Don't Give a Damn About Joburg's Bad Reputation

19 February 2019

We arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa with zero plans but a steaming pile of prejudice against the city having encountered a few people who either lived in South Africa or had visited there. Everyone, and I mean everyone*, described the city as no less than the 10th Circle of Hell...but with more pickpockets. We arrived and quickly holed up in our 8th floor AirBnB apartment where we could look down at the city with an air of smug superiority.


Annoyingly, our spot was also filled with South Africans who quietly and patiently challenged our perceptions of the city with their "actual experience" from living in the city. As if. All joking aside, these guardian angels took us under their wings and introduced us to the real Joburg, the good, bad, and ugly. Stay tuned for some great podcasts with said guardian angels from Nate coming soon! They were careful to give a healthy amount of safety advice (...don't go north of this street...don't walk with bags or visible phones...don't look directly at the sun), but they also, and more importantly, introduced us to the diamonds in all that rough.

Joburg is unlike any city we've visited on this world tour. It lacked a clear tourist area with shopkeepers hawking African curios, real or imitation. Its bad reputation has kept the city largely untouched from would-be travelers. What is evident on the surface is a whole mess of scars from Apartheid. It seems like no less than a quarter of the buildings in the city lay empty and in varying states of decay. Meanwhile, the streets are unabashedly filled with homeless people who are prohibited by the government from squatting in the buildings. This is what remains in the wake of the great "white flight" from the city when Apartheid fell in 1994.

1994...I was eleven before Black Africans were given equal rights to Whites in South Africa. For nearly 50 years, the country's official policy was to keep White, Black, and Colored South Africans (Note: "Colored" in S. Africa refers to someone who is of mixed parentage, i.e. black and white parents. It does not carry the negative connotations of the same term used in America's history of Civil Rights) separate and never equal, a policy that the government policymakers authored after diligently researching other Nation's attempts at institutional segregation, including our own US of A. Nate and I did what we could to learn about Apartheid. We listened to Trevor Noah's book about growing up in the city as a Colored person (Xhosa mother and Swiss German father). We also talked with people who lived through Apartheid, both our Afrikaans host (Afrikaans = White South Africans of mostly Dutch heritage who arrived in S. Africa in the 17th century) and several Black Africans of various tribal backgrounds (Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, etc.).


We learned all the horrifying details that you'd expect to hear from the systematic dehumanization of a people group. Especially cringe-worthy was how the Powers That Be (hereafter PTB) would determine what race someone was so that they knew how to appropriately classify them as first or second-class citizens. When skin color wasn't a clear enough indicator of race, the PTB would subject citizens to the pen test: this is where a person would literally have to stick a pen or pencil in their hair, and if it didn't slide right out, they were clearly Non-White. *Cringe*

So I guess Joburg does deserve some of its bad reputation, but only if you're living in the past; it's a new generation. The new generation knows why people prefer to avoid their beloved Jozi, but with all the mean-mugging that Joan Jett herself can muster, they simply don't give a damn. They're looking forward to a bright future and it shows.

We enlisted the help of some of these Inexhaustibly Optimistic Jozi Youth (hereafter IOJY) to take us out of our glass watchtower and into the heart of the city. The IOJY helped us sift through the ugly and see those diamonds, at times literally opening a door to a shabby, rundown building to reveal a pristine restaurant or hidden bar. We started with a free walking tour that had us walking in Nelson Mandela's footsteps. Then I took a three-hour tour of the fashion district. My host Charlie took me from fabric shops filled with bright, African prints to workshop floors where the prints were being transformed into the latest runway trends.


Lastly, we explored Maboneng, the hip part of the city that is the closest Johannesburg/Joburg/Jozi has to a tourist-y area. The featured part of the district is a little cooperative called the Arts on Main where several artisans sell their handmade treats and goods. The streets around the warehouse are lined with cool spots to eat, get coffee, and chat up some starving artists.


If the three tours weren't enough to convince me of Joburg's bright future, there was one last incident that sealed the deal. Nate and I, having graduated from our IOJY-tour-guide training wheels, went exploring on our own to find some fresh veggies at the nearby open-air market. We were waiting to cross a main thoroughfare when I saw an older, Black gentleman walking diagonally through the intersection. He caught my eye not only because of his lack of concern about being run over, but because his eyes were locked onto us. Those old prejudices started to reemerge with a sassy "I told you so" ready on the lips. I shifted my eyes quickly away hoping to avoid whatever inevitable unpleasantness was heading our way. As the man came to stand directly in front of us, I had no choice but to look up. There I found a wide grin as the man excitedly told us how this was the third time he'd seen us walking around the area. He instantly transformed from a would-be assailant to a doting grandfather. He was so happy to see some tourists and wanted to let us know in person. He clapped us each on the shoulder with a smile and then bid us a good stay in Joburg before walking off. Take that bad reputation...I won't listen to you anymore.

Oh no (no no no no no no)

Not me (me me me me me me)

*Except Liz Derr who told me she loved her trip there and actively encouraged me to go.