It’s funny how it works with some towns. I stayed in Cape Town for only a short time but after walking around it for a few days I felt like I had a reasonable handle on the place. With Joburg it was very different. I spent much more time there in total but still feel like I only scratched the surface of what the city itself was all about.

As noted in an earlier post Joburg is extremely well spread out and seems more like a collection of independent towns, united by name but not much else. From the affluent northern suburbs of Sandton & Bryanston to the funky downtown enclaves of Melville & Newtown to the grittier areas of Yeoville & Alexandra where tourists are usually recommended not to venture, there is such diversity that it feels more like a microcosm of a entire continent than parts of the same city.

As usual I tried to rationalise what Joburg ‘is all about’ i.e. what is it’s raison d’etre by looking for historical context. Cape Town is easier, there are lot’s of analogies with Sydney; stunning, picturesque cities both that are well aware of the charms they possess and not afraid to let other people know it. But what of the role of Joburg ?

From an Old World perspective It is most often compared to New York. There are elements that work here especially around immigration. People from all over the African continent are flooding to Joburg as they believe it is the economic hub and a place they can fulfill their dreams. Sounds like New York’s immigration story.

Joburg is a very recent phenomenon though having only gained importance or even any kind of size after gold was discovered in 1886. This giant and rapid leap forward on the back of a kind of industrial revolution reminds me somewhat of the history of Chicago in the late 19th century i.e. a change in the economic landscape of a country (in the case of the USA the railroads helping trade to expand westwards) causing the pre-eminence of that city for a period of time.

From a geography and topography point of view, the analogies are easiest with Los Angeles and being stuck in 5 lanes of traffic at 6am on a weekday morning confirmed this unintended and unwelcome linkage.

There were several other cities I tried but none seem to match the indentikit properly. It finally came to me though on the plane home; I was looking at the problem from the wrong way. Joburg will not fit an indentikit of an old world city but rather will become a blueprint for the emerging cities of tomorrow i.e. I should be looking forwards not backwards. History doesn’t solve every problem…

Back at Maropeng they’d had an interesting exhibit on the top 10 cities (population wise) in 1900. The list included Vienna, Manchester, St Petersburg, Philadelphia, Chicago etc. – all beautiful and interesting cities but no longer among the world’s biggest or (probably) the most dynamic.  

By 2003 (just one century later) the Top 10 list was now dominated by cities from the emerging world including Sao Paulo, Mumbai, Buenos Aires, Shanghai etc. Joburg is not on this Top 10 list yet but who knows in the future.

Africa is an economic powerhouse of tomorrow. It as abundant in natural resources and they are likely to be huge strategic and political weapons of the future. Of course there are many problems to overcome but just think again about the change in the world order over the last 100 years.

So, I choose to remember Joburg today as a teeming, chaotic, fascinating & fun metropolis but have a sneaky feeling that when my children’s children’s children are studying their history at school, Joburg will be held out as a beacon of an economic and cultural changing of the guard both for South Africa as a country and Africa as a continent.

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One Comment on “Joburg”

  1. Ian Says:

    Welcome back Nigel 🙂

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