Spectrummy Mummy

Asperger's, Allergies, and Adventures Abroad

Ten Things About Johannesburg

with 23 comments

Johannesburg Skyline

Johannesburg Skyline (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Written by Spectrummy Mummy

June 25, 2012 at 12:18 pm

23 Responses

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  1. The crime would be an issue for me, but it’s bad in almost any large city no matter which country it’s in. I can’t believe that you haven’t been on safari. But I guess you’d get used to the wildlife if you saw it all the time. And the thought of poaching seems terrible to me. I couldn’t imagine seeing a bunch of gator skin handbags for sale at a reserve.

    Jim Reeve

    June 25, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    • We have two more years to go, so plenty of time to find the right safari place for us. 🙂

      Spectrummy Mummy

      June 26, 2012 at 2:26 pm

  2. What an incredibly interesting post. I cannot even fathom living in Africa. And like you pointed out, you are living in history…as South Africa works through the wrinkles of being a new country. I imagine the stark contrasts you and your children see daily, and it boggles my mind. You’ll all be richer for your experience, that’s for sure….thank you for sharing!


    June 25, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    • Neither could I before I got here, and I’m pretty sure that this is one of the easier African assignments. Perhaps it will ease me in to the rest of the continent!

      Spectrummy Mummy

      June 26, 2012 at 2:25 pm

  3. I enjoyed the post. I lived in Johannesburg for 30 years and still dedicate a portion of my writing to it’s urban renewal. As a young intern minister I worked the streets of Hillbrow for a couple of years. I appreciate your lack of cynicism whilst not being naive about the city. I don’t think anyone should ‘get over’ crime, violence and racism like some kind of callous. But you can learn to live with a lot of the other idiosyncrasies. Life in Joburg revolves around people, so the more people-things you do the more you’ll love the city. I hope you keep keep safe and enjoy lots of tea and coffee.

    Matthew Campaigne Scott

    June 25, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    • Thank you- I’m certainly doing my best to appreciate all that this special place has to offer.

      Spectrummy Mummy

      June 26, 2012 at 2:24 pm

  4. Super useful! I actually just bid on Joburg so I was reading this a bit nervously, afraid to stumble upon something that would make me regret ranking it where I did. But no, sounds like a great place!


    June 25, 2012 at 4:00 pm

  5. Yes, you are right on the button. One thing that I must mention…… I moved to this country on the day of the that election that brought the ANC into power. On that day we moved from one corrupt government to the next corrupt government. It has been 18 years and not a lot of progress has been made…. when do we stop blaming apartheid?

    The Bright Side of Life

    June 25, 2012 at 6:39 pm

    • I’m not going to get into politics, but it definitely is a shame to witness so much corruption. I hope for everyone’s sake that real changes and progress can be made.

      Spectrummy Mummy

      June 26, 2012 at 2:23 pm

  6. What incredible contrasts. The beauty of wildlife and comfort of Lindt hot chocolate and teas compared to the rape of a woman every 30 seconds?! The disabled children begging in the street? Reality can be exotic and exciting or dangerous and haunting. This post fills my mind with images that are so hard to reconcile. I would think you could live in a place without feeling “easy” but if you did that would you ever call it home? It has to be quite incredible to have you feel it as home. I would love to see it on my own, someday. Maybe, after we meet in Paris (I’ve not forgotten!)


    June 25, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    • Crazy contrasts, but an interesting place nonetheless. Home has a different definition when you’re in the foreign service- I say the place where most of us are together and can be ourselves.

      Spectrummy Mummy

      June 26, 2012 at 2:22 pm

  7. I love this post. A very objective view of an amazing city. I laughed out loud at your Woolies comment. I am so a Woolworths girl myself.


    June 25, 2012 at 8:59 pm

    • I once told my husband that I could live anywhere that had a Marks and Spencer- so Woolworths counts and makes here very livable! That said, Paris closed its M & S, so I might have to revise that statement. 🙂

      Spectrummy Mummy

      June 26, 2012 at 2:20 pm

  8. If I could pick one county in the world to visit it would be South Africa. I have always been fascinated by it (too manyWilbur Smith and Beverley Harper books maybe).


    June 25, 2012 at 9:01 pm

  9. Wow. It’s almost been a year?! Time is flying. This is really interesting to read. Thanks for posting this!


    June 25, 2012 at 9:02 pm

  10. Reblogged this on ImaWestie and commented:
    Jossie… must have some parallels to Mounty County. Thanks for inspiring!


    June 26, 2012 at 10:21 am

  11. […] have no idea what inspired her, but Spectrummy Mummy has written Ten Things About Johannesburg. So she has now inspired me, to attempt to come up with Ten Things About Mounty […]

  12. Hi! I really enjoyed reading this post! So intereesting to hear about your new city in S. Africa! Very exciting and exotic (very different from our Minnesota, lol)…


    June 26, 2012 at 9:01 pm

  13. […] 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.  […]

  14. […] on spectrummymummy.com Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in […]

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