21 Ways to Survive & Be Happy in Johannesburg


Whether you live in South Africa’s most dynamic metropolis, or you’re just passing through, here’s how you can make the most of it

  1. Learn to appreciate the dawn chorus of the hadedah, for the touch of the bushveld it brings to suburbia. Who needs an alarm clock in Joburg? And while you’re up and about, learn to appreciate the mid-morning, afternoon, and evening chorus too.
  2. Look inside your shoes before you put them on in the morning. There’s very little wiggle-room with a Parktown Prawn in there.
  3. Be nice to rain spiders. They are humungous but harmless. Coax them into a Tupperware dish, stick the lid on, and release them in the garden, if you must; otherwise, just wave to them as you go about your business. And don’t scream. It scares them.
  4. Buy a feather-duster from the feather-duster man. You’ll be supporting feather-dusterpreneurship, and you’ll have a device on hand to coax a rain spider from the ceiling in an emergency.
  5. Amble around the Maboneng Precinct, the new heart of Hipster Joburg, with its cafés and galleries and boutiques. Then stroll a little further along Main Street, and take the lift to the Roof of Africa, 50 stories above the bustle of the inner city.
  6. Don’t be too alarmed by the sight in your rear-view of a driver gesticulating wildly and shaking his head. He’s probably just talking to someone on his hands-free. Unless of course you’re slowing up the fast lane, in which case he is talking to you.
  7. Take a pamphlet from the guy at the robot. It’ll only take a moment, and you can always hand it over to the guy collecting pamphlets to put in his rubbish-bag at the next robot.
  8. If you see the traffic ahead of you suddenly slowing down, slow down. It means there’s a traffic cop in the bushes. Nobody slows down for any other reason in Joburg.
  9. Leave home an hour earlier than you think you need to leave for any meeting that begins before 9am. If, by some miracle, the traffic is light, you’ll have time to settle back with a coffee and the paper.
  10. Always carry a healthy amount of loose change in your ashtray. Unless you’re a smoker, of course. In which case, give up smoking and put the money you save into your ashtray.
  11. Walk. Swiftly, briskly, casually, leisurely, alone or en masse. Pound the pavements, promenade through the parks. Admire the buildings and breathe in the trees. This city wasn’t just made for wheels.
  12. Look carefully in your rear-view mirror when reversing from a parking-spot. You wouldn’t want to bump into the guy advising you how to reverse from a parking-spot.
  13. Don’t worry if you suddenly notice a big mall that wasn’t there yesterday. They do put them up overnight.
  14. Migrate from the malls every now and again, and mooch around the weekend markets. Neighbourhoods in Braamfontein; Market on Main in the CBD; Michael Mount Organic in Bryanston, Fourways Farmers Market on William Nicol and Montecasino Boulevard. They’re easygoing, friendly, and vibrant, with great gifts and trinkets and fabulous food.
  15. Roundabouts are called roundabouts because you go around about them. Not on top or across or on the inside. Not many Joburgers know this simple rule, which can help you get around the traffic in a roundabout way.
  16. Always carry two cellphones on your person. Not in case one of them gets stolen, but rather so you can have an excuse to say “Sorry, I’ve got to take this call” while you’re taking a call.
  17. Practise good car-ma. Where possible, ease back and let other drivers into your lane. They’ll be forever grateful, and you’ll be calmer.
  18. Get to know your neighbours. Not just those across the road, but those across town and across the freeway. Explore different places, travel different roads. Your suburb is not your city.
  19. Accept that winter will arrive with a vengeance, and summer will appear in a blaze. Autumn and Spring are merely theories in Johannesburg, like the orange light that is said to be observed between green and red.
  20. Sometimes, the best thing about Johannesburg is the road that leads you out of Johannesburg. Head north down the William Nicol or west down Beyers Naude, and you’ll be in the wide-open country within minutes. Nature reserves, mountains, the Cradle of Humankind. Once, all of Johannesburg looked like this.
  21. Look to the sky. A diamond-blue, electrically-charged canvas of infinite possibility, crowning the heights of one of the greatest cities in the world. Joburg. Or as some of us are happy to call it, home.

53 comments on “21 Ways to Survive & Be Happy in Johannesburg

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post Gus! I am an immigrant and have been living in Joburg for 9 years and it feels like home! I laughed your point about learning to love the morning hadedah screeches ! I never thought I would ever get used to the jarring sound that woke me at 4.30 am and then woke my baby from his morning and afternoon sleep! But the sound has become part of the sound track of my life! I am going to print and share this wonderful list!

    • Thanks kindly – you do get used to the hadeda! I only really find them a little too much when I’m on a Skype call, and their squawking interrupts the conversation.

  2. I spent a Saturday in Braamfontein a couple of weeks ago and was pleasantly surprised. I could even imagine living there, though I don’t think I’d be able to afford it.

    • Yes, Braamfontein is buzzing. It has aways been a vibrant neighbourhood, largely because of the university and the theatres, but it has a newfound energy that is quite infectious. And the coffee these days is better than it used to be, too.

  3. Love it…spring & autumn are theories, the hadedah chorus… Good reminders of what to appreciate in our busy, buzzing city

  4. Reblogged this on Judith Ancer and commented:
    I enjoyed this piece very much. Happy voting day – celebrating 20 years of democracy with a free and fair election. And a glorious autumn day in Johannesburg. Blues skies, gentle warmth and the fire of autumn leaves.

  5. So enjoyed reading this. After 14 years in the UK I’ve decided to move back to Jhb. I’ve been quite (very!) nervous at the prospect of living there again. Good to hear the positive side of things.. and I look forward to getting used to the hadedah’s dawn chorus again. Thanks Gus, you make me feel a little easier.. 🙂

  6. atricia Kissane wrote a new note: jozi.
    I am alive; I move to the rhythm of my own beat
    I am fierce and hard
    I am sanctuary to the homeless
    A playground for criminals
    A city that never sleeps
    Place of extreme contrasts
    I nurture families
    I’m not for the faint hearted
    I provide a canvass for dreams
    Love me – or hate me
    I will never apologise for being …
    Apr 14, 2013
    Like · Comment · Share
    Lorraine Ben

  7. yes. such a great snapshot of jozi – a city i never thought i’d live in again, and yet have grown to love.

  8. ….and the people; such good friends keep drawing me back….great reminiscing about Jozie and all her quirkiness, thanks for this!

  9. Love this, Gus! But then, I find it easy to be happy in Jozi, it’s such a fabulous city. One thing, though, don’t forget the new Fourways Farmers market while you’re doing your marketeering.

    • Thank you Kaeleer! You’re the second person to recommend the Fourways Farmers Market, so I’m going to head out there this Sunday…and I’ve added it to the list in the meantime. Looking forward!

  10. The hadedahs!!! one of my first memories of moving to Joburg, running out like a mad zombie to get them off the lawn. Also sometimes, inexplicably, IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT!!!!

    • Yes, they do sometimes go crazy at night! Usually just a long squawk, like a drunken reveller coming home from a party.

  11. All the observations about the natural world are true and lovely. Thank you for those. Thank you for talking about walking, that “this city wasn’t just made for wheels”, because most of the people in this city do not drive. But thank you also for the thing about taking the flyers, and thank you very much indeed for the “get to know your neighbours” one.

    Thank you for your article, it is better than all the other ones I have seen in this vein.
    Nevertheless, it falls into the main trap of the others:

    There have been quite a lot of feelgood list articles about Johannesburg in the last year. And without fail, at least one point will be something about Maboneng, another about (the new gentrified) Braamfontein. Thereafter, Bryanston, Fourways, Greenside and so on. If they mention Soweto at all it’s the Apartheid Museum or Vilakazi Street (if you’re lucky, the Soweto Theatre). I’ve never seen mention of Fordsburg in these. Or Mayfair. Or Troyeville. Or Cyrildene. Or Newtown. Or Sophiatown. Or Queen Street. Or Yeoville. Or Joubert Park. Or the Hillbrow Theatre. Or the Windybrow Theatre. Or the Carlton Centre. Or Smal Street Mall. Or Diagonal Street. Or anywhere else in town besides Maboneng. Never a mention of the Mai Mai market just one block away from Arts on Main as a place that anyone visits. Never a mention of a good way to catch taxis to a certain place, or a good Rea Vaya connection between attractions. Now and then there is something about Constitution Hill, very seldom anything about the Botanical Gardens or the Zoo, and nothing about the Johannesburg Public Library, or JAG. Certainly nothing about Alexandra, or even Orange Grove.

    One would think these things didn’t exist, whereas they are the main life of the city and its best resources. The article above is a good one, but it is still privileges an upper middle class, white perspective, while claiming to be about this city of Johannesburg.

    I don’t say the author is personally like this, and this article is put in a kind and gentle way, and I support the positivity wholeheartedly.

    But we need to start to acknowledge, in the middle and upper classes (who dominate the media, control the economy, and present the global face), the life and the points of pride and growth and expression of and by ordinary people in this city, who are its main population. Because these things are also beautiful and it is the participation in these things, however uncomfortable at first, that will contribute to all our citizens; survival and happy life.

    Please write something else about this.

  12. Hi Pule, thank you for your comments, they are much appreciated. And you are 100% right about the need for a broader focus on the life of the inner city and beyond, into Soweto and Alex.
    I used to live right in the heart of town, in a block of flats on President Street, and I still love strolling around the inner city, particularly from Fox to Main to Bank City, Diagonal and Newtown.
    I sometimes run writing workshops where part of the exercise is “walking the story”, and I usually choose the Carlton Centre, Mai Mai, or Ponte and the surrounds of Hillbrow for these field trips.
    But having said that, I am going to take up your challenge and look at a broader piece on the aspects of the city you mention. Stay tuned, and thank you!

  13. Glad to see I’m not alone with the Tupperware approach to rain spiders…can also confirm not much parktown prawn wiggle room when pulling on a jean pant in the early am….

  14. I once had a house in Johannesburg….
    And a wonderful place it was
    With hadedah chickens and early morning frost
    And the scent of wood smoke on weekends and a lady selling mielies and the four by four brigade from Sandton playing hopscotch on the pavements

    Ah yes, I once had a house in Johannesburg

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