South Africa: Day 5, Johannesburg
Though I had arrived in Johannesburg on Thursday, I didn’t actually get to see the city until Monday. And at that, I only had a few hours. Fortunately, I had a guide, Max, with detailed local knowledge.
We started from a hill overlooking various parts of the city. The location itself was populated by people of various backgrounds communing with their gods.
To one side, industry mixed with residences in a blend that stretched to a mountain ridge at the horizon. Born of a gold rush, Johannesburg grew up practically unguided, an organic if disorganized response to basic human need. So it was no surprise that apartment buildings, stadiums, offices, and factories all sat side by side. Highlighting the contradictions of the city, my view was framed by the trash and debris that had been left untended upon our hill.
In another direction was the infamous Hillbrow — once a luxury destination, now known mostly for its urban decay and crime. And to be known for crime in Johannesburg is something, because the whole city is riddled with the imminent threat of violence. Most people I spoke with had either been carjacked themselves or knew someone else who had, for instance.
The houses in the suburbs, where I had stayed, evidence a clear reaction to this violence in the form of high walls, barbed wire (sometimes electrified), external gates, and even internal gates within a residence. These were placed between the entrance hall and the sleeping quarters, the idea being to prevent an intruder from killing you as part of a burglary. People left their compounds only by car.
Hillbrow itself was next. There I saw more contradictions. Newly renovated high-rises offered a promise for the future, right next to drug-infested, mafia-controlled buildings that even the police wouldn’t enter. Indeed, even the nicer buildings were protected not by the police but by a private security force called “Bad Boyz.”
Yet people in Hillbrow seemed at home, strolling down the streets and interacting freely as one does in a community. In yet another contradiction, the vibrancy of such an impoverished region was a stark contrast to the walled-off sterility of the richer areas.
At least, so it seemed to me.