Joburg, Joburg

Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
Trip End Nov 17, 2005

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Wednesday, October 5, 2005

If its suburban neighbourhoods are like those of Los Angeles, downtown Johannesburg is an African Manhattan, densely packed, raw, and throbbing with activity. Here are the narrow streets, the hawkers, beggars and thugs, vendors peddling food and flip-flops and cell phone cards, and pedestrians in long, listless queues waiting along garbage-strewn curbs for mini-bus taxis.

Laundry hangs from the balconies of old apartment blocks, above the rolling shutters of dodgy grocery stores, Indian-owned electronics and phone shops, and liquor stores. At intervals are derelict colonial buildings marred by broken window panes and boarded-up entrances, or elegant, Dutch-African facades that rise like stylized tulips above doorways and cornerstones.

If I was initially defeated by Joburg's suburban chaos, my new friend, Malusi, has ably guided me into the heart of the beast. In Yeoville, a somewhat Bohemian neighbourhood downtown, he and I have dinner on a patio overlooking the street. Like a Greenwich Village of Johannesburg, Yeoville has attracted the students, immigrants and miscreants of the city, and watching its world go by is at once immediate, familiar and yet threatening.

If I took a stroll along Yeoville or its neighbouring streets I could be mugged in moments. As it is I'm only here with the security and friendship of a local. There may be a nascent urban renewal campaign in Johannesburg, but it's got a long way to go to combat the flight to the suburbs.

Taking a minibus taxi back to Randsburg, Malusi points out Hillbrow, one of the most treacherous areas of what is often considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world. "This is a rough place," he says. "Things can go bad here fast." Outside the vehicle, the crowded, chaotic streets seem menacing in the darkness.

Twenty years ago Hillbrow was the place where expats and South Africans came to party. Now, its broken side walks and buildings are proof of the poverty and disenfranchisement which is still a major reality in the new South Africa. But the country, with its faults and challenges, is in an unprecedented position as the first native-grown economic giant on the continent. During the decades of apartheid, when the world turned its back on South Africa, the country was forced to develop its own industries, and industrial culture, in the absence of foreign pressures.

These days, South Africa has powerful, internationally renowned advertising, television and IT industries, as well as a world-class services sector, and manufacturing industries making cars, foods and other high-quality consumer goods. It's no small thing that one of The Apprentice spin-offs is filmed in South Africa, with a black business mogul in the executive chair.

Some say that South Africa runs the risk of being the next imperial force in Africa (the other, graeter threat is China). It's said that one of the reasons the country is so quiet on Zimbabwe is that they're preparing to take advantage of the country when Mugabe goes. But as long as they keep their uniforms home, what's the harm of South African suits going in to rehabilitate Zimbabwe. Who else is going to do it?

The spread of shops, services and venture capital from the south has been a good thing. Up to a decade or more ago it was common in Zambia to queue for hours for basics like sugar. Now even in the rural areas the shelves are full. The penetratation of South African business into many southern African nations has not always been smooth, and in some cases those countries' businesses have been driven under. Much of the blame for this can be piled on cheap imports from China and India. More than anything, the continent--or at least southern Africa--needs a giant like South Africa to spur on growth, business development, and spending.

One of the side-effects of a strong South Africa is the brain-drain it encourages from Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe and other countries. Nations that, if they ever get their affairs in order, would do well to attract their native sons and daughters back. But for now the green is on the South African side, and the continent has, for the first time ever, a country capable of and intent on spreading its power and wealth.
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