Johannesburg, or, How Did I End Up in Chicago?

After spending almost 6 months in the rest of South Africa, Johannesburg was a bit much to handle. It really is like being in America or Europe, and it is hard to believe such a thing exists so close to more stereotypically “African” places. The “nice” parts of Pretoria and other cities with their walled estates, security, and western comforts were easy to handle–a sort of network of economically gated communities. But Joburg was a different level. It’s like a mix of Chicago and a plantation estate.

Why a plantation estate? There is an ample supply of labor which costs you one dollar an hour (or less, the minimum wage is about a dollar an hour but who knows how well enforced it is). The low cost of labor means Joburg is possibly the cheapest place in the world to live a decadent, first-world, urban lifestyle. Nowhere else is the gap between those who have and those who don’t so abundantly clear.

Also, white people. Living in the township I kind of forgot about them. Venturing into the world of the white people didn’t feel like going home…it felt like going on a first class cruise that I could never possibly afford. It was downright disturbing. I felt like Eliza Doolittle.

Yes, I’m hugging a washing machine. Not hand washing clothes was the best part about vacation.

I got a tour of the whitest places you can go in Joburg, courtesy of my good friends Ben and Liz. First stop, a hipster bar:

<Next stop, the Fashion District, where you can rent a store for less than 300$ a month, as long as you sell approved fashion-related things:

Next we have an old loading dock that has been converted into a bar/restaurant/art gallery. Officially the most stereotypically upper-class white place I’ve been in maybe a year (that includes 7 months in the US)–a mix of old-school racial division and urban “edginess”. All the waiters were black, all the patrons were white, and the picture does not do the lily-whiteness justice. I expected Scarlet O’Hara to pop in.

For the record, I think the whiteness of the clientèle was a largely a result of lack of interest–there are plenty of very swanky places in Joburg patronized by wealthy black clientèle. Also, I think rich South African blacks are less like to blow their money on going to “cute” places to drink. They’re smarter than that–they save their money for Ferraris.

This is Woolworth’s, affectionately known as Woolies.

Woolworth’s is a department/clothing store, but at some point they realized that South Africa didn’t have a burn-your-money supermarket and decided to open one. I’ve heard it called the Whole Foods of South Africa. Everything costs what it would at Whole Foods in the States, which means it is unbelievably expensive by South African standards. At this particular store, the ratio of whites to non-whites was maybe 5 to 1. I took some photos of the bountiful dairy aisle, but the Woolworths Secret Police made me delete them. On the other hand, they have tortilla chips and salsa. Where do I sign, o great wooly sheep-devil?

What’s the number-one place to find white yuppies, anywhere in the world? Take an old warehouse and turn it into art galleries, performance spaces, and studios. Converted Warehouse:White People::Michigan Militia:The Upper Peninsula

Feeling the need to cleanse the powdered sugar from my pallet, I insisted we do the dumbest thing we could possibly do in Joburg. Taking the inane tourist-trap award is the SAB World of Beer–a 2 hour interactive ad for all things South African Breweries. Here’s a sign in case you doubt the massive baby-grapes SAB fulcrums up in your shizzle. “Over 1 billion teabags and counting at South Africa’s #1 tourist destination!”

To open the tour, you stand in a room surrounded by flatscreen TVs, where you’re informed of how the elements (Earth…Fire…Lightning…Water) combine to make beer, and how beer is entirely responsible for all human progress post-beer. Then there are some strobe lights and some dude in glasses talks about how awesome Castle Lager is. I’m thirsty.

Somehow, we ended up in the African bush:

We got a history lesson about Umqombothi, or traditional African beer. The video featured a woman speaking Zulu in Zulu dress hanging around with Zulu people. She had a Sotho last name. Americans, this would be like someone named Mario O'Connor talking about how they came over on the Mayflower. It was a blitzkrieg of African tribal exotica, I couldn’t stop cackling during the movie. “My people are one with the spirits of the land…when we listen closely, the spirits whisper into our ears ancient recipes for sacred beer–the nectar of the ancestors!”

Then we went inside an Egyptian pyramid. We watched a 3D movie of an archaeologist trying to unearth ancient beer recipes. After that, we got to watch these broken anamatronic dummies lower a minecar:

I can’t remember the point of that. There’s a hologram making beer in this next photo. Can you spot it?

I think this is some sort of speakeasy. I don’t remember. This is the point where they run out of material and start getting you drunk:

Then we went into the old-school Shebeen (an informal boozeatorium run out of a home, usually by and for black South Africans). Check out the sign.

I find Shebeens are often referenced when describing the lives of black South Africans under apartheid. As an outsider, I think this might have something to do with Shebeens being fun, private places that seemed very far removed from the tragedies of apartheid.

At the end, 15 Rand draft beers and mutant potato chips!

The cheap drinks are almost enough that you forget about the room of computers that allow you to browse all of SAB’s products, accompanied with ad copy. Did you know MGD is a sophisticated beer for upscale people who want to show their best side? Neither did I. After those ads, we went to the greatest ad of all. The “celebration theater” is a panoramic theater where you watch a sort of music video of a Castle Lager truck delivering beer to pretty much everywhere in South Africa people are having a good time. It was beautiful. We celebrated.

Don’t let the World of Beer confuse you. Joburg really looks like any other city in the developed world:

Err…except for those piles of gold slag on the horizon. That’s pretty unique.

Now joined by friends of ours from the states, Marc and Jen, we ventured deeper into the acid-filled, earthquaking core of Jozi. Ethiopian food featuring a huge pile of meat:

The constitutional court, where I make judgment:

Hillbrow, where you don’t go unless you have to:

And Soweto, where tourists pay R120 for a plate of African food, 10 times what it costs it my township:

It’s been very difficult to wrap my head around Joburg. Not a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers get a chance to really see it, on account of a “travel restriction” and the necessity of having a car. Seeing Johannesburg completely changed the way I think about South Africa and my Peace Corps service. Everything I experience in South Africa has a different meaning because now I know it’s happening in proximity to the cheapest place in the first world.

Maybe it’s a good thing that many of us never really experience Joburg’s lifestyle. Living it up in Joburg was the first time since training I’ve seriously thought about leaving the Peace Corps. But it wasn’t leaving to go home, it was “how many months do I have to clock as a Peace Corps Volunteer until I can get a development job in Johannesburg?” You can live a damn good life in Joburg for very little money by American standards. It’s a first-world city where the less fortunate are paid developing-world wages. It’s incredibly tempting, and incredibly disturbing.


Liz says:


18 Jan 11 @ 8am

Mary Jones says:

This looks almost as awesome as the “Time Tunnel” ride I took while in Christchurch:

12 Apr 11 @ 10pm