Big Dusty Bustling Growing Sprawling
Johannesburg, or Joburg or Jozi or JHB, is a sprawling busy place, the largest city in South Africa. The population of the city itself is estimated to be 4.4 million while the greater metro area has a population estimated at 8.8 million or 10.5 million depending on the definition of the areas included. Suburbs stretch out in all directions separated by dusty fields. Its always dry at this time of the year following the dry winter season but this year there has been a severe drought and its even drier than usual. Wood and coal fires are often used for cooking and heating and the the smoke combines with the millions of car exhausts to leave a pall of smog over the rolling hills.
The roads are far better than I expected with a network of freeways and highways supplementing the quieter suburban roads which include the occasional dirt road. Private cars are plentiful and there are also lots of mini-buses which gather on the edges of large intersections and serve as public transport around the city and out into the country. At times wars can erupt between different mini-bus owners and operators as competition for business is strong. Adherence to road laws is patchy with speed limits and red lights not always observed so care needs to be taken when driving. Theft from vehicles is a concern so even when driving our bags, phones and other valuables need to be stored out of sight. Some areas are best avoided so we take local advice, avoid the city centre and also use our common sense to avoid the highly congested spots.
Significant parts of the population live in townships with overcrowding and poor facilities but acres of new housing developments are filling in the gaps between suburbs and attesting to the growing affluence of the population. There are hundreds of shopping centres and lots more in the process of being built. Most we visit are very quiet and it feels like there is already an oversupply. Many are very similar in feel to Australian shopping centres although of course chain names differ. Costs are cheaper than in Australia but not as cheap as usual as the drought has driven costs up because more goods need to be imported.
We are staying in one of the areas between the denser suburbs so there are large blocks of land, many of which are used to keep horses or plant nurseries. Looking out the window there are very few buildings to be seen, just the dry fields and fences. Electric fences surround most properties and elaborate security systems are used. Driving along side roads we pass long high fences and walls topped with barbed wire and many suburbs are totally enclosed with guards on the entrance gates. Certainly a huge difference to the relaxed air in Australia. On the other hand the new suburbs are depressingly similar, huge brick houses are perched on small blocks almost touching each other and the shopping centres compete to be bigger and more sterile than the ones up the road.
I’m sure more time will add to and possibly alter my first impressions but so far its been a pretty easy introduction to this huge continent. Now I’m eagerly waiting to sample some of the country side.