Although economically Johannesburg may be the most important city in South Africa, I can’t say that it has either the charm or beauty of Cape Town.
Flying in for the weekend from the Mother City, you pass through scenery that morphs from green, fertile plains and soaring mountains to dramatic stretches of red desert.
As you near your journey’s end, however, the landscape is transformed into the mud-coloured highveld of winter, scarred by mine workings, pools of toxic chemicals and slag heaps – the unprepossessing by-products of an industry that has produced a huge 35% of the world’s gold. Mining in all of its various forms still accounts for nearly 20% of the entire South African economy.
Nonetheless, the City of Gold prides itself on its “urban forest” of six million trees that are planted everywhere from parks and along pavements to within people’s gardens in the suburbs.
But because the indigenous trees of the Highveld savannahs don’t grow more than about six metres and their thorns have a habit of puncturing car tyres and piercing pedestrians, most of them are foreign imports – oaks brought by the first Afrikaner farmers from the Cape in the 1830s and 1840s; Australian blue gums planted during the Gold Rush to serve as pit props as well as the planes and jacaranda trees beloved of colonial settlers.
For the average ex-pat/middle-class city dweller, meanwhile, the northern suburbs appear to be where it’s at. Green, leafy and pleasant, they’re basically residential areas with uniform, soulless shopping malls dotted around in between – all very American.
In fact, if I was going to compare it to anywhere, I’d say Jo’burg reminded me most of Los Angeles – a downtown that you wouldn’t walk around at night, although the prosperous, Canary Wharf-like Sandton has risen to take its place, and various suburbs acting like separate little towns and villages, each with its own look-and-feel.
Soap operas and theme parks
One of the pluses of Jozi, as it’s known locally, though is that it’s among the few South African cities that has suburbs with a bit of street life in the form of pavement cafes and restaurants – and I include Melville in that esteemed list.
While philistines outside of South Africa’s hallowed shores are unlikely to have heard of it, Melville is a veritable mecca for fans, such as myself, of cult Afrikaans soap opera, ‘7 de Laan’, which my beloved was kind enough to whisk me off to as a secret treat.
Melville’s Seventh Street and its multifarious shop fronts, restaurants and bars have the five-day-a-week honour of being featured on the show’s opening visuals. And, unsurprisingly given its bohemian feel, it’s apparently a favourite hang-out of students from both the Universities of Johannesburg and Witwatersrand.
Another rather interesting little trip that we made was to Gold Reef City. While essentially a theme park based on the 1886 gold rush in the Witwatersrand hills surrounding Jo’burg – which includes a fun if rather leaky River Rapids log flume and an ‘Anaconda’ ride that is apparently the fastest and tallest inverted rollercoaster in Africa – it also happens to be the site of an out-of-action gold mine.
Although the shafts originally went down for about more than 7,700 feet, taking men two hours to get there in order to start their shifts, we only ventured as far as 700, which, it must be said, was quite enough for me.
While the site itself was somewhat sanitised, life working in a gold mine very patently isn’t. Of all of the different kind of mining activity, working with gold is by far the most dangerous, not least because the depths at which people have to work make rock falls much more common.
But even if they survive such hazards, the silica dust produced by constantly drilling into rock that has been blasted loose, even if the area is wetted down, can lead to silicosis, a lethal disease that attacks the lungs.
Widespread mechanisation is impossible, however, due to the narrowness of most gold ore-bearing reefs and, despite modern drills and the like, the work remains very labour-intensive.
It also appears to be exceptionally destructive – every six tons of rock that are blasted out of the earth produce only one measly ounce of gold, meaning that the economic viability of any mine is heavily dependent on the metal’s value on world markets.
But it’s also the reason for the mountainous, cream-coloured slag heaps, or mine dumps as they’re known locally, dotted around the less affluent southern suburbs of Johannesburg, including just outside of Soweto.
Thankfully however, modern processing techniques mean that these piles of crushed rock can now be mined for sand and residual gold and so are gradually starting to disappear – although not before time, it must be said, particularly due to the dust pollution that they generate.
Speaking of Soweto, or ‘South West Townships’ though, we also took the almost obligatory trip around there too. Once a symbol of apartheid oppression and the heart of the ‘struggle’, the vast township that houses unknown numbers of people, now comprises quite distinct areas.
Much of it is made up of the old apartheid era ‘matchbox’ houses, or uniform four-room places, which were build to provide cheap accommodation for black workers.
But other neighbourhoods are made up of the decrepit, corrugated iron shacks of the informal settlements, while yet others comprise the upmarket homes of the prosperous and growing black middle class.
Winnie Mandela, for example, still lives in a huge mansion built for herself and Nelson before their divorce, in the well-heeled Soweto suburb of Orlando West – and to prove the point, we even saw her being driven away in her flashy black Audi.
Somewhat more modest in stature, however, is the house of retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Located on lively and commercialised Vilakazi Street, it is just down from the road from Nelson Mandela’s old home, now a museum, and just up the road from the Sakhumzi Restaurant.
Obviously a tour-guide’s favourite, it was here that we finished off our trip with a range of local delicacies, which included mutton stew and tripe, the latter of which I politely declined.
I did, however, get to enjoy a couple of Nguni (speakers of certain Bantu languages such as Zulu and Xhosa) staples that I’d vaguely heard of, but never sampled before.
White ‘mealie pap’ or maize meal porridge may be pretty tasteless in and of itself, but the flavoursome tomato sauce that it’s traditionally served with certainly helps to liven it up a bit.
Samp and beans (crushed corn kernels and sugar beans), along with various other unknown flavourings, on the other hand, is definitely scrummy just as it is and is apparently a favourite of Nelson Mandela.
Which just goes to show that life is always about the small pleasures, no matter where you happen to find yourself.