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Johannesburg On AssignmentArrows

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From Author

Peter Godwin

Johannesburg On Assignment

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From Photographer

Tomasz Tomaszewski

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Jillian Edlestein (top) and Benjy Francis



Field Notes From Author
Peter Godwin

Best Worst Quirkiest
    I looked up from my breakfast at a café in the northern suburbs, and noticed that nearly half the clientele was black, where none would have been a decade ago. And I realized that, however halting and painstaking the progress, Johannesburg is becoming more mixed, more tolerant. Despite its reputation as an edgy place, this city is probably South Africa's most integrated. To see the races at least coexisting in the workplace, sporting field, cinema, and shopping malls, and to watch kids of all races learning together at school is to realize that the days of apartheid's institutionalized racism are really over and that the healing has begun. Having covered South Africa during the old days, this feels to me almost miraculous. Combined with Johannesburg's legendary energy and can-do spirit, I came away with a feeling of optimism that this place might actually work.

    Late one winter night I went on patrol with the cops in Hillbrow, a suburb once nicknamed the Manhattan of Africa because of its high-rise apartment blocks, hotels, and nightclubs. But Hillbrow is now one of Jo'burg's most dangerous neighborhoods, and at night it can sometimes feel like a war zone. Much of Hillbrow has been colonized by West Africans, many of them illegal immigrants. The cops were taking me to what they reckoned was the biggest drug-dealing center in the city: A row of hotels they call Little Kinshasa on Quartz Street.
We parked the car around the corner where the cops checked their assault rifles again, clipped extra canisters of pepper gas onto their belts, and we all tightened our protective vests. As we approached Little Kinshasa, the hundreds of men standing outside began hissing to alert the bagmen (drug carriers) to our presence. Dozens of bagmen skittered up the stairs, taking the contraband with them. Then the hissing was replaced by a new and chilling sound: the baying of wolves. This full-throated howling swelled up from the hostile West Africans as we shouldered our way through, the cops moving from point to point, covering for each other like soldiers in an urban battle.

    It was an eye-opening experience to participate in the BMW anti-hijacking course. At the Kyalami racetrack outside Jo'burg, I was instructed on the ins and outs of carjacking. Many carjackings are done to order, right down to the exact model and color of vehicle a customer wants. I learned of the ingenious ways carjackers foil detection. To disrupt the signals of tracking devices now installed in many cars, the criminals park stolen vehicles in the underground lot at the airport—where radar obligingly interferes—or under electricity power lines or in shanties made of corrugated iron lined with space blankets. I learned too that the average carjacking takes 90 seconds and that carjackers are known to clean up picnic spots to attract passing traffic. If you're a victim, don't make any sudden moves. One of the most common mistakes made by cooperative victims that can end tragically is when they reach down quickly to unclip the safety belt, and the carjacker thinks they're reaching for a gun. Another useful tip: If someone points a gun at you, try to present him with your profile. It's a much smaller target to hit.


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