February 17, 2008


I’m getting really antsy to spend some time outside of Johannesburg, partly because the constant reminders of extreme income disparities are incredibly unnerving. I’m aware that economic inequality is not a uniquely South African condition, but the acceptance of the disparity here makes me terribly sad and uncomfortable. As someone explained it to me, “You have a first world society within a third world country, designed that way during years of apartheid to create cheap labor. No one is going to rush to change that – newly rich Black or always rich White.”

A perfect example of the juxtaposition is a comparison of Jo’burg’s so-called Downtown CBD and the current location of most corporate offices, Sandton. Downtown Jo’burg looks like the place time forgot. Dilapidated office buildings, pot-holed filled roads, and chaotic taxi ranks suggest the area was once a business center, while simultaneously evoking a complete lack of care. As the pictures tell the story:

In contrast, Sandton, as I’ve mentioned, looks like Beverly Hills. Below are pictures of the place I’m staying. Considered your standard “nice Sandton home,” I can’t even capture the whole thing in one shot (although again, not complaining).

Perhaps it’s not only the juxtapositions that do exist, but also the ones that do not that are making me a bit anxious. American movies, American television, American restaurants, American clothing stores – all part of my daily life here. I didn’t come abroad to get away from those things necessarily, but I was certainly looking for something a little different. And it’s not that differences don’t exist, it’s just that I often have to look really hard to find them.

Part of the lack of difference, I believe, is that the uniquely “South African” story, as I’ve mentioned before, is still developing. (ie. The government tried to introduce a national pledge. Though a good idea in theory, the actual words were greeted with much controversy: “SA Battles National Identity Crisis” http://www.mg.co.za/articlePage.aspx? articleid=332519&area=/breaking_news/breaking_news__national/ ) The other part of Americanized Johannesburg, I think, is the city's apparent xenophobia and its deep desire to be to be Africa’s “most Western city.” Often I’ve heard South Africans tell me that they’re going to “Africa Africa” when headed to another African country. Even Black South Africans do not consider themselves to be “African.”

In the end, maybe my personal anxiousness is based in expectations, and I need to stop looking for or at “juxtapositions.” Perhaps instead I should learn to be more fully present in the moments that are. Not really sure either way. But in the meantime while I figure it out, I just booked a trip to Mozambique. =)


Priscilla said...

So, today I am just now reading your "Home is where the heart is" post up 'til this latest one. And I think they are more connected than you realize, and maybe I can shed some light, or a new thought to add to your anxiousness. ;) Well, to just put it out there, some people now describe New Orleans as a third world country. And honestly, it feels that way. Mostly bc of the huge desparity now bw the rich and the poor. It's so blatantly obvious with the housing situation. And what is interesting is that if you talk to people who were not affected by the storm (didn't lose anything), it's like they turn a blind eye to it. But me, it's like I just wanna scream, it's so obvious. Maybe bc I was a renter, as most poor were, and now there is nowhere to rent affordably. I dunno. And as you well know, not much is being done about it. Does Jo'burg is any way remind you of NOLA? (Maybe just visually and on the surface, as I know NOLA has not suffered horrendously as Jo'Burg, so I dont mean to compare their pasts.)
Also interesting, I had several conversations after visiting you about why can't NOLA learn from NY? Progress without losing its history. People here are so worried about "losing their history" and what not that everything just stays the same. What's wrong with progress here? That was definitely in my thoughts when I was visiting you. Taking in a forward-moving city that has its history! (what a novel idea)
Oh well. Just thought I'd throw some thoughts/ideas your way, and let you know that I love your blogs! Please keep it up.

Trina said...

That's really interesting... I guess my life has brought me to three unique cities working their way through tragedy and struggle and in turn redefining themselves... And your point about the economic disparities of New Orleans post-Katrina is so true and so important. I just, again, don't know what to do about it...

As for Jo'burg and NOLA, I don't know yet if they're similar. I think I'm struggling to find Johannesburg's soul. Part of the problem is that I'm basically (in New Orleans' terms) spending too much time in Chateau Estates and not enough in the French Quarter. Pre-fab suburbia, although thankfully safe, doesn't really tell me about a city's core.

But I think as I get more and more comfortable with my surroundings (and when I finally get some wheels!) I'll be able to explore a bit more. And I promise I'll keep blogging about it. =)

Thanks for reading Cilla!