When I’m asked by prospective expats about Johannesburg, the first topic that invariably comes up is the crime rate. It’s the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco, and Roadside Smash-and-Grab for Johannesburg. Yes, the reputation is there for a reason, but I don’t know of any other major city in the world where the chasm between perception and reality is quite so deep. If you’ve ever actually lived in Johannesburg, or Joburg or Jozi as it is also often called, and someone asks you what you remember it for, the crime rate won’t top your list.
What will probably top your list is the weather. Joburg gets an incredible 300 hours of average sunshine per month, which translates into about 10 hours per day. From the early morning when you’re woken by the blood-curdling screech of the hadeda, a bird in the ibis family and an icon of South Africa, until evening when the sun dips over the horizon in a sea of orange and red marking another breathtaking African sunset, the sun will shine as reliably, well… as reliably as traffic lights work in places other than Johannesburg. Actually, they are not traffic lights but robots, as South Africans inexplicably call them, but we’ll get back to those later. Even places like Rio or Sydney, which you might think of favorably in terms of climate, don’t get much more than 150 hours of sunshine a month. And they are not just regular hours of sunshine; they are splendid – mild, dry, never humid. Sleeping with open windows and a breeze wafting through our bedroom is one of my fondest memories of life in Johannesburg.
As is often the case, the sunny climate seems to seep into a person’s soul, and so the people of Johannesburg are known as the friendliest in the world. The smiles and jokes being lavished on you from all sides on a daily basis are so contagious you will make friends faster than you have ever before, and when you do you’ll probably be invited into their homes for a braai, labeled by some as the best kind of barbecue in the world (probably because it lasts so long and involves a lot of wine and beer). Random people will offer you their help. They will be genuinely interested in your problem or project and generous with their time helping to solve it. Surrounded by such goodwill,
Though I admit that you might not, in fact, stroll – Johannesburg is huge, around 10 million people, though estimates vary greatly – but rather find yourself in a car, and more often than not that car will be stuck in traffic, which to me far outpaces crime as Joburg’s worst feature. This is due to its almost non-existent public transport system and the fact that numerous ill-maintained and largely unregulated minibus taxis take up the slack, and often also due to the aforementioned robots, a good number of which can be counted on not working on any given day. Don’t ask me why, there is no good reason for it, it’s just the way it is. But in typical African fashion predicament is turned into opportunity, and thus you get one of Joburg’s most endearing features: Its ubiquitous street vendors. You will see them simply everywhere offering their colorful wares, from beaded key chains to rugby shirts, pirated DVDs and clothes hangers. As a newcomer you will often be warned to keep your windows up, but to me engaging with the street vendors and haggling over price was a favorite pastime. Not only that, I’d often despair at not finding an item in any stores, and sure enough a street vendor could be counted on to source it for me.
The things you can do and see in Joburg are too numerous to count. If you’re interested in culture and history, must-see stops are the Apartheid Museum, Liliesleaf Farm, and the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto. While you’re at the Apartheid Museum, you might also plan a visit to Gold Reef City, an amusement park that has it all, from a Kiddies Corner for your toddler to the Tower of Terror where you can plunge headfirst into an old mineshaft at breakneck speed. While you visit Soweto, you might sign up for an official tour – even bike tours are available – that takes you to other important landmarks such as Mandela House, Walter Sisulu Square, and Regina Mundi Church. If you like shopping, then Sandton City is a place for you; it’s one of the largest (and confusing) shopping centers I have ever been in. Be sure to also step onto Mandela Square and get your picture taken next to the giant bronze statue of Nelson Mandela. If it’s Sunday, pay a visit to the Rosebank Roofetop Market for a colorful collection of antiques, African artifacts, and ethnic foods, where you might also be entertained by talented drumming or a capella performances. In the Northern suburbs of Johannesburg, which is where most expats choose to settle, you can walk on cobble-stoned streets at Montecasino, an indoor shopping and entertainment complex built to resemble a Tuscan village with quaint stores, many restaurants, movie theaters, a casino, bowling alley, comedy club, and the “Teatro” featuring all the big-name performances coming to South Africa.
About the Author:
Eva Melusine Thieme is the author of "Kilimanjaro Diaries" www.joburgexpat.com
She has been chronicling her family's adventures while living in South Africa.
She currently resides in Brentwood, Tennessee, with her husband and four
children, where she is working on her next book about a road trip through
Namibia with six people in a five-person car. To learn more, visit her
author website, Rhymes With Melusine www.evamelusinethieme.com