On December 5th last year Nelson Mandela passed away at the grand old age of 95. During my early years in the 1980s his name was one of only a handful of ‘world famous’ people I remember being aware of, along with the likes of the Pope, the Queen, Margaret Thatcher, Michael Jackson and Shakin’ Stevens. Time has taught me that this last one (a Welsh rock and roll singer) was a bit of a flash in the pan and actually it was only my Dad who liked him. Mandela, however, truly was a global icon and I remember hearing of him and the Apartheid struggle from the age of eight or so. Fast forward to 2014 and South Africa is a very different place to what it was in the eighties. Upon Mandela’s release from prison in 1994 the nation of South Africa embarked on a new path and the country today really is very different to all other African nations that I’ve visited (some 39!).
Landing at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo airport (the busiest on the continent), getting through immigration and customs, and then hopping into a taxi to my hotel in Pretoria, not once was I given the impression that I was in Africa. Well, not the Africa that I’m used to – largely the Western and Central parts. All modern highways, shiny petrol stations and even taxis with a meter – this has to be a first for me on the continent. In 2010 the FIFA World Cup was hosted here and the money spent on infrastructure and security has helped steer the nation along in a positive direction. Of course, the country is not without its problems and there are still many social issues which are far from being solved. Certainly, the post-Mandela political scene is also not without its problems.
I began in the nation’s capital, Pretoria, or strictly speaking, one of its three capitals. The designation of South Africa’s capital(s) is somewhat ambiguous but all the South Africans I have spoken to maintain that Pretoria is the only capital. Officially, however, Pretoria is the executive capital, Cape Town is the legislative capital and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital. Pretoria is only 50 km or so north of Johannesburg and has a better reputation that its larger neighbour in terms of crime. Walking through leafy (and relatively safe) suburbs of Hatfield and Brooklyn I felt fine but all around there were residential properties with wall to wall security – quite literally. All of the homes I saw had high walls and atop these was either razor wire or an electric fence. Most houses are also alarmed and have armed response units on call, as well as CCTV cameras hiding in the eaves.
Whilst I was in the area admiring the razor wire (as you do) there was a kerfuffle (I love that word!) up ahead and the traffic in all directions had been stopped. I thought at first it could be a big traffic accident or even a bank robbery, with all the sirens blaring and police motorbikes everywhere. Nothing seemed to be happening, though, and a few minutes later a lengthy motorcade zoomed past. I asked the edgy locals who it was and was told, along with some choice expletives, that it was President Zuma himself.
Nowhere else in Africa is as westernised as South Africa and the shopping malls they have are testament to this, with everything you can find in Europe or the States and often far cheaper. Moving on to Johannesburg (or Joburg as everyone calls it here), I stayed near the huge Sandton City Mall, a far cry from the cities of Sub-Saharan Africa. For all intents and purposes the Johannesburg suburb of Sandton has become the ‘new’ Joburg. During the days of Apartheid and even today the areas around downtown Joburg were and are very dangerous. As the city is one of the powerhouses of the continent, life had to continue in an atmosphere where foreign investment and business could exist in a secure environment and the economy could be allowed to grow. So the finance industry and commerce moved north 10 km from the urban decay of downtown to an area which today has expanded to include several affluent neighbourhoods, including Sandton, Bryanston and Sunninghill. It’s in these areas that most expats reside. They all have 24 hour security patrols on the streets and the measures taken to ensure people’s safety are not taken lightly. This has resulted in a vibrant and cosmopolitan area where businesspeople and shoppers alike can focus more on brokering deals and snapping up bargains than on worrying about being the victim of a carjacking.
After leaving Joburg I headed to Windhoek, the capital of Namibia – but more of that in my next post. Before I go though, I read a recent statistic which intrigued me. Apparently Johannesburg is the largest city in the world which is not built on a river, sea or ocean! So it came as some surprise that I then found out that South Africa has the world’s 3rd safest supply of drinkable tap water. Drinking tap water has always been an instant no-no for me in Africa but here in South Africa it’s fine. I have many more interesting and random facts ready to unleash so be sure to check in again soon.