Johannes in Johannesburg (or how it feels to visit one of the most dangerous cities in the world)
South Africa is the first country outside of Europe on my journey. Although I have been to Oman in 2014, I’ve never been as far from “home” as I am now. Ironically, the first city I visit is Johannesburg. In this blog post, I will tell you how it feels to visit one of the most dangerous cities in the world where at some point more people were murdered than killed in car accidents.
Day 1 – Arrival in South Africa
While I was planning my trip, I was a little worried about the weather in South Africa. South Africa is located in the southern hemisphere, meaning while I was “enjoying” what one would call the “Aachener Sommer”, it is actually winter here. Unfortunately, as I am traveling with a 45-liter backpack, there is not much room for warm clothes, hence I am carrying only one pullover and one pair of long pants.
As I step out of the plane at OR Tambo International, the warm midday sun streams into my face. After being stuck in overly air-conditioned airplanes for the last 13 hours, 20°C outside temperature feels very good. I am optimistic.
My first challenge is to get from the airport to the hostel that I have booked the day before. The Curiocity Backpackers is located in the Maboneng district in the middle of Johannesburg. Usually if I visit a city, I take the bus from the airport to the city center and just walk to wherever I am staying.
However, while reading up on different possibilities on how to get from OR Tambo into the city, I get a little worried. Generally, it is not advised for tourists to take the little minibuses. Going by train is also not advised, as one has to get from the train station to the hostel afterwards and walking is not really an option. The internet is also flooded with reports of tourists getting robbed by cab drivers. A friend of mine recommended me Uber, so I install the app, and request an Uber. After nearly one frustrating hour of waiting for different drivers to pick me up, I give up and decide to take my chances with a cab. The airport’s main hall is flooded with people trying to lure me into their cab. I try to find the friendliest looking one, and enter the cab of Moses. I must admit, that after hearing from another friend of mine how his backpack got stolen out of the trunk of his rental car while stopping at a red light in Italy, I decide to take my daypack containing all my valuables and a tooth brush into the front with me.
The highway into the city is overwhelmed by cars. Not only does everyone drive on the left side, I also get the impression that turn signals and stop signs are more of a suggestion and that quickly changing lanes in order to overtake the vehicle in front of you is the “Volkssport” of the South Africans.
As we leave the highway, I get worried more and more. We drive through blocks with run-down buildings in front of which people are luring while watching me as if I was the first white person to set foot in their district. For nearly 15 minutes I don’t see any other white person. Although Moses and I talked and laughed a lot during the ride, I take out my phone to check whether we are really going in the right direction.
When I finally arrive at my hostel, I am relieved. I check in, and Dudu – the receptionist – shows me around. She also tells me not to leave the street the hostel is on and also not to allow anyone to “help me withdrawing cash from the ATM”. I get some food from the restaurant next to the hostel and join some fellow travelers on the hostel’s terrace. For the next day, I decide to book a tour of Johannesburg.
Day 2 – Exploring Johannesburg on foot
Before leaving for Johannesburg, I get some breakfast with Philip and Thomas in the restaurant next door. Ghost – the chef of the restaurant and also the Jamie Oliver of Johannesburg – serves us a killer breakfast along with complementary freestyle rap. Strengthened from the breakfast, we leave for the city tour. Tsepol is our guide, and I am a little shocked as I hear that we are going on foot.
As we walk down the street, Tsepol tells us about how Johannesburg was founded as part of the gold rush, but was only designed to be existent for 50 years or so, as no one suspected it would last that long, leading to narrow roads and a generally poorly developed infrastructure. The district we are walking through is called Maboneng. A couple of years ago, one guy started buying properties here in order to develop the district. This “developer” – as Tsepol calls him – also introduced 24/7 security in some streets, represented by patrolling security guards, which is why it is relatively safe four tourists to walk around here. I ask Tsepol whether he ever got robbed and he tells me that he hasn’t been robbed, but that one acquires a skill to fell if something is wrong just by the way people are walking around one. He also tells me that he is constantly watching the next corner.
While walking through the streets I see a lot of artwork on house walls in the form of graffiti. Tespol explains to us, that art is a very important factor in the development of Maboneng and that artists from all around the world have come here to leave their footprint on the facades of the buildings. There are also a lot of galleries and museums that are part of the ongoing development process. Johannesburg is really trying to get away from the image of decay and criminality.
As we cross the next street, Tsepol points to a house and tells us that it has been hijacked, and that people are living there illegally without electricity, running water and so on. The contrast between the spirit of development supported by the street art on nearly every building and the derelict houses that have been hijacked can not be overlooked.
After visiting the worlds largest private collection of books and antiquaries, Tsepol calls us a minibus. Depending on where you want to go, you use different hand signs to call a minibus. If the minibus is heading in that direction, he will stop for you. We get in, and drive through commissioner street, the one street everyone warned us about. I look out the window, and see people taking drugs while lying in their own filth in front of hijacked houses. Words can’t nearly describe the circumstances I am seeing. Just after the next street corner there is a huge sales place of BMW, displaying the new i8 in their store front windows. Again, the contrast is surreal.
We get out of the minibus and into a mall in order to take the elevator to “the top of Africa”, a viewing platform on the 58th floor of the highest building in Johannesburg. The view is amazing, According to Tsepol, the population of Johannesburg is around 5 million people, however there are a lot of illegal citizens, which is why it is believed that Johannesburg is actually home to over 9 million people.
After seeing Johannesburg from the top, we walk through the city center. We cross Gandhi square and the mining district. The last stop we visit on foot is the house in which Nelson Mandela’s law firm was located. Here we are picked up by yet another minibus, and Tsepol takes us to God’s Land.
God’s land is a little hill, located outside the city center of Johannesburg. It was proclaimed holy by a lot of different ethnic groups and as we step out of the minibus there are people praying everywhere. There are even priests and shamans, dressed in white clothes holding a ceremony in a circle of stones. We are told not to take any pictures of them, as it might be considered offensive, but luckily my GoPro is relatively small and features a wide angle lens. The edges of the hill are lined with stacks of garbage, which does not stop people from kneeling down between them and humbling their prayers. Standing between them, visiting their sacred place that in Germany would be considered a threat to the environment and peoples health feels very, very strange. The fact that everyone looks at us because we are white only intensifies the feeling I have.
Johannesburg is a dangerous city and according to its reputation maybe the the most dangerous city in the world. However, the local murder rate of Cape Town (61.5) – where i will be going next – is even higher than the one of Johannesburg (28.2). The average murder rate in South Africa is 33.0 (Source: africacheck.org). In Germany it is only 0.9.
Although I am not easily scared, Johannesburg got to me. If the locals advise you not to leave the street the hostel is on you feel trapped. Exploring a city like i was used to from Europe was not possible. Also, being looked at simply because I am white was also a very strange feeling for me. Nevertheless, Johannesburg is undergoing a rapid development, and even though it was a scary and incinsive experience, i don’t regret choosing Johannesburg as the kickoff for my journey.