Many foreigners ask me what it’s like living in South Africa; when I was last in England, one such person asked me if people in South Africa live in cities like the rest of the world or if we are, as she put it, ‘confined to the country’? Sometimes, many times, I do wish I was ‘confined to the country’ and didn’t have to be suffocated by the urban immensity of this place in all its decay and hope.
To be honest, the urban world is, for me, as fascinating as the ‘country’ and I would be lying if said I preferred one to the other. Depending on my mood, it can be as invigorating scouring the underbelly of Africa’s urban jungle as its actual jungle and as a lover of South Africa and all its parts, how could I neglect to love its cities too?
Downtown Jhb grafitti. Sick!
Johannesburg, painted into the deep orange of a hipster sunset, boasts one of the most iconic skylines in the world. Up close, it’s a marvel of urban wonder and neglect and just when you think it’s used up and exhausted, buildings from a golden age are re-purposed: a gold rush hotel turned hipster bar or market is Johannesburg’s latest twist in its urban evolution.
North of it, it’s clean cut urban centre with Radisons and Banks remains the richest square mile in Africa. Sandton, as its called – or Johannesburg’s second skyline – will soon boast the continent’s first true skyscraper, which, when it comes into being, will officially be a part of a place that only exists because white capital fled Johannesburg’s first skyline at the end of apartheid. What it all means is that two cities have become one, and if we include Pretoria just north of that and all of the dusty bits in between, the Megalopolis that’s forming on South Africa’s Highveld is quick becoming one of the ugliest of large urban places on Planet Earth.
There is no shame in calling a spade a spade; there is no beauty in Johannesburg beyond its urban culture but as that very culture is becoming a drawing point for new age tourists – and awesomely so – Joburg will undoubtedly blossom as a leading tourist destination over the coming decade. As hipster Europeans feel Cape Town might just be too touristy, Johannesburg will grow in popularity to settle the edgy impulses of nose rings and jazz symbols. No doubt, I absolutely respect that and am happy that the city of gold will shine ever brighter for it.
For now however, its more popular counterpart lies on the tip of the continent and still remains South Africa’s brightest diamond. Cape Town is South Africa’s most historical city and walking around its built environment is a hike all on its own. Like discovering caves or waterfalls in ‘the country’, sneaky bars and museums, restaurants and cafés are to be found here even in the places you would expect them least. As cities go, it remains one of the prettiest in the world; between the colourfulness of Bokaap as it dissolves into the colonial underbelly of Van Riebeeck’s vision, it is fascinating place to experience. There is little wonder Cape Town remains South Africa’s most popular city and it will likely stay so for years to come.
A Bokaap Street.
So, long answer short – no. I didn’t grow up in ‘the country’. Besides, ‘country’ here is called bush. Or veld. It’s hunted by lion and leopard and its silhouettes include horn and trunk. Sure, I often wish that I did grow up in the ‘country’. As this website proclaims loudly, there are few things I enjoy more than South Africa’s bush and understandably so: it’s the best in the world with the most to see and I hope to see much more of it – including that elusive leopard that I still, to this day, have not seen with my own eyes.
But as ‘country’ goes, I did not grow up there. I grew up here in the urban decay of the developing world, in the sickening inequality found within, in the legacy of colonialism, in its suburbs as they wrap around it like a blanket: a blanket for this sick place. I grew up in the urban mess handed down to me by apartheid, in its bits and parts all separated into black and white, within the disaster of racism as it splatters onto the rainbow of hope.
‘It’s like stepping on a bug’, I explained to her. South African cities ooze sticky yellow as you wipe them from your shoe with a contorted face. But, have no fear. Like that time you stumbled upon that sneaky roof top bar, that gem of gems, I assure that you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what their essence can offer you. South African cities can be so sickeningly poor but yet so rich with freedom; so empty of hope but yet so filled with it; so ugly with history but yet so beautiful with it.
‘So much so that when you visit us,’ I finished, ‘You just might wonder this: why the hell did I not visit earlier?’
A Joburg rooftop party at sundown.