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Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

1,000 Words About Johannesburg

Cross posted from Border Jumpers, Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack.

Been scratching our heads about how to write 1,000 original, inspiring, and exciting words on one of the most written about countries in the world. Instead of trying, we want to share with you a couple of things we saw and learned while we there.

As we traveled all the way south from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Johannesburg, South Africa, several Africans kept telling us how dangerous J’burg is. We heard the same sort of thing before visiting Nairobi, Kenya,”don’t step out at night and “don’t go anywhere without a taxi…” Yada, Yada, Yada.

But there was no question in our minds whether would visit or not. With a dozen meetings scheduled, nothing was going to stop us from going. And after two weeks weeks, despite the hype, and without compromising our experience, we didn’t encounter a single problem (we stayed in hostels and budget B&B’s), didn’t witness any car-jackings, were never robbed at gun point at an ATM, and never felt that our safety was compromised in any way. Every visitor we met while in the city had the same experience as us (uneventful, as far as crime).  

We are not saying don’t be cautious — or that crime is not a problem — but if fear is stopping anyone from experiencing this important city, or even the World Cup, our advice is stop reading this article and book that ticket.

When you arrive in Johannesburg, it’s hard not to notice how big this mega-city is– more than 10 million people and one of the 40 largest cities in the world. While it is the wealthiest province in South Africa, having the largest economy of any metropolitan region in Sub-Saharan Africa, the gap between the rich and poor is unlike anything we have seen (maybe with the exception of Kenya). We visited the slums of Germiston and Soweto, comparing the poverty to the decadence of the suburb Sandton and the East Gate Mall, the biggest mall in J’burg. How ironic that a city with so much wealth also has such extreme poverty, comparable or even worse to what we saw traveling in Madagascar, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe.

We wanted to share with you two interesting meetings/projects we visited on the ground:

We did a field visit to Johnson Matthey Catalysts in Germiston, South Africa, just outside of Johannesburg. There, nearly 600 workers pass through its doors every day to work on an assembly line making catalytic converters that are inserted in cars to reduce pollution, complying with South Africa’s auto environmental emissions standards. As we arrived, Percy Nhlapo, a trainer with the Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO affiliated non-profit organization that assists workers around the world who are struggling to build democratic and independent trade unions, was leading a discussion with a group of workers to correct misconceptions about the HIV virus and urging participants to get tested. “HIV/AIDS affects everyone, educating workers is the first step in helping them prevent further infection, getting tested is the second,” said Percy. After the training, nearly all the workers voluntarily agreed to be tested.

At the testing area, we spoke with registered nurse Dorothy Majola. “I find this job so rewarding because it so important that people know their status, as soon as they know their status they can change their lifestyle and behavior, which it will allow them to live longer lives,” said Majola. The company, in coordination with NUMSA (the workers’ union) and the Solidarity Center, agreed to host the training, allowing workers to attend and get tested at the beginning and end of their work shifts. Through programs like these thousands of workers are voluntarily getting tested a year across the country.

The next day we met with Daniel Kamanga, the Director of Communications of Africa Harvest, and former Kenyan journalist, who says that journalism in Africa has to overcome many challenges, including a general lack of coverage on agriculture issues-let alone a deeper understanding about who is funding agricultural development in Africa. Although agriculture makes up about 98 percent of the economy in Kenya, it’s barely covered in the country’s newspapers. And there are not any agricultural editors at any of the newspapers on the entire continent. But it’s not just a question of reporters having more knowledge, according to Kamanga. It’s also a matter of compensation. African journalists are typically paid very little compared to journalists in other countries. In Burkina Faso for example, reporters receive just 160 dollars per month. As a result, many journalists see bribes as a way to supplement their income. Yet with newspaper and media consolidation, fierce competition for advertisers, and lackluster economic conditions in Africa and all over the world, it’s a trend that might only get worse.

Finally, here are four other random final thoughts about “Jozi”:

(1) Spend an entire day at the Apartheid Museum, it’s brilliantly laid out using technology and multi-media, the visits take you on a powerful journey that will forever change the way your forever look at race relations and racism. It was one of the most powerful and emotional experiences of our lives.

(2) Take a biking or walking tour of Soweto, make sure you don’t just visit Apartheid landmarks (although you should definitely also do that), but ask your tour guide to take you through several villages and slum areas (we went looking at urban gardening projects).

(3) Where we stayed for a couple of days: we splurged ($35/night double en suite) on a quaint bed and breakfast on Sunberry street, in the heart of the bohemian town of Melville. Melville is full of alternative shops, two used bookstores, loads of pubs, and even a burrito barn. What we loved most about the B&B was the large kitchen for us to cook. We did a week binge of zero restaurants, cooking two meals a day, and enjoying the free wifi, free laundry, and even some free taxi rides.

(4) Visit the SAB Beer Museum, not sure what it says about a city when its number one tourist attraction is a beer museum. I’m also not sure what it says about us that we contributed to such a statistic (and had a blast!). The tour is advertised everywhere in Johannesburg–it’s a one and a half hour guided tour organized by SAB brewing (partners with Miller-Coors in the USA) complete with a 3D adventure, an IMAX-style movie, real life machinery depicting the beer making process, and lots more. Oh, and did we mention the tasting?


  1. Benito Malito

    I lived in Cape Town for a few years and never got mugged or robbed. Even for my friends who were robbed it was mostly harmless.    

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