Currently I live and work in Sandton, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, and sometimes I feel like I might as well be in Houston. Jo’burg’s businesses created Sandton when the CBD became too riddled with crime. The area is all new construction (literally nothing less than five years old). The streets are pristine. The homes are gorgeous (think Beverly Hills behind twenty foot walls), and the public landscaping well manicured. In fact, everything is so in it’s place that sometimes I wonder if I’m in some weird version of the Truman Show…
But more surreal than the surroundings is the Sandton City Mall. It actually seems to take up an entire corner of the city, and I’m fairly certain it’s larger than any of America’s malls. Moreover, there is not a single thing found in the US that can’t be found in that place. Gucci? Check. Ed Hardy? Check. McDonald’s, KFC, Dr. Phil, Revlon, the Family Guy, Yankees paraphernalia? All there. The only reminder that I’m not in America is quite frankly the lack of white people.
Yet admittedly there are reminders that I’m in a developing nation, even in the Sandton Bubble. For one, Johannesburg is facing a serious power shortage, and every day there is load-shedding, where the electricity goes out in rolling sections of town for several hours at a time. I was in Sandton City Mall today when the power went out, and you could just feel the economy losing millions. (not to mention notice how ill prepared Johannesburg seems to be to host the 2010 World Cup…)
The second reminder that Sandton is an attempt to mask South Africa’s problems is the intense security. Every car that leaves my office has to stop for a security inspection. Then en route to the guest house where I’m staying, there are two private security checkpoints, the second of which requires every car to be checked and registered each time they pass. (And it’s not like you can avoid it; there’s literally a barricade blocking the road.) Then, when I finally do get to the house, I buzz the metal security gate, which lets me onto the property that not only has the pre-requisite 20-foot wall, barbed wire, and alarm system, but the entire place is also protected by secure laser beam sensors – the likes of which I’ve only seen in Ocean’s 12.
The truth is, due to my current lack of transportation, Sandton is all I know for Week 1. And I’m not complaining. I’ve got amazing accommodations and the security is a good thing. It just feels incredibly ironic that I’m in a place that represents all the aspects and aspirations of American suburbia that I was so happy to leave behind.