Local writer and editor Josef Talotta explains why the largest city in South Africa is so very ‘now’
Johannesburg is, above all, a working town – a magnet for dreams. Since the first gold strike in 1886, it has evolved from a tented mining camp into the world’s largest city not situated on a body of water. No lakes or rivers inform its geography or layout. Instead, you’ll find millions of trees planted by its original inhabitants to offer respite from the dusty Highveld.
The end result is a city that’s also the world’s largest urban forest visible by satellite. As a teenager among world cities, Johannesburg has always been a bit rebellious, if not schizophrenic. It exploded on to the global stage in less than a decade, attracting speculators, capitalists, labour, refugees and – above all – dreamers. Hundreds of thousands of gold-struck souls poured in from every corner of the globe, all in search of El Dorado: African and Chinese miners; Jewish refugees escaping pogroms in Russia; hard-working, hard-drinking miners from America and Australia; Boers from the Cape; Indian traders and European immigrants – united in their hunger for success, divided by a competitive spirit. Dream maker, dream breaker.
That tangible sense of duality still exists. Today, Johannesburg is a city of blinding contrast. It is relatively rich when it might be poor. It’s considerably white when it might be black. It’s decidedly cosmopolitan when it might simply be African.
It’s green when it should be arid. It’s a symbol of the good life on a notoriously hard continent. And it’s a surprisingly back-slapping friendly city for a place notorious for danger. While other global cities are simmering stews, with flavours that have evolved through centuries of slow-cooking, Johannesburg is a packet of microwaved instant soup. Its underclass, business leaders, socialites, intelligentsia, criminals and police force all arrived in the same year. As an ‘instant’ city, it has little interest in next week. Johannesburg is always about today, perhaps tomorrow, at a push. Time is compressed: 50 years in another city is 10 years in Jo’burg. Its city centre has been rebuilt four times in less than a century: first as a tented camp; then as an Edwardian masterpiece which, over three decades, gave way to art deco-meets-Brasilia modernism; followed by an American-inspired high-rise interpretation, earning a tepid tagline as ‘the New York of Africa’.
Like its original inhabitants, Johannesburg excels at reinventing itself. A collective attention deficit disorder prevails. Its inspiration shifted from New York to Los Angeles, seemingly overnight. Why build upwards when it can build outwards? Indeed, why rebuild when everything can be built from scratch? Today, an endless expansion of freeways and Tuscan-inspired townhouses, malls and office parks devour the outlying Highveld at an alarming rate. The end result is a city that feeds on itself, hungry for reinvention and success.
Johannesburg’s new-generation immigrants – this time from other parts of Africa, China, India and Eastern Europe – continue to dream and scheme: ‘Today I’m going to hit the big time! Or maybe tomorrow… at the latest.’
Getting there Emirates flies to Johannesburg daily. Prices start from about Dhs3,685 return (including tax)