Ten Things About Johannesburg
My husband likens Johannesburg to Angelina Jolie. She is glamorous, wild, and a tiny bit dangerous. Oh, and if I had Angelina’s income, I’d also be adopting a bunch of orphans here too. Life in the ‘World Class African City’ is an experience in extremes. You might love it or hate it here, but you’ll never be bored.
Ten Best Things
1. The Weather. I may not ever again live in a more perfect climate. The summer was hot, but not too humid- such a pleasant escape after a DC tour. We’re in winter now, but only a couple of days has it dipped below freezing. Oh, and the sun shines every day, restoring vitamin D levels after a rainy three years in Luxembourg. What’s not to love about that?
2. Community. From cups of tea and a chat, to getting together for book club and talking about everything but the book- we have felt incredibly welcome here, quirks and all. Perhaps because it is my first time at a Consulate rather than an Embassy, or perhaps I’d just had an isolating few years, I’m especially grateful for the warm and inclusive support here that comes straight from the top.
3. Children’s Activities. I don’t know that there is anywhere in the world that is Johannesburg’s equal when it comes to family-friendly things to do. Just about anything that interests your child is available here, from cutting-edge art spaces, to polo. The best part for us was finding a swim instructorwho was experienced with special needs children.
4. Dining Out. It is very affordable to eat out as compared to a domestic tour, and just about every dietary requirement is catered to here. But the best thing for us is having decent restaurants which not only welcome children, but often have supervised play areas too. You could still hang out at McDonalds, but there is no reason to do so here.
5. Language. Okay, so there are eleven official languages, and the people here rightly take pride in that linguistic heritage. But the official language is English, and almost everybody you encounter speaks it fluently. Much as I am a language nerd myself, I wouldn’t much fancy trying to find therapists and schools that can support my kids’ special needs in any language other than English right now. After almost a year, I even like the accent now- which is just as well because Cubby is picking it up a little more every day.
6. Woolworths. Woolworths is not the same as the former Woolworths of England or the US, but part of the Marks and Spencer family. To know Woolworths is to love it. To know their Chocolate Millionaire Brownies is to develop an addiction that makes your clothes stop fitting. Everything you’ll ever need in one store, and it is still cheaper than grocery shopping in the US. It will give us Hot Cross Buns at Easter, and cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving. Pudding appreciates it as a regular supplier of Hello Kitty products, from clothes to nut-free advent calenders.
7. Tea and Coffee. I like my tea, and used to have my parents bring huge quantities to wherever I lived, but no need here. Five Roses tea is wonderful. Rooibos tea is a refreshing delight. I can go out to any cafe or restaurant and the quality is equal to what I would drink at home. Living in the US I developed a certain fondness for Starbucks, so was dismayed to find that it hasn’t made its way over here yet. Imagine my delight to find several quality alternatives here, from Mugg & Bean to Vida e Caffe. And they make babyccinos for the kids.
8. Comforts. I’ve been known to enjoy the finer things in life, and the same can be said of the good people of South Africa. For instance, it was a little chilly in Sunday morning, so we popped into a coffee shop where I could sip a Lindt hot chocolate while wrapped snugly in the cosy throw provided on the oversized leather chairs. Bliss. Did I also mention that South Africa is wine country? If you like a glass, trust me, you’ll enjoy it here.
9. Wildlife. Can you believe we haven’t gone on safari yet? We want the kids settled, and a tiny bit older to fully appreciate it. But we have been to game parks and wildlife reserves that have taken our breath away. It is incredible to see such creatures as giraffes and lions up close. We actually stayed at a crocodile reserve (though alarmingly, it sold crocodile skin handbags). One of the highlights of my life so far was feeding a family of elephants, and I know we haven’t even really begun our animal adventures here.
10. Scenery. You don’t always hear about South Africa being a beautiful country, but that just makes it even more incredible to discover. The Drakensberg mountains are incredible, and I can’t wait to add trips to Cape Town and Durban. I don’t think we’ll come even close to exploring everything we want to, but if we do, there is always Madagascar, Mauritius, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique to check out, all (relatively) close at hand.
Ten Worst Things
1. Crime. You might know that Johannesburg is considered the most dangerous city in the world before you get here, but living it is an entirely different experience. That feeling of security I’ve always known is absent here, and for all the precautions you can take, you can’t change the amount of crime that happens. There are sections of this city that I’ve never been to, nor will I. Even in the suburbs I don’t feel safe at night. A woman is raped here every thirty seconds. There was an armed robbery right where our children play. I’ve held a woman who had just been told her son was murdered, and not had the words to comfort her. Crime is by far the worst thing about Johannesburg.
2. Driving. I have to drive a lot here, so my experience is probably a little different to those who manage to avoid school run during the rush hour. You have your usual big city lack of courtesy, together with potholes and traffic lights that don’t work. I also have a lousy car, so I’m just grateful if I get through the day without being towed. This is not the place to have an unreliable vehicle (see above).
3. Kombi Buses. Perhaps they should just come under the driving header, but I hate kombi buses so much that they get their own special heading. From constantly honking, to driving on the wrong side of the road, to pulling out without looking: a day driving amongst these vehicles feels like you’re in the middle of war zone. Needless to say, we’re not actually allowed to ride in them.
4. Growing Pains. You’ll sometimes hear South Africans refer to their country’s struggles as ‘growing pains.’ Indeed, the post-Apartheid nation is still young, but still an interesting way to describe such deep inequality and corruption. Sometimes living history comes at a cost.
5. Racism. Apartheid may have ended in 1994, and South Africa probably has the best constitution in the world, but there is still disproportionate challenges facing the black African population here. When you go to a restaurant in the northern suburbs, you still tend to find that most of the customers are white, and the serving staff are black. There is a reason why ethnic tensions still exist here.
6. Inequality. The flip-side to living amongst these luxuries, is knowing that you are surrounded by people who will never know these creature comforts. I find it hard living in relative wealth when I see the extreme poverty of those living in settlements or more rural parts of the country.
7. Poaching. Rhino horn poaching is brutal and tragic, and actually increasing here. Although the horn is made of the same material as fingernails, rhino horns nets a fortune for poachers selling to the Asian market. Poaching is so endemic that some wildlife reserves are actually removing the rhino’s horns in an effort to protect them from slaughter. There are few things that make me sadder than the thought of this beautiful animal becoming extinct because of man’s greed.
8. Window washers. With official unemployment rates at 25%, and unofficial ones even higher, I can understand people looking for ways to make money. That said, the people who clean my windscreen at the traffic lights have been unreasonably aggressive. Driving alone with young children, I feel particularly vulnerable to their hostility.
9. Disability. This is another world of contrasts in South Africa. There is a young disabled black African girl who frequently sits at the traffic lights close to our home. Who knows how many years she has been doing this, but she certainly isn’t getting a decent education. Often you’ll see (presumably) family members leading their disabled companions through traffic to beg. It is inconceivable that the famous disabled athlete Oscar Pistorius comes from this same country, but with a radically different experience. Likewise, my autistic daughter’s education is entirely different to if she was born here in rural poverty.
10. Distance. South Africa is a large country, but this is a HUGE continent. At times it feels really far from home, and the internet doesn’t always behave as kindly as it could to the homesick. This country has a wealth of attractions, but it can’t always compete with a 17 hour flight when you’re looking for visitors.
So there you have it. Johannesburg is like nowhere else, but for us it feels like home. I’ll probably never feel easy living here, but at least we’re very comfortable. This post was inspired by a fellow Foreign Service Blogger’s contribution: Fabling.