I Was (s)hot in Joburg

Johannesburg, City of Contrasts and Diversity
Feature06.09.2017Michelle Gramlich und Ekaterini Georgousaki

Germans love travelling to South Africa. Every year, the beautiful beaches, the exotic wildlife, the fascinating landscapes and not least the favourable exchange rate attract millions of tourists to the southern tip of Africa. Most visitors start at Cape Town and then take in the surrounding vineyards before travelling along the Garden Route, with many also adding a trip to the Kruger National Park to their itinerary. But Johannesburg? All that most people see is OR Tambo, the city’s international airport, when changing planes en route to the Cape. But visiting South Africa without getting to know Johannesburg leaves a glaring blind spot in the visitor’s appreciation of the country. In recent years, Johannesburg has transformed itself into the beating heart of South Africa. It offers much more than most travellers suspect.

Johannesburg, Joburg, Jozi or eGoli (“place of gold”), South Africa’s largest city, has 4.5m inhabitants. It attracts nicknames as easily as prejudices: it is said to be drab and dreary, breathlessly hectic, and neglected and dirty. But more than anything else, it is seen as the capital of crime – you’d think Johannesburg was a war zone if you believed all the stories. This is far from the truth. Certainly, it is advisable to take care, especially in certain areas, but that shouldn’t stop you from visiting Johannesburg. 

The City of Gold

Of all the city’s nicknames, eGoli is the one that best explains its origins. The word is derived from isiZulu, one of the eleven official languages of the rainbow nation, and means “place of gold”. The story of Johannesburg begins in 1886, when large gold deposits were discovered on the Witwatersrand, a long and rocky mountain ridge. Thousands of fortune-seekers streamed to the diggings in search of work and riches, transforming the settlement into a town soon called Johannesburg. Nobody knows for sure after whom it was named, except that it must have been somebody called Johann, a common Dutch name. The city’s location was determined purely by the gold find, meaning that it is one of a very few cities in the world not located close to the sea, a river or other body of water. The gold mines which initially gave the city its characteristic appearance in the years after 1886 have now been replaced with a new cityscape that juxtaposes wealthy suburbs with their high-rise buildings and shopping malls against poor townships and informal settlements with their RDP houses and shacks.

A city of contrasts and diversity 

The contrasts that characterise Johannesburg are rooted deep in South Africa’s history and will take decades to overcome. Up until 1994, the oppressive apartheid regime (apartheid means “apartness” in Afrikaans) held sway in the country and divided people into white, black and Coloured population groups on the basis of their race. These divisions were also imposed on residential areas: the CBD (the Central Business District) was reserved for whites, while blacks and Coloureds were forced to live in townships, far from the commercial centre and workplaces. Racial segregation was abolished in 1994, but the country’s painful divisions are still inscribed in Johannesburg’s urban landscape. Nothing more than a highway separates the wealthy suburb of Sandton from the poor township of Alexandra, for instance, a striking example of persistent divides. Such contrasts and inequalities, which many Europeans find hard to comprehend, remain apparent. But despite the heavy burden of its past, the city is undergoing rapid changes. It is this dramatic transformation process that gives Johannesburg its distinctive charm. The Johannesburg metropole, home to people from all over the world, changes daily, and one never quite knows what is next. Gusts of this “wind of change” can be felt in the inner city more than anywhere else. When racial segregation was lifted in 1994, most of the whites who had until then lived in the CBD moved out into the suburbs, and most large companies moved their head offices to the leafy northern suburbs, areas such as Sandton and Rosebank. In addition to ordinary workers and their families, the CBD also attracted illegal immigrants, drug dealers and criminals, including some who hijacked abandoned buildings and converted the inner city into a no-go area.

Hipsters, art and culinary delicacies from all over the world – the new Joburg CBD  

But visit Main Street in Johannesburg’s CBD on a Sunday and you won’t believe your senses: you’ll encounter hipsters in colourful outfits, the tantalising smells of delicious food, street traders selling African fashion and jewelry, and artists singing in the middle of the road or performing live theatre. It is hard to believe that this was a no-go area just a few years ago. Main Street lies at the heart of the Maboneng precinct, a Sotho word that means “place of light”. It is a prime example of the new Joburg. The changes began in the 2000s, when private investors started buying and renovating sections of the derelict inner city. Modern, expansive lofts and studio apartments took the place of the old, abandoned warehouses and office blocks, and attracted the more intrepid members of the middle class back to the inner city. Today, places like Maboneng or Braamfontein, a district particularly frequented by students, feel like bright oases in the midst of the monotonous sea of high-rise buildings. On weekends you’ll find food markets here, a must-see for any visitor to Johannesburg. They provide ample opportunity to sample delicacies from all over the world, as well as South African specialities like the famous “bunny chow”, a dish originating in Durban’s Indian community and made by hollowing out a loaf of bread and filling it with curry. Of course, the inner city offers much more than just food. You will also find art, culture and nightlife there, including everything from galleries and street art to trendy rooftop bars and jazz clubs.

Joburg - a must-see for any trip to South Africa

“I was (s)hot in Joburg”, a trendy brand created by a community project that makes and sells a wide range of Joburg-themed products such as photos, t-shirts, cushions, picture frames and more, tackles one of the most common preconceptions about the city head-on. There’s no denying that the city has a high crime rate. But visitors who respect certain basic rules and avoid dangerous areas can look forward to an enjoyable and memorable stay. In addition to the inner-city precincts mentioned above, the excellent apartheid museum and Soweto, the largest township, are highly recommended. The Oriental Plaza, less frequented by visitors, is also worth a visit: it is a shopping mall of a different kind in the predominantly Indian suburb of Fordsbug. Surrounded by the many shimmering hues of African and eastern fabrics, the aromas of Indian spices and the muezzin’s call to prayer, you’ll feel yourself transported to a different world.

Walking and cycling tours are a great way to explore Johannesburg, and many attractions can also be visited using the familiar red hop-on, hop-off buses. South Africans are renowned for their hospitality, so an invitation to a braai (a South African barbecue) provides an opportunity not to be missed. October, spring in Johannesburg, is usually the best time to travel. That’s when the jacaranda trees are in full bloom and transform the city, whose ten million trees are said to constitute the world’s largest man-made urban forest, into a sea of purple flowers. Travellers of any age will enjoy a trip to Johannesburg, although the city is less suitable for families with small children. Visit Johannesburg with an open and inquisitive mind. You will encounter a wealth of different cultures and find yourself transformed by the visit.