because he worked in the mines. Both the truck driver and Grace take responsibility for the children’s well being once they come in contact with them.

Profanity & Violence

Although not graphic, descriptions are given about schoolchildren who were beaten, shot and tear gassed, and a few who died in Soweto.

Sexual Content


Discussion Topics

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Additional Comments

Racism: South Africa, at this time, had a system set up through legislation to keep its society racially segregated. The majority of people in South Africa were black, but they were treated as second-rate citizens who couldn’t aspire to more than being the servants of those in power.

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