<< Back to Feature Page
By Peter Godwin
Searching for a cappuccino bar in Soweto, Johannesburg's sprawling black township, might seem like a fool's errand, but Jerry Marobyane, my guide, insists that it's around here somewhere. We cruise slowly along the rutted roads, past hundreds of makeshift shacks interspersed with smoking garbage heaps, past rows of "elephant" houses, their dun-colored concrete roofs curving down to the ground like the thick, crinkled hide of an elephant.
Of the foamy icon of the comfortable classes there is no sign, until, with a cry of triumph, Jerry spots it. But something is wrong—Soweto Cappuccino has been replaced by 21st Century Funerals. Inside, the receptionist, Mpho Dilwane, tells us that the cappuccino experiment was a failure. Because of the AIDS epidemic, she says, the death business is flourishing. Avalon, Soweto's huge cemetery nearby, now holds 210 burials a week.
As we drive away, Jerry explains how the coffee bar had sprung up as white rule of South Africa sputtered to an end ten years ago this month. The bar catered not to Soweto's residents but to the busloads of tourists that passed through on whistle-stop excursions to this township that had become symbolic of the whole struggle against apartheid. The tourists came to pay homage at Nelson Mandela's old house. They came to see the former residence of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the fearless prelate who thought nothing of striding into a baying crowd to rescue a suspected police informer from being "necklaced"—garlanded with a burning tire. They came, too, to see the place where black schoolchildren, protesting that their classes were to be taught in Afrikaans, were gunned down by police.
Under Mandela's charmed guidance, South Africa began the post-apartheid period as a country beguiled by its own miraculous stepping back from the brink of a full-blown race war. It dubbed itself the "rainbow nation" in recognition of the new spirit of tolerance and inclusion that most South Africans hoped would replace the old one of bigotry and fear. The bar was particularly high for Jo'burg (as it's usually shortened), the country's most diverse city. Freed from the constraints of political isolation, the city could live up to its new motto: "World Class African City." South Africa was to be the vehicle for the African renaissance, a sort of postcolonial, post-Cold War, postapartheid new beginning that would herald an Asian tigerlike economic leap, with Jo'burg as its launching pad.
Today, a decade after the birth of the rainbow nation, the urban expanse of Johannesburg and its satellite cities is home to more than eight million people. Together they generate 9 percent of the economic activity of the entire African continent, and they enjoy a standard of living way above the African norm. Yet they also endure one of the continent's highest rates of violent crime, albeit one that seems now to be decreasing.
In those early days after apartheid, when sanctions against South Africa were finally lifted, it was from Johannesburg that battalions of South African businessmen (most of them white) reached up into the African interior, aggressively pursuing opportunities in countries regarded as too perilous by most Western investors. They took over breweries in Mozambique, Tanzania, Malawi. They won cell phone network contracts in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Across the continent they set up supermarket chains, refurbished shabby hotels, and established banks. Soon the departures board at Johannesburg International Airport read like an African geography lesson.
Meyer Kahn, as chairman of South African Breweries (now SAB Miller), one of Johannesburg's flagship corporations, was at the forefront of this commercial invasion of Africa. In his large office on Braamfontein ridge overlooking the city, he is in an expansive mood. "We're not put off by lack of infrastructure or by problems of the Third World consumer," he says. He believes Johannesburg is the one city in Africa that has a competitive edge. "We understand the consumer in the markets in the developing world—within half an hour's drive from this office I can get to Soweto, with its nearly one million throats; half an hour north and I'm at the rich, sophisticated market in Sandton that can make New York's Fifth Avenue look ordinary. And, most important," he says gleefully, "within half an hour of my desk there are 15 golf courses that would rate among the top in the world."
Jo'burg has always been a swaggering, overbearing place, too big for its own hinterland, a place that operates on First World time, self-absorbed and unforgiving. And at an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet (1,289 meters), there is, as the writer Doris Lessing once observed, something about its "dry and nervous air" that makes the heart beat faster.
And yet, Kahn points out, Johannesburg's growth into Africa's premier city was far from smooth, with frequent boom-bust cycles. "Over the years we've had floods, plague, boycotts, strikes, political violence; we've had apartheid, international sanctions, absurd peaks and valleys of economic growth. But we've survived because we have a First World infrastructure, a vibrant corporate sector, and a remarkably resilient people—black and white."
It's not just the corporate behemoths that provide the economic muscle; there is also a booming informal economy fed by small-scale, cash-only street traders, largely missed in official statistics. "You can still hustle a living here," says Kahn. "If you took this chair outside onto the street and got a pair of scissors and a towel, you could immediately start making money as a barber. The dynamism and the sheer size of the market creates all sorts of opportunities for anyone with any initiative. There's a special drive in this city. That's why people gravitate towards us from all over the continent and beyond."
The siren call of one of sub-Saharan Africa's biggest cities carried all the way to Malawi—1,100 miles (1,770 kilometers) to the north—where it was heard by Oliver Nkhoma and his younger brother Ken. "When I first saw this place, I thought I was dreaming," remembers Oliver wistfully. "Big mansions and skyscrapers, tunnels and highway overpasses, all these different languages being spoken, fast trains rushing by." He, Ken, and several other Malawians run a market stall selling mahogany and ebony masks and carvings of wild animals. They take turns making the 30-hour bus ride home to collect new supplies. Every time they go back, each takes a TV set, a radio, clothes, and shoes to resell there. "It is very poor at home," says Ken. "Jo'burg is where the money is—we can make a much better living down here." The Zimbabweans, Congolese, and Nigerians from the neighboring stalls, who have gathered around, raucously agree.
Johannesburg has also become the haven of choice for a cosmopolitan black African elite, the so-called waBenzi, after their once favored make of car. Cabinet ministers and entrepreneurs come here from all over Africa to dine in the continent's best restaurants or to be healed in the city's world-class hospitals. They enroll their children in its exclusive private schools, and they buy mansions from emigrating whites.
The city council, hoping to capitalize on Jo'burg's magnetism, proclaims it "an African city that works." But the boast applies fully to only part of Johannesburg—the former white suburbs such as Sandton, Houghton, and Rosebank. For many of the 74 percent of the population who are black, living conditions remain harsh and often violent. The mingling of great swells of hope and pits of fear has given rise to a quintessentially Johannesburg state of mind, one of euphoric despair. It was summed up poignantly by Judy Bassingthwaighte, who was organizing a feeding program for the homeless in the city center. Leading her volunteers in prayer, she said, "Oh Lord, you've given us our freedom, now help us to hold on to our dreams."
If Johannesburg is to live up to its potential, it must overcome its apartheid legacy of division, a legacy that has distorted its development and warped its identity. Contact between races often remains stilted as people get to know one another on a more equal footing for the first time. The hope is that with more children mixing at school, the next generation will coexist more easily.
Crime is the one overriding concern all races in Johannesburg have in common. Comparative statistics are difficult to come by, because in July 2000 the government stopped issuing crime figures—only to resume releasing them a year later with different categories, a move critics charge was designed to blur bad news. The headlines, however, remain stark: In the worst parts of the city nearly one in three people were robbed last year. Murder for the greater metro area runs at 60 per 100,000—three times the rate in Chicago, America's most dangerous city. Johannesburg experienced 20,173 incidents of burglary on residential premises last year, and businesses cite crime as a "major obstacle to growth." Fewer tourists now come to Johannesburg proper, heading instead straight to game parks or the seaside.
Crime waves are not new to Johannesburg. Almost since its very beginning in 1886 when an Australian prospector, George Harrison, stumbled upon a rock richly veined with gold, it has been a dangerous place. Barely had the city been born than a city father of rival Cape Town (no doubt stung by Jo'burg's prodigious growth) condemned it as a "university of crime." Harrison's discovery proved to be part of the Witwatersrand, "ridge of white waters," a thick reef of ore 60 miles (96.6 kilometers) long—the richest seam of gold the world has ever known. At its center a "public diggings" was set up and named Johannesburg, after its surveyor. But to the black migrants who were recruited from villages across the country and beyond its borders to toil in the mines, it has always been eGoli—the City of Gold.
Fortune hunters converged from Britain, continental Europe, Australia, and America—uitlanders, foreigners, the Boers called them—and Johannesburg soon had all the bombastic energy of the Wild West. It almost universally appalled those who saw it. "It is a city of unbridled squander and unfathomable squalor," wrote one early visitor. Winston Churchill, then a young foreign correspondent, thought it "Monte Carlo superimposed upon Sodom and Gomorrah."
The businessmen who financed the mines and grew rich upon their precious ore were called Rand Lords (the "rand" referring to Witwatersrand). They built stone mansions along the ridges and hillsides and planted their gardens with exotic trees: jacarandas from the West Indies, oaks and chestnuts from England, blue gums and flame trees from Australia. Today as you fly into Johannesburg International Airport, you see a dense canopy of irrigated green, through which wink the pristine swimming pools and lush shaved lawns of the northern suburbs. The plane banks into its final approach, and suddenly you're over Soweto, a constellation of 39 neighborhoods originally named the South Western Townships. They were established in 1904 (after bubonic plague broke out in Jo'burg's slums), ten miles (16.1 kilometers) from the city center—downwind of the huge piles of tailings that rose like yellow pyramids alongside the mines.
Much of that gold is now exhausted, and Jo'burg has long since reinvented itself as the commercial and financial capital of Africa. These are less labor-hungry pursuits, mostly requiring skilled and literate workers, and so the days are over when all you needed to get a job here was a good pair of lungs and a willingness to work underground at temperatures well above 100°F (37.8°C).
I was based in Johannesburg as a foreign correspondent in the last half of the 1980s and came often to Soweto to report on the almost daily battles between the police and the black youths seeking to overthrow apartheid. They organized rent strikes and bus boycotts, they stoned the police and were shot at and imprisoned, and they abandoned their schooling with the slogan "liberation before education."
For many of them, freedom has not been kind at all. They don't have the skills to thrive, and they're used to living outside the law. Some call themselves amaGents (an ironic corruption of the word "gentlemen") and have morphed into a kind of nihilistic gangster cult. Unemployment in Soweto is now at 37 percent and rising.
If he hadn't found occasional work as a bodyguard and guide, Jerry Marobyane could easily have been one of the amaGents. He still carries the scars he sustained as a guerrilla fighter for the now governing African National Congress. Then known as Makarov, after his favorite Russian pistol, Jerry tried to toss back a grenade that had been lobbed at him by members of a rival political faction, but it blew up inches from his right hand. That hand is now made of rubber-coated steel, and he has switched his shoulder holster to the other side.
Largely to avoid the specter of violence and the cramped conditions of Soweto, a number of blacks left for the northern suburbs after 1994, when the Group Areas Act, which had mandated segregated residential areas, crumbled. Kgomotso Modise—once a sports administrator who pioneered South Africa's multiracial soccer league and now retired as the chairman of the South African office of the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency—moved to the leafy security of Bryanston. Modise, who is in his sixties, relies on a wheelchair because he has a police bullet lodged in his spine—one of seven that wounded him during a protest in Soweto in 1983.
His has been an extraordinary journey: Until 18 years ago the South African Broadcasting Corporation did not even permit blacks and whites to appear in the same commercial. Modise started in advertising by devising campaigns to sell products specifically to blacks, a lucrative market even under apartheid. As white-owned companies woke up to this largely untapped reservoir of customers, they needed people like Modise to help navigate around black cultural and social sensitivities. "The markets differ in all sorts of ways," says Modise. "There was a whole range of products, such as Black Like Me hair products, that were exclusively targeted at blacks. And things like washing powder were introduced far later to black markets, which had been used to blue laundry soap. Today," he adds, "the black middle-class consumers of shoes remain far more sophisticated than their white counterparts."
I ask Modise about his life in the suburbs. "A lot of my friends and peers have moved away from Soweto. But we miss the socializing, we miss the shebeens," he says, referring to the pubs that are at the heart of community life in Soweto. "It can be lonely in the northern suburbs. I don't even know my white neighbors, though I've lived next to them for more than two years." On the weekends Modise and his friends join the convoys of luxury sedans and SUVs filled with other upper middle-class blacks making the pilgrimage back to their favorite shebeens. There they are generally welcomed, though a black class system is fast becoming established here, especially as middle-class black children start to attend former white schools, and the camaraderie of the fight against apartheid dissipates.
Modise has brought his parents with him to the northern suburbs, though they have been dead many years. The Soweto cemeteries are terrible, he says. "People sit on the tombstones and drink beer. They have no respect." So Modise has reburied his parents in a formerly whites-only cemetery near his new home, a ritual complete with cattle sacrifice in his suburban garden to appease his ancestors. "I'm not sure my neighbors here were thrilled by that," he laughs.
Even in his new sanctuary, however, Modise and others like him are not immune to violent crime, which penetrates the high walls and the razor wire, the dogs and the private security patrols. And no crime quivers the lip here more than carjacking, much of which is in the hands of organized syndicates that have made Johannesburg and environs a major carjacking hub, with about 25 incidents a day.
One Thursday in the northern suburbs, Zoe Plein, an insurance consultant, pulled her new white Chrysler Voyager into her driveway at 3:40 p.m. "I remember the time exactly," she says. "My mother was in the back with my kids." Eden, age three, and Noah, seven months old, were strapped into their car seats. "I heard my mother say, 'Oh my God!' and I looked up to see a gun barrel at my window." It was brandished by an immaculately dressed young black man with a shaved head who never said a word throughout. With his gun he motioned her to get out. "You can have whatever you want," she said. "Just let me take my kids out." She and her mother fumbled to unclip the children and got out. Eden saw the gun and began screaming hysterically, "Don't hurt my mummy! Leave us alone!" The man mimed for Zoe to take her rings off, but they were stuck fast. He cocked his pistol in irritation, and she licked her fingers, desperately pulling and twisting the rings until they finally worked loose. The thief and his accomplice took her purse and cell phone and drove off.
"When my husband arrived, he said, 'That's it! We're leaving!'" (The rest of his family had already settled in Chicago.) "We were both born in Jo'burg; it's a beautiful place, and I don't want to leave it, but is there a future here for our little ones?" Eden was in therapy. "She kept asking, 'Are the baddies coming back?' and I said, 'No, no—they're in jail.' But of course they're not, they were never caught. I feel like we're being forced to go," Zoe grimaces. "It makes me so angry."
The soaring crime rates set off alarms in the city's influential business community, and in March 2001 the executive mayor, Amos Masondo (who had once served time with Nelson Mandela on Robben Island), oversaw the launch of a coordinated effort to seize back the initiative. From the rump of the traffic department a new city police force, the Johannesburg Metro Police Department, was created. This well-equipped force is already 2,500-strong and is expected to expand to 4,000. Masondo sees it as part of a "police visibility campaign" to get more cops out on the streets and free up the regular force to concentrate on serious crime.
At the same time, efforts were also made to crack down on police corruption. In 1999, 4,374 police staffers nationally were under investigation for corruption (out of a total force of 105,556). Although the numbers aren't as striking today (from April 2002 through March 2003, 872 members of the police force were suspended for involvement in corruption), there is still some way to go.
The front line against the city's crime is the Johannesburg Police Flying Squad, based in Brixton Hill above the crenellations of the city's high-rise skyline. Inspector Aboobaker Buckus, tonight's watch commander, briefs his men as they tool up with assault rifles, automatic pistols, bulletproof vests. At the call center the pace is heating up as operators handle emergency calls in most of the country's 11 official languages, all of which are spoken in this city. Buckus—an ethnic Indian—arrived from Natal Province in December 1991 with five buddies to try to make it into this specialized unit. The others quit within the year. Wages are low, and in recent years police casualties have been alarming. (From 2001 to 2002, 45 policemen were killed in the Jo'burg area; in 2000, 62 died—compared with two in New York City, both killed in auto accidents.) Sergeant Jannie Odendaal, an Afrikaner, sits up front, and I share the backseat of the Opel Kadett with a large metal crate of ammo. "We got sick of running out of bullets," says Odendaal.
The night passes in a haze of ultimately futile high-speed pursuits of carjackers and robbers, and as the first traces of dawn bleach the city sky, our final call takes us downtown, to a report of shots heard. We arrive to find a black teen with carefully gelled hair, in a neatly pressed jean jacket and red Converse sneakers, sitting on the sidewalk. He is leaning back against a wall, his eyes closed. Sergeant Odendaal tugs gently at his sleeve to wake him, but the jacket falls open to reveal a large red stain still spreading across the T-shirt beneath. The kid has been shot through the heart. A small knot of onlookers has gathered, but no witnesses come forward. No one seems particularly bothered.
Downtown Johannesburg, where this young man now slumps lifeless, is the middle ground between the First World of the former whites-only suburbs and the Third World of the black townships. Today it is also the focus of the battle to contain crime. Lose the battle, and the city of gold will lose its allure.
From a distance the massed high-rises and monumental Edwardian buildings of the city center are still impressive. But until recently many were boarded up, abandoned in favor of suburban office parks by the commercial giants that were headquartered here. In 2000 the Johannesburg Stock Exchange followed its clients north to Sandton. Yet the streets beneath the seemingly empty office blocks of the city center still bustle by day—crammed with vendors hawking fruit and vegetables, plastic shoes and secondhand clothes, to a clientele of black township commuters.
"It's changed, it's changing, but dying it isn't. It's not the apartheid city of the past; it's an African city that reflects the demography of the country," insists Neil Fraser, director of the Central Johannesburg Partnership, an alliance of city and private sector interests that is coordinating the battle to revitalize the downtown economy. Garbage collection is being improved, police patrols boosted, and the unlicensed vendors who choked the streets are being regulated, all in an effort to attract residents and businesses. A web of surveillance cameras now spies on the city center, connected to a complex computer brain known as the matrix, whose operators report directly to the police and to the city managers. John Penberthy, head of the enterprise that runs the system, says street crime downtown has been significantly reduced.
Meanwhile, the South African government, in a major effort to improve the lot of blacks in Johannesburg, is building one of the largest housing projects the world has ever seen, tens of thousands of basic homes with running water and electricity. It's a Sisyphean task: The appeal of eGoli is as strong now as it was to the prospectors more than a century ago, and as fast as new houses are built, more shanties are thrown up by fresh crops of hopeful arrivals.
I visit a shantytown mushrooming on a farm called Bredell near Johannesburg International Airport. Such is the nervousness of foreign investors that the shantytown's appearance had lowered the value of the rand, South Africa's currency. Riot police soon arrive and, as they so often did in the apartheid past, they stand guard over a demolition team: 200 men in red fatigues armed with crowbars—the so-called Red Ants, who wait for the order to destroy the shacks.
Constance Mamatlepa stands at her front door. Upon it is painted a figure of Christ on the cross, complete with a crown of thorns, bloodied ribs, and a serene smile of forgiveness. "We have three choices," she says, surveying the forces arrayed against her. "Tear gas, rubber bullets, or police dogs."
"They can break down our houses," says Caroline Seema, her neighbor, "but we will just come back later." In the thick mist that shrouds the valley, the Red Ants finally invade, and the air is filled with the gnash of crowbars on metal. As the residents watch their homes collapse, they break into one of the haunting anthems of struggle against apartheid, a song called "Senzenina?"—"What Have We Done?" Their harmonized voices rise briefly up the valley before being drowned by the rotor thump of a police helicopter.
And yet still the new migrants come to Johannesburg, and the question still hangs in the dry nervous air: Can this city help save Africa, uplifting the lives of millions—or will Johannesburg simply be overwhelmed by the needy and the desperate, a woeful harbinger of the chaos to come? It is a weighty responsibility to hang on one city, but then Jo'burg probably has the sheer ambition and energy to make good on it.