March, 2017

Fox Street, Johannesburg

According to an advertisement on local TV, Sandton is the richest square mile in Africa. Built in 1973 in the brutalist style of the epoch, sometimes known as Apartheid Architecture, Sandton City is a chic mall that attracts wealthy shoppers of all ages and races; given the weakness of the rand against western currencies, you can include me among those wealthy shoppers. When you get out of the plane at O R Tambo, you pick up the tourist map for Johannesburg. Sandton is right in the middle of the map, for all to see and, hopefully, visit.

However the decaying (or rather, decayed) Johannesburg Central Business District is off the the tourist map, both literally and figuratively. As Yogi Berra would say: nobody goes there any more – it’s too crowded. Too crowded with Africans. It is difficult for the tourist to understand how a city centre that was, I am reliably informed, exclusively white until the end of apartheid has become exclusively black.

There is a urban grimness to the central blocks of the CBD that is reminiscent of the poorer parts of Nairobi. The sidewalks are badly maintained and although the new municipal administration wins approval from some for improvements to the quality of life in the city, litter lines the streets and vagabonds gather under the bridges. (Road bridges, that is. Johannesburg is the biggest city to be built away from any lake, river or sea.) Central Johannesburg has a reputation for being a dangerous place. One Uber driver dropped me off on Rissik Street and waited – at some risk to himself – while he watched me go up the stairs to Park Station. Once on the station forecourt, he said, with all the security people around, I would be safe. As a resident of the old South West Township, the driver informed me Soweto was far safer than central Johannesburg. In Soweto, people are only too happy to see tourists. Yet as in so many decayed cities, in Johannesburg gentrification is on its way.

Churchill famously said “It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir.” Admirers of Churchill will be relieved to see Gandhi’s bronze statue wears legal robes and not a fakir’s loin cloth in the square named after him. Gandhi Square is being renovated, as is much of the central area of Johannesburg. On tree lined Fox Street nearby, I enjoyed taking a meal and a glass of wine on the pavement terrace, served by friendly waiters.
Perhaps Fox Street should be renamed BET Street.

One lunch in City Perks Café I met three secretaries, taking their break away from the office. When they spoke in English – among themselves they chatted in Sesotho – their language was more influenced by Black Entertainment Television and ghetto rap than by the Simpsons and Bones of Fox TV. All three could move their necks and heads in the feisty assertiveness of Wendy Williams and their uninhibited use of bitch and nigger was a permanent affront to my political correctness.

Less than thirty years ago, these chic, young intelligent Africans would never have been in the city centre without a pass. Now they own the place, morally if not economically. “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby,” Virginia Slims cigarettes used to tell women back in the seventies. Women in South Africa have still got a long way to go but as I saw on Fox Street, there’s no going back for the African Wendy Williams: Johannesbourg nous appartient (Johannesburg belongs to us).

February, 2017

The Day My Uber Got Attacked in Jozi, South Africa

Carlton Centre in central Johannesburg was built in the early seventies. The Wimpy Bar on the viewing deck of the fiftieth floor became in 1975 one of the few places where races could mingle. Some disgruntled customers complained and so interracial seating was made illegal. Wimpy responded by removing the seats, resolving the problem and – more importantly – allowing all races to spend their money on their Wimpy burgers.

(Capitalism is not always colour blind but it has a marked preference for the green of the US dollar.)

Since the end of apartheid, central Johannesburg has gone from being an exclusively white city to being a black city. Despite impressive architecture much of the central business district now looks run-down and scruffy; so much so, in fact, that central Johannesburg – aka Jozi – is not included on the tourist map they give you when you land at O R Tambo airport.

I was meeting a friend from Swaziland at Park Station. The area is dangerous and after dropping me off, my Uber driver waited for me to cross the road and go safely up the steps to the station before he drove away. He had told me he would be turning off his phone as he had no intention of seeking a fare in such a risky part of town.

My Swazi friend and I had a pleasant lunch on Fox Street and then we went our separate ways. I wandered across Gandhi Square, heading for Carlton Centre. The ground floors of the tower now form a big shopping mall, not very chic but at least safe, thanks to the many security guards.

I called an Uber from Main Street, on the south side of the mall.  My gps was not working too well and I didn’t see my cab until too late. No sooner had I climbed into the passenger seat than five stocky men blocked my door, opened the driver’s door and took the keys from the ignition. One of the men told me to stay in my seat. My driver, pale, frightened and resigned to the hijacking, told me to get out of the car.

I did not know what to do. A nearby taxi told me he would run be back to Maboneng – but at three times the Uber rate. I walked back to the hotel, just fifteen minutes away, but off Commissioner Street where it is wise to avoid the vagrants.

Back at the hotel, I asked the security guard what I should have done. “Nothing,” he replied. Alerting the police would have been a waste of time.

Uber charged me the minimum fare for the non existent trip. I still don’t know what happened to my driver.  Some Uber cabs have a panic button and there is an emergency phone number – but I doubt the hijackers would have allowed the driver to use his phone. Uber drivers tells me he may have been beaten up – or worse.

Taxi cab drivers resent Uber. Uber taxis are new (2011 is the cut-off date), well maintained, properly insured, safe and efficient. They charge a lot less than than the run-down taxi cabs.

South West Township aka Soweto is a safer destination than central Jozi. In Soweto, everybody is delighted to see foreign tourists, even when we travel in Ubers.