Johannesburg I: Sandton


At last.

Fifteen minutes in a Gautrain airport shuttle, pancake layers of escalators and ping, in no time you are delivered onto early-morning African sunlight. I am in Sandton, the heart of Fortress Johannesburg, the 156 square kilometres said to move and shake the entire continent. It is both very green and very ochre, the refuge of the white population of Gauteng as well as its booming black upper middle class, aseptic, fortified and charmless without even being ugly.

Not that I would know what the thing even looks like, really, because mostly there are the brick walls and electrified fences promising 24-hour armed response and what appears to be a constant traffic jam and after two days nothing, but really nothing, has gelled into any form of aesthetic coherence in my eye.


I don’t like it but what can you do, right, fresh off the plane as I am and saddled with so many stories about brutal crime that they have become abstract and meaningless. I have been twisted and bent into several variations of the human pretzel for South African Airways’ 11-hour long night flight, and I am so full of joy I want to jump around. I have gotten a whole row of two seats in Economy for myself, proving once again that God exists and is probably a Spaniard, and I have traded chats with an Afrikaans-speaking middle-middle lady across the aisle who insists Bloemfontein is nicer than Cape Town. And now here I am.

At last.

They say things are so much better here these days and the crime statistics show Johannesburg’s plunge from being the Most! Dangerous! City! Ever! to somewhere in the Top 10. Still, the culture lag from the abject violence of the 1990s is evident. Everywhere I am told no, don’t walk, wait, we’ll come to pick you up. By day two I am climbing the walls with claustrophobia so I start tuning it out and I go everywhere on foot.

And it’s nice, with the crisp warm high-altitude air that feels so familiar. Madrid and Johannesburg, despite looking like they have nothing in common whatsoever, were both built relatively recently, seemingly in the middle of nowhere (which is to say, in the middle of everything), near no lake or river or coast or any natural body of water that may help sustain organic life, and at a sinfully high altitude. Never mind why, we’re a fait accompli.

Maybe that’s why, despite not knowing what the place looks like after two days, despite the monstrous malls and the traffic, and also maybe because of how friendly and curious everyone I encounter is, I feel euphoric and blessed to be here.

At night, over a dinner of springbok carpaccio and meat on the bone with two South African friends I know from London, we talk about Oscar Pistorius and rugby and race and history and this and that, and they tell me about a car-jacking that happened earlier in the day not even two blocks from the restaurant.

I have waited so long to meet South Africa and I could not be happier to be here. At last.