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Johannesburg. Living in the world’s most dangerous city.

Johannesburg from the eyes of an American family living in the world’s most dangerous city.

 

Our family lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 2010 to 2012. When people ask what it was like, the first topic that invariably crops up is crime. It’s the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco, and Roadside Smash-and-Grab for Johannesburg. Yes, there is a reason why tourists are urged to exercise caution in South Africa, but the alarming reports one often finds online are vastly overblown.

If you’ve lived in Johannesburg—fondly called Joburg or Jozi by the locals—you won’t leave with the crime rate foremost on your mind. You’re more likely to remember, with a sweet pang of regret, the weather. Johannesburg has the world’s best climate; mild, dry, and never humid, with an incredible 300 hours of average sunshine per month. From early morning, when you’re awoken by the screech of the Hadada Ibis, a bird with a blood-curdling call, until evening when the vivid oranges and pinks of the African sunset paint the sky, the sun shines as reliably as, well – as reliably as traffic lights work in places other than Johannesburg. Actually, they are not traffic lights but robots, as South Africans inexplicably call them.

Johannesburg Sunrise

Joburg’s sunny climate seems to seep into its people’s souls, making it the world’s friendliest city. You are much more likely to be helped by a complete stranger than have your car broken into. You’re lavished with smiles and jokes wherever you go. You’ll make friends faster than you ever have before, and you’ll spend inordinate amounts of time gathering with those friends around the braai, South Africa’s glorious perfection of the art of barbecue, combining their love of meat and Chardonnay with great conversation.

If there is one thing to fear about Johannesburg, it would be its traffic. Public transport is almost non-existent, and vast fleets of overcrowded, ill-maintained, and largely unregulated minibus taxis take up the slack. The aforementioned perpetually malfunctioning robots do their part in further strangling the city’s main arteries to slow you down to a crawl most hours of the day.

Nelson Mandela Bridge Johannesburg

There is a lot to do and see in Johannesburg. If you’re interested in culture and history, must-see stops are the Apartheid Museum, Liliesleaf Farm, and the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto. If you have children, you may opt for Gold Reef City instead, an amusement park that has it all—from Kiddies Corner, to the Tower of Terror, where you plunge headfirst into an old mineshaft. When in Soweto, make sure you visit the iconic landmarks of Mandela House, Walter Sisulu Square, and Regina Mundi Church.

If you like shopping, Sandton City is the place for you. It’s one of the largest (and totally confusing) shopping centers I have ever seen. While there, be sure to step onto Mandela Square and take a selfie at the giant bronze statue of Nelson Mandela. If it’s a Sunday, pay a visit to the Rosebank Rooftop Market to browse for antiques and African artifacts while sampling ethnic foods and watching breathtaking dancing and a capella performances.

In the leafy Northern suburbs of Johannesburg, home to wealthy locals and a large expat community, you can walk on the cobblestone streets of Montecasino, an indoor faux Tuscan shopping and entertainment complex offering quaint stores, restaurants, movie theaters, a casino, bowling alley, comedy club, and the Teatro, where many big name performances premiere in South Africa.

Westcliff Four Seasons Johannesburg

*If you’re a nature and animal lover, escape the hustle of the city to Joburg’s surroundings where you can visit Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary to see animals in their natural habitat, hurl yourself into the void on a canopy tour in the Magaliesberg mountain range, and self-drive through Pilanesberg National Park to see the Big Five in their natural habitat.

While Joburg might pale in comparison to its glitzier cousin Cape Town in terms of world-class restaurants, it nevertheless offers countless options for high quality, yet affordable dining. And while it can’t compete with the view from Table Mountain, a drive to its highest point, Northcliff Hill, rewards you with panoramic views of the city skyline. If you’re adventurous, you can go off the beaten track on a graffiti walking tour, join the Joburg Photowalkers on a Sunday, or find a guide taking you into Alexandra, Johannesburg’s oldest (and most infamous) township.

What strikes most visitors is Johannesburg’s youth and vibrancy. Having only been founded in the late 19th century after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, it has managed to retain an air of perpetual youth while constantly remaking itself. It is also one of the greenest cities in the world, lending its neighborhoods a park-like air despite the semi-arid climate. Johannesburg is the largest city in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is home to Hillbrow Tower, the tallest tower in all of Africa, and it produces almost half of the world’s gold.

Neighbourgoods Market Johannesburg.jpg

Paradoxically, the Johannesburg area can also be considered the world’s oldest human habitation. It is known as the Cradle of Humankind, home to over half of the world’s humanoid fossils including “Mrs. Ples,” one of the most perfect pre-human skulls ever found.

Yes, visitors should be careful and sensible while touring Johannesburg, especially at night and in unfamiliar places, much like any metropolitan area. Some people make a point of not stopping their cars at red lights at night (which, you might recall, are likely not working anyway). Residents who can afford it live in fenced-in estates with round-the-clock security and frequent shopping centers with guarded parking.

But you should never veer too far on the side of caution. Some of my most memorable experiences in Johannesburg occurred when I stepped out of my comfort zone and into places I was warned to never visit.

Remember this: The biggest fear for most expats living in Johannesburg isn’t crime. Rather, it’s the fear of being sent back home one day and having to give up the best life they’ve ever known.

Emmarentia Dam Johannesburg


Eva Melusine Thieme is the author of the travel memoir Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life. You can follow her on her blog, Joburg Expat, where she has been chronicling her family’s adventures while living in South Africa, or you can learn more about her next book about a road trip through Namibia with six people in a five-person car on www.EvaMelusineThieme.com. She currently resides in Brentwood, Tennessee, with her husband and four children.
*section of the article edited to represent animal sanctuaries that we support.
Sources: Opinion | Article first appeared in OutwardOn.com. Republished with permission.
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5 Comments

  1. Danny

    July 13, 2017 at 6:54 am

    From Pretoria, lived in Joburg for 6 years before leaving 35 years ago. Sorry but LA has the best weather ever, not Jozi. Sorry I didn’t leave earlier than I did. Have visited family a few times since and sorry to see the decline. You can keep Joburg, miss nothing about it, too many other magnificent cities in the world to visit.

    • Bryan

      July 13, 2017 at 6:35 pm

      LA Times – “Violent crime increased in Los Angeles for the third straight year as police tried to stem a rash of homicides and gang-related shootings while dealing with a growing homeless population. … Overall, violent crime was up by 10% over last year and 38% over two years ago.” Sounds lovely. Maybe you just haven’t seen it through all the smog which is not everyone’s idea of good weather!!!! Anyway, played golf today on a world class course for about US$6. About 9C and sunny this morning rising to 24C (this is mid-winter!!). And clean air….

  2. Ray

    July 14, 2017 at 8:42 am

    LA has traffic crime and racial tension. If you are from Pta you will know the best climate is from Pta. Pta East is awesome and didn’t exist much when you were there ages ago. The article is good and true but a bit rosy.

    SA problem is ANC corruption and like someone said black tribal greed and showing off. It comes from the top. So in Jozi and around you have millions of illegal immigrants and poor people and those who come from rural areas for work. Also poorer blacks have many children knowing they can’t afford to.

    Black tribal society has broken down and we have many young black men fatherless and jobless a recipe for disaster and crime. Add all this up plus a sense of black entitlement as mentioned before due to apartheid colonialism and soon they will bring in the biblical flood too…. to justify exclusion of whites which btw is exactly what apartheid did to blacks….

    … And you have an epidemic of petty crime robberies burglaries hijackings rapes and murders. It has gotten worse. If you want to jog or cycle you’re best off in a gated security Estate or in a group. On your own its almost as if the zombies are coming for you.

    Crime is that bad. And increasingly violent. My father had a shop and had a few armed robberies. My mother was attacked for the ring on her finger. I have been mugged. My apartment was robbed in broad daylight and the cctv footage shows they took their time.

    In my area there are home invasions or burglaries every week. Window washers at traffic lights harass you and are becoming violent ie stab you in the head with a screw driver if you upset them.

    Jhb people are friendly the sun shines we are near the bush Kruger and the beach the KZN beache. We have the Pilanesberg mountains and drakenseberg mountains and the Wild Coast no one mentioned is so gorgeous try a 5 day hike there incredible.

    But you have to be alive uninjured and happy and confident to do these things.

    Zimbabwe is beautiful but has Mugabe… SA is beautiful and Jozi has pretty parts and dirty parts but we have Zuma the ANC tribal politics and unemployed entitled violent youth….

    Its getting worse as the ANC gets worse.. the only hope is that somehow these jobless youth somehow wake up and stop voting for a corrupt stealing bunch of bandits who are selfish.. and vote for real change.. but I dont see it happening.

    Cape Town is expensive to live in.. Unless you’re an expat with millions. Pretoria is an excellent option cleaner and safer. I don’t have the millions needed to emigrate to Australia or so on. So I need to work more or study more for a wanted skill or just leave with nothing or look for positives here.

    There are positive points but as mentioned when violent crime abounds then it clouds things. Still one must be happy where one is. But don’t listen to expat saffas.. they talk SA down and have no clue as they live elsewhere and things change.

  3. Alan Millar

    July 14, 2017 at 11:07 am

    For all that this is a commendably positive take, the headline is little short of slander. 4 Cities from your home country (Baltimore, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Detroit) have higher murder rates than Johannesburg. “Glitzy” Cape Town, where I live, has roughly 3 times the murder rate of Johannesburg.

    Some central American cities such as Caracas, Venezuela (roughly 6 times the murder rate of Jo’burg) make Johannesburg seem like a church picnic.

    Johannesburg literally does not make it into the top 50.

    I would strongly urge you to change this grossly misleading headline, for all that your article is very positive.

  4. Ferds

    July 15, 2017 at 6:18 pm

    I come from Cape Town. Born bred and studied there. I spent 31 years in Jhb.sorry guys Durban is the best place to live in Sefrica. What’s a bit of humidity. You’ve got got the best beaches as well as the cheapest prices for housing.
    And it never gets cold in Durban

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