I was sitting on the grass at a community pool watching Frank swim and smiled to myself as group of cute young ‘tweens posed for selfies. As they waited for their guest of honor to arrive for a surprise party, I engaged them in conversation. They were extremely friendly and inquisitive, wanting to know about the US. Like any kids, they were excited to talk about school and their dreams for the future. Their enthusiasm darkened a bit when I asked them what it was like to live in Johannesburg. “It’s so dangerous.” “You can’t walk around with a cellphone because someone will just grab it.” “When you are driving in your car, you have to keep the windows closed and hide your purse and phone because they will grab it.” “If you don’t give it to them, they might have a gun.” They also told me they never walk around at night. And this was a very nice, upper middle-class neighborhood. It really made me sad that these young kids had to live like this but it wasn’t the first time we had heard about all the crime in Johannesburg.
Frank and I had talked with a lot of people and I don’t think one person said it was a city worth visiting. I pictured it as a chaotic dystopia, similar to that of Hill Valley in Back to the Future II. “Crime is rampant,” Businesses are leaving in droves” and “No one goes there except to fly in or out of the airport.” But we like to keep open minds. Having a few days post safari, we decided to see for ourselves.
From afar, the city looked modern and quite nice. Unfortunately, as we got closer to downtown, we found the area pretty much as described – crowded, filthy, traffic jams, with lots of pretty unsavory-looking characters. Even our driver wasn’t very complimentary, saying he had lived there but “got out because it can poison you.” We questioned the trash in the streets or the throngs walking in front of cars and he’d say, “That’s Johannesburg.” He pointed out areas even he avoided because they was full of drug dealers and “bad people who slept during the day and came out at night.” But you can walk around parts of New York, Chicago and other cities and think the same thing. Was there more to the city than this?
We were pleased to find out that there was. We dropped off a young “safari couple” in an area that they assured us was safe and a little artsy. We saw several restaurants and a lot of young people. We discovered that although many businesses had moved out of the CBD, five major banks and some other companies remained committed to the area. This resulted in at least half of the CBD being cleaned up and relatively safe. Other areas are slowly being gentrified, attracting young professionals and new businesses. And, like any other city, there are many nicer surrounding neighborhoods (like the one by the pool). Although the perimeters of the homes had those tall walls and electrified security systems, the homes themselves were lovely. We stayed in an area called Sandton, just north of the city. Many of the major businesses have moved to this area and there are a lot of fancy hotels and upscale shopping centers.
But like all metropolitan areas, the CBD is the beating heart. And Johannesburg will need to step up. New businesses won’t locate there if their workers feel unsafe. And if businesses don’t come, unemployment, unrest and crime will continue to multiply. It will take a major investment in security. (We heard many accounts of local police who didn’t respond to calls, traffic police on the take, and jails that were full so many criminals continue to walk the streets.) Who wants to move to a city where you have to fear going out at night and live life behind walled compounds? And who will want to stay there? I know those bright young girls I met – Johannesburg’s newest generation — dreamed of escaping to other places. And then what happens?