Johannesburg – City of Contrasts


Virtually any place in the world can be ‘home’ if you have your loved ones with you. Humans are incredibly adaptable in this regard. This week marks five years since I made the arduous move from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg. I couldn’t let the opportunity pass without some observations about my adopted city. Many have asked me whether I prefer Port Elizabeth or Johannesburg. This question always seems impossible to answer. It’s a bit like comparing a good steak to a scrumptious crème brûlée – you know you like both, but for very different reasons. After a baptism of fire involving vehicle theft, separation from family and much confusion, Johannesburg slowly started revealing itself in the months and years which followed. In that time the primary thing which has struck me about the city is that it’s a city of sharp contrasts. Contrasts which seem to be prevalent in all areas of life and living.

The first contrast that strikes one is the weather, which isn’t immune to this theme. Never in my life have I seen a complete 180 in weather conditions in the space of 15 minutes, from torrential downpour to calm sunshine. The short, intense bursts of rain itself is somewhat symbolic of the Johannesburg ethos of firm decisiveness, and getting the job done quickly and efficiently in a bold, no-nonsense approach. The general stillness and beauty of the weather always seems the perfect antidote to the buzzing, bustling and grinding city.

Before you know it, you start noticing other sharp contrasts, primarily economic ones. Nothing demonstrates this more aptly than the neighbouring suburbs Hillbrow and Houghton. A mere couple of blocks separates one of the most affluent, status orientated residential areas from one of the more infamous suburbs on the continent. This always seems a little absurd to me. Drug lords and their subjects living literally a few football fields’ distance away from CEO’s and directors in their mansions.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked in Braamfontein, basically an area which is an extension of the old CBD, which has gone through something of an urban renewal over the past few years. I say fortunate, because it’s allowed me to understand this place so much more, and dare I say it, become more cultured in the process. Here the Johannesburg contrasts confront you even more intently. There have been many times when I’ve walked past sleeping bodies on the pavement outside coffee shops where hipsters sip R35 Cappuccinos and where suits and ties discuss profits and bottom lines. R45 craft beers are drunk in sidewalk cafés while beggars roam looking for the next slice of bread or handful of change.

The contrasts go deeper than the surface. I think the loneliest, most isolated moments I’ve ever felt in my life were in the throngs of Joburg people or traffic. I’ve realised that even in the middle of one of the world’s biggest sprawling masses of people, it’s still difficult to find like minded individuals you can relate to. In a city connected to everything, human connection is still elusive. It’s still difficult to find the ‘real’. A bigger city has made people in general even more of a mystery to me. The more I see of society, the less I tend to like it. I see more from people here that I don’t understand, no matter how hard I try. Perhaps big cities aren’t conducive to uncovering humanity’s big questions.

Then there’s the South African question. Nowhere else in the country will you see the good and bad quite this clearly. You see what South Africa is capable of – The Gautrain, the business innovations or the cutting edge architecture of Central Sandton are prime examples. You unfortunately see all the problems with the country, accentuated and more in your face than anywhere else. A great example is when drive on the N3 northbound, at one point you can look to your left and see the towers and brilliance of Sandton glittering on the hill, while closer to you in the foreground are the shacks of Alexandra. More importantly, I’ve seen with my own eyes just how the media and politicians are have distorted and misrepresented the racial moods situation in the country. Johannesburg has shown me that South Africans are generally very good at just getting on with each other and getting on with it. The average Johannesburg person is just here to make a living, support his/her family and live a little. This is such a hotbed of cultures and ethnicities that I think the average Johannesburg person doesn’t even notice ethnicity that much anymore. There are of course unfortunate exceptions.

One thing the Eastern Cape does have firmly in its favour is an ease of access to natural beauty. You can drive for an hour and be as the most picturesque beach or game reserve far away from anything. An hour’s drive in Johannesburg merely gets you to the outskirts of the city. Other than the Parks suburbs of Johannesburg and the Eastern regions of Pretoria, most of the urban area of Gauteng is unattractive, to say the least. The outlying areas of the city are largely industrialised, dusty expanses you just want to get through as quickly as you can. When you combine this with the continual concern over crime that seems to seep under your skin, you sometimes wonder what exactly you’re doing here. Are you part of the problem? But there is a positive to all of this. Things that I might have taken for granted in the past are now a great deal more special. I appreciate life more. Living for today is now far more sacred to me than it was five years ago. Beaches are that much more majestic. Open space and quiet are things of beauty. Mountains are more alluring and mysterious. Wide open vistas are like some form of instant medication. Quiet, open roads are cherished beyond words.

What Johannesburg unquestionably makes you feel is this sense of being in the midst what’s happening and at the centre of a melting pot. Even if you’re not concert-going or shopping at retail flagships every weekend, you do get the feeling that you’re connected to the essence of SA society. But linked to this, there’s an evil ugliness bubbling under the surface of this city, and I’m not referring to crime. I’m referring to the ugly side of normal people. One example of this is people’s conduct in traffic. You didn’t think I’d write a post about Johannesburg without going into traffic, did you? Traffic has become an ongoing social observation for me. I’ve learned that in the hours of big city traffic boredom (and moments of panic), so much can be explained about human nature. On the one hand, when simple traffic rules are ignored with gay abandon, what does it say about that society? When laws are broken and lives are put at risk in order to get ahead of some cars and save a minute, what does that say about people’s attitude to law and order? What does that say about our attitudes to each other? For me, this is a small, but significant symptom of a society going morally bankrupt.

More perplexing is the irresponsible recklessness that I observe. This element I see on the roads cannot be explained in simple terms. If I do approach it too simply I come to the quick conclusion that people are stupid, which although partly true, isn’t the answer. Henry Thoreau once said that “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them”. This quote explains what I see in traffic perfectly. What I see are people so highly strung, wired and filled with tension from pursuing career, status and money, often with their backs to the wall. They’ve learned how to make money and grow their career. They’ve learned how to ‘hustle’. But they haven’t learned to reflect, switch off or let out energy. The result is that all the anger, rage and pent up frustration is forced out when behind the wheel of a car, whether it’s reckless speeding or screaming and shouting, this is their only channel for that energy release, but they don’t know this. In amongst all this you can’t help but confront your own ugliness, question your own views and face your own demons, and while humanity continues to mystify me, the past five years have given me a far greater understanding and acceptance of myself. I also tend to think there’s something about the anonymity of a big city and the sheer volumes of people that leads one to care so much less about what others think of you. I’m far less bothered about how others perceive me than I was five years ago, to the point of indifference. That’s a big city effect.

The contrasts you witness aren’t constrained to within Johannesburg itself. In the times that I’ve traveled out of Johannesburg across the country over the past five years, I’ve taken particular interest in small towns and their surroundings.  What I notice more than anything is this sense of decay and abandonment. While Johannesburg is endlessly filled with construction, building, upgrading  or renovating, the small towns by contrast are blatantly being neglected and deserted.   Driving over the endless plains of the Free State and Eastern Cape Karoo recently gave me the feeling that a great deal of careless disregard had been taking place here, as was evident from what was visible from the road. Countless farmhouses gone to decay, old outbuildings which hadn’t been lived in for years, overgrown football fields with the goals missing and small towns where, other than a couple establishments newly maintained, were generally going to rust and ruin. An image still sticks in my mind from a drive to PE in April this year. About 60km north of Uitenhage, on the outskirts of a small village, I spotted a broken swing, lopsidedly hanging by one rope attached to a rusted structure that was leaning miserably to one side. A symbol of hopelessness and decay – something that was once new and once brought joy.

All of this makes me wonder, does progress and success require the ugly urban sprawl and all the contrasts that go with it? As we move further into the 21st century, will we see more and more of this urbanisation, as rural communities move further and further behind, losing their sense of place, purpose and value? This seems inevitable. Since 2011 Gauteng has seen an influx of about 1,2 million people. To put that into perspective, that’s 240 000 people per year making their way into the urban mass. That’s 20 000 new people every month. According to the United Nations (UN), 54% of the world’s population currently live in urban areas, a statistic set to increase to 66% by 2050.

Perhaps what doesn’t need to be as inevitable is this disregard of simplicity of life. When out of Johannesburg I’ve also found myself marveling at times at the homes and lives of small town or rural dwellers. As I drive past houses where chickens run around vegetable patches in yards free from high walls and electric fences, I think Have we got it all wrong? Was there a more pure way of living that we’re forgetting? Maybe. Have we come to measure individual progress as solely money and career related, at the expense of quality of life? The complex seems to have triumphed over the simple.

So while Johannesburg remains my home for the foreseeable future, my love-hate relationship with it will undoubtedly remain. I’m sure the city will continue to serve me with conflicting visions and ideas. I have no doubt that all contrasts around and within me are a good thing. How else do we come to understand the world, and ourselves?

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