Lost in South Africa: A Look Back on Johannesburg

Adventure Travel, Expats Abroad, Health & Safety, South Africa, Travel Philosophy — By on November 18, 2009 at 7:00 am

By Courtney Brooks
LG International Correspondent

I left Johannesburg about six weeks ago to move to Cape Town and work as a freelancer for an international press agency, as well as do a photography project for my school. Even now I haven’t completely reconciled my feelings about Joburg.

There’s not doubt that Johannesburg is one of the most interesting places I have ever lived. If I had to pick one word to describe it I would say “intense,” because it’s true whether you’re in the swanky northern suburbs, the townships or the city center. The poverty is intense, the crime is intense and the security is intense.

It sometimes felt to me like the middle and upper class residents thought they were living in the New York of Africa – and it certainly has the components of big buildings, beautiful people and chic restaurants and clubs. But to me it always felt more like Las Vegas. There’s a certain obsession with wealth – what kind of car you drive, where you live, where your clothes are from – that I had never experienced firsthand before. And having this love affair with money juxtaposed against the devastating poverty of townships just a few minutes down the road is totally bizarre.

I also think Joburg has retained a bit of the feeling of living in a wild frontier town. The city was established when gold was discovered in 1886, and opportunists looking to get rich set the tone for Joburg’s attitude and energy. Maybe that early history, combined with the incredible protests and tension during apartheid, and finally the rampant crime there today, has created this place where you live on the edge, and always feel on edge.

While I was there I often felt the need to escape the city and go somewhere more peaceful, but since I left I’ve felt it drawing me back. I miss the drama, especially from a journalistic perspective. I didn’t love Joburg the way I love Cape Town, but it felt much more real to me. For anyone truly wanting to understand and experience South Africa, Johannesburg is a must.

This quote is from one of my favorite books, “When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir of Africa,” by journalist Peter Godwin. It is actually about his experiences in Zimbabwe, but perfectly describes the way I feel about Johannesburg.

In Africa, you do not view death from the auditorium of life, as a spectator, but from the edge of the stage, waiting only for your cue. You feel perishable, temporary, transient. You feel mortal. Maybe that is why you seem to live more vividly in Africa. The drama of life there is amplified by its constant proximity to death. That’s what infuses it with tension. It is the essence of its tragedy too. People love harder there. Love is the way that life forgets that it is terminal. Love is life’s alibi in the face of death.”

Photo Credit: (Top) street riot image from www.nytimes.com