Sunday, December 18, 2016

[The Life of Shaun #542] A Tale of Three Cities

Before we got civilled, Sushil and I agreed that we would go to South Africa for our honeymoon.  Sushil had been to Cape Town once before, and very much wanted to return.  I was very keen to visit, so in November, 15 months belated, we set off for the rainbow nation.

The story of the young city of Johannesburg actually started two billion years ago, when a massive meteor struck Earth in what would become Northeastern South Africa.  This caused a rich vein of gold to slant on an angle many kilometres beneath the surface at its deep end.  Its shallow end would be discovered on a farm in 1886, sparking a gold rush and the birth of Johannesburg, Africa's economic powerhouse.  The city is in an unlikely location: 550km inland, on a plateau 1.8km high, and far from any significant sources of drinking water.  However, its atypical location gives it a much milder climate than most African cities.

Growing out of a gold rush, eGoli, the city of gold, was, and continues to be, a working city.  It's the principal locus of a conurbation of 13.2m people, sprawling across the province of Gauteng, with highways reaching out through a vast hinterland of townships, shopping centres and gated communities.  The city is more interesting than beautiful, but its opportunity, history, and economic and cultural heft draw some 19,000 new residents a month from around Africa.

Johannesburg's geography has been cleaved into three by its political history.  At the centre is the classic central business district, a once-thriving downtown, now economically stagnant and dominated by decaying towers erected in the booming 70s.  The city started to feel economic pain in the 80s as sanctions against Apartheid tightened and the struggle for racial equality became more active.  When Apartheid was abolished in 1991, the once-segregated city experienced white flight in overdrive.  The city centre quickly drained of whites and most corporations moved their operations to the new, leafy, car-friendly CBDs in the Northern districts of Sandton and Rosebank.  Even the Johannesburg Stock Exchange relocated to Sandton, and Jo'burg's downtown has been saved from becoming a corporate ghost-town only by the relocation of many government services into its abandoned offices.

Most tourists, and practically all business people, stay in the plush mall hotels around the Sandton area when they visit.  Anathemic to suburbia, Sushil and I opted to stay at the 12 Decades Hotel in Maboneng, a gentrifying area just East of downtown Jozi.  Filled with coffee houses, trendy restaurants, galleries, a weekend food market and surrounded by converted ex-warehouses in an edgy, urban setting, it provides everything a hipster needs to make a happy home.  Crucially, the neighbourhood also has beefed-up security, allowing its dimly-lit streets to be much safer than those immediately outside of its borders, giving visitors and residents alike a safe space for barhopping and waiting for their Ubers.

South Africa, and especially Johannesburg, is notoriously dangerous.  Though the abolition of Apartheid saw the end of legalised racial segregation, this has done little to end the economic divisions caused by decades of underinvestment in and undereducation of blacks and coloureds (not pejorative in South Africa).  As everywhere, with poverty and inequality come desperation and violence; South Africa just has much more of it than most places, and it is agitated by the legacy of racial discrimination still present on Johannesburg's streets.

Downtown Johannesburg, with Gandhi Square at the centre.

Two of Jozi's defining structures, the Hillbrow Tower and the Ponte City Apartments.  Ponte City is emblematic of the city at large.  Originally it was built as luxury flats, but fell into decay in the post-Apartheid years, coming into the hands of druglords and prostitutes, and literally filled with rubbish.  There were plans to turn it into a prison at one point, but now it serves as the centrepiece of another pocket of development and once again is home to some of Jozi's middle-class.

Downtown Johannesburg, with a very considerate billboard.

Jo'burg's motto - perhaps more aspiration than reality at this point.

Nelson Mandela Bridge does not cross any natural barriers, but a wide expanse of train tracks.  It was built to help alleviate the dearth of connectivity between the central CBD and Braamfontein, yet another city-centre neighbourhood on the up.


Eloff Street used to be the wealthiest street in South Africa.  When Monopoly came to South Africa, it took the spot of Boardwalk.  It's much more Baltic Avenue nowadays.

The CBD has many empty lots, often adorned with creative street art.  There are also many buildings under renovation advertising luxury flats to come, but I think it will be a while before downtown is vibrant.  We did not feel safe at all on these streets, and even the map for our bus tour, which let us off downtown to see the views from the Top of Africa, explicitly warned not to walk the streets without a tourguide present.

I saw an inordinate amount of advertising for funeral insurance in South Africa.  Perhaps a Saffer can explain why that is.

Art on our floor at the 12 Decades Hotel.

Boutique coffee shop and bicycle parking: hipster necessities in Maboneng.

Sunday street market.

Sunday street market.

Arts on Main, a courtyard in Maboneng with galleries, stores, bars and restaurants.

Fantastic vegan fare at Market on Main, the weekend food market in Maboneng.

It's good to know that, despite our differences, the struggles and worries of mankind are the same the world over.

The relocation of corporations to the Northern reaches of the city wasn't happenstance.  Most of the city's professional whites lived in the verdant suburbia that spreads from Johannesburg to Pretoria.  As the area was developed, six million trees were planted in and around these all-white neighbourhoods, creating the largest urban manmade forest in the world.  The contrast with black Johannesburg on the other side of the hill couldn't be starker.  In the North, you are obviously surrounded by wealth and a successful economy.  Construction cranes are busy building new corporate office parks, and expensive cars drive along well-maintained roads between posh shopping centres and large, detached, gated houses.  Were it not for the electrified fencing and left-side driving, you could easily think you were in Southern California.

We had drinks with Arshad, a fellow Cass alum, who showed us the other side of Johannesburg.  Here we're overlooking the endless trees of the city's urban forest, with Sandton in the distance.

Postcard-ready Sandton.

Twenty-six kilometres in the other direction from downtown Johannesburg is South Africa's most famous and largest black township, Soweto.  Soweto is short for South Western Townships, and was formed by the agglomeration of several adjacent townships.  Once an independent city, it was incorporated into Johannesburg in 2002, and is famous for being at the heart of the struggle against Apartheid and home to Nelson Mandela.  Twenty-five years on from Apartheid, the townships are still visibly poor, especially those that are not politically aligned with the ruling ANC.  There are small, informal bits that are reminiscent of the slums in India, but most of the townships are like the favelas of Brazil, more formalised, built of solid construction, with slowly-expanding public services.  After Apartheid, tenants were given the deeds to their homes, and many have stayed even if they could afford to move to the whiter suburbs, drawn to the close-knit community obvious in the townships.  Many of the original two-room houses have been expanded, and some are outright massive.

On my birthday, we took a tuk-tuk tour of Soweto, which was the highlight of Jozi for me.  I remember growing up knowing about the Apartheid system and, much like the Berlin Wall, it seemed like it would always be there.  When Mandella was freed while I was in high school, it was as monumental to me as the demolition of the wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union (No more Cold War, no more Apartheid - the world was going to be OK!), so I was very keen on the history of Soweto and excited to see the streets I'd heard so much about in person.  The tour was great, our guide was friendly and fun, and we got some traditional(ish) African food and beer at the end.  Followed up by a massage and dinner, it was a perfect way to mark the day and end our visit to Jo'burg.

A neighbourhood of Soweto.

The once-glittering towers of Johannesburg could be seen in the distance.

The informal economy is king in the townships.

This is part of a development that people in one of the poorest parts of Soweto were led to believe would be social housing for their relocation.  Upon completion, the government informed them that the flats would not be free, but for sale to them.  Though at a cheap price, it was still much more than the locals could afford, so they rioted against the government's plans.  Years later, they still stand empty.

A much-improved Soweto home next to a more traditional one.

Street art marking the location of the Soweto student uprising in 1976.

Nelson Mandela's house, which is just down Vilakazi Street from Desmond Tutu's house.  Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world to be home to two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Informal huts on the outskirts of Soweto.

The Soweto version of a semi; these owned by supporters of two rival football teams.

Sushil showing our guide how it's done in Mumbai.

Orlando Towers, symbols of Soweto.

It's a personal choiceShaun H. Coley ~ Shadwell ~ Tower Hamlets ~ London E1 ~ UK ~
You received this message because you are subscribed to the Google Groups "The Life of Shaun" group.
To unsubscribe from this group and stop receiving emails from it, send an email to
For more options, visit

No comments: