Joburg - working and living

Trip Start Jan 19, 2009
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of South Africa  ,
Saturday, January 31, 2009

I have been working in Johannesburg for 2 months now, and thought I would share with you my first impressions.
To summarize, you can feel that Johannesburg is a paradox city and a city in transition.

Living in Joburg

You can shop in the luxury shopping malls of the Northern suburbs or enjoy a day in the Casino and theme park complex of Sun City and not feel at all like in Africa.
Or you can spend the week-end doing a walking tour in Soweto, the township just 20 mn south of Johannesburg center which was created during the apartheid era to segregate the black workers.
And there you will really feel the African beat. Soweto is now a city by itself, different from the rest of Johannesburg, very vibrant, colourful and with a strong sense of the community. I felt very welcome there, people are happy that you spend some time discovering their history and the way they live today. I also felt safe, and I was told that if someone knowingly steals something, the community will not let this happen without punishment.
I cannot get used to the fact that you cannot walk on the streets though. I mean you can, but in those shopping malls mainly, or in very specific areas like Melville or Newtown (not on a Sunday though.... tried that with Anne-So and we did not even park, there was nobody around).  Or to the fact that there is not one but several city centers... got bad habits from living in European cities I guess :)

Visions of the future?
When I talk around me about the future of South Africa, the visions and feelings are mixed.
Some just say that corruption, crime and Black Empowerment laws are not giving them hope so they'd rather leave (for the UK or Australia for example where there are huge South African communities). And those are not only white people. I had that discussion with an Indian girl as well.
And I am also amazed by the energy and optimism messages carried by some others, trying very hard to make this country move ahead:
- the Tour Operator I booked for my Soweto tour who says he has a "mission", make people like and understand the real Soweto, and not do a zoo-like tour where you do not go out of the bus and do not meet the locals
- Sibongile, 32, my Soweto tour guide, who has never left Johannesburg, is passionate about her community and has a positive life philosophy.
- I recently had a discussion with the Strategy Director of a big South African company who is really hopeful and really puts some efforts to empower people.
- Annie, a friend of friend living in Cape Town, studying a PhD in public health
- I was also pleased to hear from a white South African friend living and working in the UK that he was thinking of returning within the next 2 years.

Environmental friendly?
Due to the recent history, level of poverty and huge problems like HIV/AIDS, some say it is difficult to blame South Africa (or any country from the South) for not focusing on saving energy and reducing their carbon footprint. But when you know that South Africa is accountable for more than 70% of the carbon emissions in Africa, you can't really close your eyes and wait for them to solve their other problems. 

Most South-African are nature lovers, and will be strong activists to protect plants and animals, create government or private nature reserves... But the everyday life I am experiencing in Joburg is just going against all my environmental friendly principles. I am ashamed of the carbon footprint I leave here...
- the garden lights of the house where I live (flat at the back of the house) are kept switched on every night until midnight
- no reliable public transportation, everyone drives = massive traffic jams
- Woolworth, the local supermarket branch of Marks and Spencer, is still using SO much packaging!
- No recycling bins easily accessible (I have 20 empty bottles lying at home, waiting to be recycled... Where? -- yes, wine bottles ;-)
- no large scale energy savings campaigns.  Interesting article:

I feel there is an urgent need to raise public awareness... surely it can be done in parallel of other actions like education, empowerment of youth, HIV awareness campaigns...etc? Will have to read a bit about the electoral programmes to see what they propose to do...

Driving in Johannesburg
- Tom Tom is my new best friend..
In Joburg you don't want to stop on the side of the road to ask for directions... believe me. So having Tom Tom with me is such a comfort. Except when it takes me to the dodgy area because this is the shortest way... but I need to find how you can block certain areas (any tip?)
- Choosing my company car
Strange to choose your company car on completely new criteria: what is the likelihood of being carjacked with that model, are the windows smash-and-grab proof, is there automated central locking....
But so far so good. 2 months without any incident, other than a flat battery because I left the lights on all night...
- Joburg or Paris?
Drivers have no patience, Lots of traffic, The law says you drive on the left here, like in the UK. But why would I overtake you on the right? I would just overtaking you in any possible ways...Taxi drivers are the worse
- Security rules:
Systematically lock your car, 
Put your handbag at your feet or in the boot, 
Nothing visible in the passenger seat to avoid smash and grab, 
Try to never come to complete stop: slow down when you see a red light. At night, if you are alone in the car and on the street, treat the red light as yield not a stop.
Leave some space at the stop between your car the one in front of you to be able to move if necessary.
Avoid certain areas: Hillbrow, Yeoville and the Central Business District, which are the areas where the crime level is the highest.
Working habits
Another interesting thing is that South Africans in my office work from 8am to 5pm max, and you will not see anyone in the office after. But they do not take any lunch break: lunch can range from MacDonald's burgers at 10 am for breakfast, to cereals at 2pm, or a soup from the vending machine at 3pm, or in the best case a sandwich around noon, but always at their desk...
Being French, it is always difficult to adapt.... I thought after 4 years in the UK I was used to that, but this is actually worse here!
Interesting cultural difference: 
- Taking time for lunch in the UK or South Africa would mean you are not treating your work seriously (and also that you want to go home on time). They feel guilty if they do take some time.
- Whereas NOT taking time for lunch in France means you are not considering your team/business partners/colleagues. And leaving at 5pm would mean that you are not working... at all! Your colleagues and boss will judge you on this... and wish you to enjoy your afternoon...
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D on

Hello...I am thinking to move to Joburg for work for 2 years and am really not sure. You wrote this in January has your experience been?

flolafol on

My experience of Joburg has been overall interesting, mainly because of the opportunity of discovering South Africa and Southern Africa countries and cultures.
The life in the city itself is ok if you have money, don't mind driving everywhere, like socialising in shopping malls restaurants, are not schocked by blatant economic discrepencies between communities, are curious and go discovering the cultural places (Market theatre...) and vibrant places like Soweto and if you manage to build a group of friends to hang out with (which I did not in 3 months, too short).
Security is definitely an issue, but I had no problem. I listened to local advice, but it is restricting your life somehow.
I refused to stay longer in my job there because this city is not for me, but lots of foreigners stay there and handle life there.
I loved Soweto and the rest of the country though (I stayed several months in Cape Town and Durban too)
Have a read of this too:

And let me know if you have specific questions.
Good luck!

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