I woke up in Uganda at 5 AM to begin my trip back to the US. I was returning on South African airlines, which fit my schedule and was cost effective, but had the disadvantage of necessitating about as much flight time as the first Apollo mission. To break up the flying time I had a 10 hour layover in Johannesburg, and I planned to go out and see the city.
And that’s where the planning stopped, really. I knew I wanted to get out and about but I had absolutely no clue how to get around Johannesburg, what sights to see, or how to get to anything of interest and still make it back for my evening flight. My knowledge of the city was largely informed by the local newspaper they had distributed on the flight down, which read like a vastly expanded version of my local paper’s Crime Watch section. All of the front page news was about housebreaking, serial rapists, and carjackings. I left my bag in a storage locker at the Johannesburg airport, thought twice and put in my passport as well in case I ran into trouble in the city, and asked for a ticket “downtown” on the Gautrain. The Gautrain is brilliant: it’s an ultra fast commuter train that links the airport to all of the major neighborhoods of Johannesburg, and is lightning fast and impeccably clean and well-ordered. I happened to sit down opposite a placard advising passengers of the list of Gautrain rules(see pic below), and it quickly became apparent why this was such a utopia in the grime and crime of the city. The rules forbade everything. I thought that since I wasn’t chewing gum, wearing a hood, wearing soiled clothes, gambling, or bribing anybody I would be OK, and I resolved to just sit there very quietly so as not to commit any infractions. I then realized that I was guilty of loitering, and I spent the rest of the panicking quietly about all the rules I was breaking.
I arrived at Park Station, which multiple Gautrain employees had assured me was very centrally located, and as I stepped out of the station and the train pulled away it quickly became clear to me that I was in the hood. Instead of the sparkling buildings and bustling thoroughfares I had expected from South Africa’s economic engine, I found myself in a neighborhood with cracked tar streets, squat cement buildings, and tons of young men just squatting next to walls and hanging around on corners. I walked on, looking for some kind of commercial section with restaurants and whatnot, and soon I was walking on shards of glass from shattered car windows on the curb. Posters on the walls advertised abortion services for as low as $9 in under half an hour, and guys in bulky jackets stood on the corners selling car license plates and ID photos. I walked around for an hour, and unlike the hustling and interest I’ve received while traveling in other African cities, people here just watched me approach and pass, silently. I travel a lot and I walk everywhere I go, and it’s unusual to be concerned for my safety when I’m out and about, but I was distinctly uncomfortable in this neighborhood.
I found my way back to the train and got on without a destination in mind– I just wanted out of Johannesburg Central Business District– and got off at Sandton Station, where tons of white Afrikaners also descended. When I scheduled my layover in Johannesburg I had originally intended to visit the Apartheid Museum, and by the time I arrived I wasn’t sure I would have enough time to make it, but as I rode the train out of central Johannesburg I couldn’t help but think about Apartheid on my own. The white people rode the train through the downtown as they passed from one of the affluent encircling suburb to another, but they never got off in the middle, and almost nobody black from Central Johannesburg got on the train to go to the outskirts. I felt afraid when I was walking through that neighborhood, which is an unusual feeling for me. I remember taking inventory of everything I was carrying: sunglasses (didn’t wear them), camera (never took it out), my wallet, and my jacket, and realizing that the value of those things far outweighed the danger of taking them from me. I felt much more secure when I got into the softly lit Gautrain platform, and heard people talking English to each other. I had come off the train to visit Johannesburg for an an afternoon to see the real life in the city, and in the end found that after only an hour I felt much more comfortable spending time with a small minority of the population. When I got off at the station that all the white Afrikaners got off at, I discovered that they were all going to a shopping mall.
I visited the Peacemakers Museum, an art gallery currently dedicated to works about Nelson Mandela, and was impressed by how the exhibit was universally deeply respectful of Mandela’s work while also revealing some of his faults and struggles. I also visited a bookstore where I bought “Welcome to Our Hillbrow” by Phaswane Mpe, a great and poetic novel about a neighborhood very close to where I spent an hour earlier that day. I read it on the plane and I recommend it. I made it back to the airport, collected my stuff, and got on my flight back to JFK.
So that’s that. I’m here in New York now, surprisingly unfazed by time differences and sleep deprivation, and preparing to go in to work tomorrow. This trip to Africa was unlike any of my previous stays, and will definitely inform the way I approach the work that I do at WSA. Unlike Senegal Sam, I plan to keep this blog going for a while over the course of my travels. The next time I leave the country I’ll let you know about it, and keep updating this same site. I may have another post in the next few days, but that’s all for now. Thanks for reading.