Johannesburg – City of Moths and Gold Dust

I can’t put it off any longer: I must write about Johannesburg. And I must start by saying that no other city in the world fills me with such dread. Maybe everyone who flees their hometown returns with that heavy stone in their stomachs. In my case, it’s more like a bagful of pebbles that gradually fills up as familiar sights roll by on the drive back to my childhood home from the airport. Fortunately, the pebbles magically evaporate as soon as I’m with my loved ones, dissolved by the need to make up for lost time, often after an absence of more than a year.

Family Home

My childhood home in Mondeor. Backdrop to my first novel.

I left Johannesburg back in 1986 to avoid conscription into the South African defence force, which was then being deployed to suppress the struggle against the apartheid regime. A lot has changed since the first democratic elections were held in South Africa in 1994, but some things have remained the same. There is still a very large group of very poor people living alongside a relatively small group of very rich people. And although I realise this is the case in many cities, Johannesburg always seems to remind me that I lead a privileged life and that I am somehow complicit in the perpetuation of these circumstances.

This partly explains the dread. But I also know there are many people who love Jozi or Joburg or Egoli, warts and all. So I decided to do a little crowd-sourcing on Facebook and Twitter, to balance my bleak feelings with brighter opinions. I got a wonderful response when I posted the following call for comments: “Johannesburg – Love the people, dread the city. Always have. Tell me what you love about Jozi. Be poetic. Make me laugh.”

Among the first to respond were journalists Gus and Sipho, who swiftly reminded me that the people ARE the city in Johannesburg. “We look out for each other. Especially while waiting for the lights to change,” added Gus, immediately raising two of the hottest topics of discussion in Johannesburg: traffic and crime. But these are almost inevitably laughed off with that typical brand of hard-boiled humour that Joburgers share with their big-city cousins elsewhere. Here’s a selection of their comments, lovingly edited to protect more sensitive readers.

“This town will spit you out if you’re too soft. It prefers chewy prey. It’s that chewing that makes us softies at heart.” (Evert)

“Joburg traffic is such that it is psychologically and logistically easier for me to go to a meeting in Cape Town than in Northcliff.” (Louis)

“A night out in Jozi is safer than a night out in Manchester, but sadly the opposite is true of a night in – and that’s where the real fear is.” (Jonathan)

“Sushi, Swag, Spunk, Bling. Fake designer labels. Prada from the strada.” (Nutts)

“Jozi folk love spending, even when it’s not their own money.” (Niki)

“Joburg, city of lights, city of immigrants, city of crime, city of gold and silver, city of moths and dust.” (Ingrid)

“The joyous feeling of popping jacaranda flowers underfoot or beneath car wheels as you set off on a crisp fresh morning.” (Caroline)


Jacarandas in Melville. Photo by Philip Akins.

“I love the idea that Jozi is a testament to human innovation and hard work. Who would have thought, 125 years ago, that the swathes of grassland would today be the epicentre of a continent – the largest man-made forest in a city with no natural source of water. The city is a testament to miners, Randlords, sex workers, farmers and innkeepers. And we have really nice weather.” (Russell)

“I love the climate, the high blue skies, the stability of the weather. You can see the change in weather coming. The extraordinary light that comes in under evening thunderstorms and the exquisite beauty of winter. Sunsets heightened by air pollution.” (Colleen)

“Sugarcane juice vendors in Fordsburg.” (Rustum)

Sugarcane vendor

Stripping sugarcane for juice. Photo by Heather Mason.

“You’re close to wild animals in all directions, from the zoo and the Lion Park to leopards in the Pretoria hills. You just don’t get that in Cape Town.” (Fiona)

“The language of SA makes me laugh: Anglos who say Stunning! Diviiine! Awesome! or Hectic! to everything; Afrikaans sounds like a drunk Dane trying to speak Dutch and not succeeding; and bless Zulu and Xhosa for their clicks and other tongue tricks.” (Ruth)

“The place has energy and the people are friendly. People in supermarkets and queues and bars chat with strangers, which is not done in Durban!” (Jennifer)

“The resilience of its people, who ‘make a plan’, no matter what.” (Ingrid)

So, there you have it in several nutshells. Clearly, to get a real feel for Jozi, you need to make contact with its inhabitants. Choose wisely and feel free to share your experiences and opinions below. But be warned: hard-nosed Joburgers will be reading over your shoulder.

(Thanks to everyone who contributed and to photographers Philip and Heather for allowing us to use their wonderful photos.)

Richard de Nooy