It’s been such a long time since South Africa but I feel I owe an entry for Johannesburg and maybe, for Kruger and Victoria Falls. With all the recent World Cup news about the hosts for 2018 and 2022 and the tourism spending in this year’s tournament, I was brought back to my trip to SA in the summer. I’ve got to write this piece on Johannesburg now or I might never get around to do it.
Johannesburg was my first and last stop, being where my flight from Hong Kong stopped at before I transferred to my Durban flight, and vice versa, where I transferred to take my flight to HK coming back. In between, I was in Jo’burg, as locals commonly call it, twice because in between I went on an overland trip for a Kruger “safari” and to Zambia. But despite being there 4 times, my grand total of time spent there was probably 4 days.
Johannesburg has such a big reputation. It’s not the capital of SA, but the biggest city where all the major mining and financial corporations and stock exchange are based. It’s also the business capital of Africa, the “New York” of Africa if you will, being one of the largest cities on the continent. Unfortunately it’s also got a fearsome reputation for crime and shadiness, so much so that not only is it known internationally for this but also many locals fear to venture there. I’m not exaggerating at all as quite a number of people from Durban told me they never go there or if they do, never dare to go into the city proper, preferring to stay in the more upscale suburbs. In fact, even a guy in Johannesburg (and he wasn’t white or Asian), as opposed to someone from Durban or elsewhere in SA, actually warned me about the place where my backpackers (hostel) was, Yeoville, saying “I wouldn’t even go there” and that if he drove there, he’d get his windows smashed or something. This actually put a good bit of fear into me as well and the only thing that prevented me from canceling my reservation was that I’d already given them my credit card.
Anyways my first moment in Johannesburg, as soon I stepped onto South African soil, started with a bad experience, because basically I got conned by an airport porter and foolishly gave him a “tip” that was way more than he deserved. I had to transfer to my flight to Durban, and in order to do so, you need to step outside the customs and baggage area into the open airport area (in Hong Kong’s airport, you transfer inside and never need to step outside) and walk to the domestic gates. Right as soon as I passed through the door, a whole swarm of porters were in front of me and one of them quickly approached me, offering to take me to the domestic gate. I followed him and foolishly, I let him push my cart. By the time we got the gate, which wasn’t hard to find, he asked me for 100 rand (US$13). Because I was tired, having just gotten off a 13-hour flight and wasn’t thinking too clearly and I didn’ t want to start off my trip by getting into an argument with an airport employee (and because I was plain stupid), I gave it to him and he shook my hand and went off. This wasn’t the last time I was to be hassled for money but it was the last time I was played for such a fool.
Actually my impression of the country was quite good at that point. I flew on South African Airways from HK to Johannesburg, and the service and entertainment was top-notch. I watched Invictus, a film about the South African rugby team winning the 1995 World Cup on home soil while the country emerged from Nelson Mandela’s momentous election win, which put me in the right mood for appreciating the country. Flying over Johannesburg toward the airport, the ground below was filled with neatly-arranged rows of houses with yards that looked like I was flying over Toronto instead of South Africa and later on, industrial offices. The airport (OR Tambo international, named after the former ANC head) was impressive, though we had to get off the plane onto the tarmac and take a bus to the terminal, and it looked just as sophisticated and modern, even more so, than Taiwan’s. While lining up to get onto the flight in Hong Kong, I noticed it was a multicultural bunch of passengers, including whites, blacks, Chinese and even Japanese. I could tell the World Cup mood was strong when I entered the huge customs area and saw it full of visitors and World Cup displays. The walls were decorated with World Cup ads and signs welcoming visitors, the lines were separated by steel rails, with lines for World Cup visitors, officials and locals. I was a little taken aback by how filled with people it was, this being about a week and a half before the World Cup started. I cleared customs with ease and had to get my luggage then check into my domestic transfer to Durban. After this, I had to step outside to walk to the domestic gate, when my fateful encounter above occurred. The airport has a lot of stores and kiosks, both outside and inside the gates. There were many World Cup vendors selling colorful shirts, flags, ornaments and of course, vuvuzelas on kiosks, even at the boarding gate to my Durban flight. My flight to Durban was uneventful except for brief conversation with the guy next to me, a white Durban guy who was coming home on holidays from school in the US. I asked him about Durban and I even gushed over how some middle-class and upper-class neighborhoods, seen when flying into Johannesburg, looked like it could have been Canada or the US. He didn’t react in any way, but thinking back, I could see how much of an ignorant tourist I must have seemed (Oh look, you’ve got houses that look like they could be in Canada!).
Left, flying over a middle-class suburb on the way to OR Tambo. Right, we board an airport bus. These are some of the Chinese passengers, some of whom were journalists and media professionals.