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.

A Johannesburg Beauty

Johannesburg is a city that hides its beauty well, and sometimes, you can’t see the trees for the cell-masts. But keep looking, within as well as without, and the beauty of Johannesburg will find you


Driving back from the airport late one night, my luggage still infused with the tang of the Atlantic breeze, I catch sight of a strange purple glow on the freeway up ahead.

I lift my foot off the petrol a little, and the other cars bullet past me, their brights blazing.

As I get closer, by a trick of the light, the methylated hue shifts to sapphire, illuminating the filigree of the girders that span the tarmac of the N1 near the William Nicol off-ramp.

I have just slipped beneath one of the new Gauteng toll gantries, and the sight of it, pooling in reflections on my windscreen, has taken my breath away.

By day it will take my money, sending out an impulse that will hold my voyage to ransom, unless I take the slip-roads to avoid the back-roads where the Metro constabulary stand in wait.

But this is Johannesburg, where we take our beauty as we find it, even in the industrial floodlighting of a monument to highway robbery.

I began thinking about this, about the secret poetry of the Joburg cityscape, in the metallic afterglow of a summer thundershower, as I edged out of my driveway, the security-gate rattling on its rail, my eyes on the rear-view, my fingers tight around the wheel.

Then I saw the beads of rain, clinging to the electric fence, like dots of music on a staff. It was a picture as pretty as a haiku, and I was smitten by the way a little moment can light up a life in a city as big as ours.

But it is not just the finer details that give Johannesburgers reason to be Johannesburgers.


If you zoom out to the Google Earth eye-view, you will see, as we like to tell our visitors, that we live in the largest urban forest on the planet.

What we don’t tell our visitors is that many of those trees, the towering pines and the graceful palms, are actually Vodacom cell-masts, topped by cherry-lights to keep the birds and planes at bay.

Or that the others, made of actual wood, were planted not to green the dry and dusty klip-veld, but to harvest the timber to hold up the tunnels where men slithered on their bellies to hunt for gold.

We are, by nature, unsentimental about nature here in Johannesburg.

You will not find a park in Hyde Park, and nor will you find a place to park in Hyde Park on a Saturday morning.

I can’t recall seeing much of a park in Parktown or Parkhurst or Parkview either, although the roads that link them all lead at some point to the big road that bypasses the sanctuary where we keep our wild animals safe from ourselves.

Whenever I drive down Jan Smuts, and I catch a glimpse of a zebra or an eland or a wildebeest behind the high walls and wire, I think to myself, I’d better put my foot down before that robot changes from orange to red. And then I do.

Johannesburg breeds in its citizens a Darwinism of the heart, an instinct for self-preservation that manifests in our drive to get ahead, in the queue, in the organogram, on the hard shoulder.

But beneath those layers of Kevlar and steel, beneath the hooting and the shouting, we are all heart, bonded in spirit and deed by our shared sense of belonging.

The invisible landmarks of the Highveld are the summer thunderstorms that brew and rage at the close of a mercilessly hot day, furrowing the sky with heavy cloud, hurling assegai-bolts of lightning from the heavens.

Then the warm rain falls, slaking the soil, and we all drive a little faster to get home in time to see the benediction of the rainbow.

We don’t have mountains in Joburg. We have toxic dumps where the golden sand is stained with acid, and slender trees struggle to put down roots.

We don’t have oceans in Joburg. We have parking lots. We don’t have rivers. We have spruits that trickle past the pylons and the concrete pipes.

And yet, every time I have been away, and I see the skyline of Johannesburg in the distance, the lump in the throat of the Hillbrow Tower, the needle of the Brixton Tower pointing to the sky, the light falling on the glass spires, the whips of the brakelights and headlamps on the freeway underpass, my hardened heart skips a beat.

Not because of those buildings and machines and the people within and around them, but because of what they mean.

The ultimate destination, the city of my heart and soul. Home.