Adventure Travel

Living in the world’s most dangerous city

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johannesburg sunrise in the worlds greenest city

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

Our family lived in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 2010 to 2012. When people ask what it was like, the first topic that invariably crops up is crime. It’s the Eiffel Tower for Paris, the Golden Gate Bridge for San Francisco, and Roadside Smash-and-Grab for Johannesburg. Yes, there is a reason why tourists are urged to exercise caution in South Africa, but the alarming reports one often finds online are vastly overblown.

johannesburg graffiti

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

If you’ve lived in Johannesburg—fondly called Joburg or Jozi by the locals—you won’t leave with the crime rate foremost on your mind. You’re more likely to remember, with a sweet pang of regret, the weather. Johannesburg has the world’s best climate; mild, dry, and never humid, with an incredible 300 hours of average sunshine per month. From early morning, when you’re awoken by the screech of the Hadada Ibis, a bird with a blood-curdling call, until evening when the vivid oranges and pinks of the African sunset paint the sky, the sun shines as reliably as, well – as reliably as traffic lights work in places other than Johannesburg. Actually, they are not traffic lights but robots, as South Africans inexplicably call them.

johannesburg formerly westcliff hotel

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

Joburg’s sunny climate seems to seep into its people’s souls, making it the world’s friendliest city. You are much more likely to be helped by a complete stranger than have your car broken into. You’re lavished with smiles and jokes wherever you go. You’ll make friends faster than you ever have before, and you’ll spend inordinate amounts of time gathering with those friends around the braai, South Africa’s glorious perfection of the art of barbecue, combining their love of meat and Chardonnay with great conversation.

If there is one thing to fear about Johannesburg, it would be its traffic. Public transport is almost non-existent, and vast fleets of overcrowded, ill-maintained, and largely unregulated minibus taxis take up the slack. The aforementioned perpetually malfunctioning robots do their part in further strangling the city’s main arteries to slow you down to a crawl most hours of the day.

johannesburg visiting soweto

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

There is a lot to do and see in Johannesburg. If you’re interested in culture and history, must-see stops are the Apartheid Museum, Liliesleaf Farm, and the Hector Pieterson Memorial in Soweto. If you have children, you may opt for Gold Reef City instead, an amusement park that has it all—from Kiddies Corner, to the Tower of Terror, where you plunge headfirst into an old mineshaft. When in Soweto, make sure you visit the iconic landmarks of Mandela House, Walter Sisulu Square, and Regina Mundi Church.

johannesburg nelson mandela bridge

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

If you like shopping, Sandton City is the place for you. It’s one of the largest (and totally confusing) shopping centers I have ever seen. While there, be sure to step onto Mandela Square and take a selfie at the giant bronze statue of Nelson Mandela. If it’s a Sunday, pay a visit to the Rosebank Rooftop Market to browse for antiques and African artifacts while sampling ethnic foods and watching breathtaking dancing and a capella performances. In the leafy Northern suburbs of Johannesburg, home to wealthy locals and a large expat community, you can walk on the cobblestone streets of Montecasino, an indoor faux Tuscan shopping and entertainment complex offering quaint stores, restaurants, movie theaters, a casino, bowling alley, comedy club, and the Teatro, where many big name performances premiere in South Africa.

johannesburg riding on elephants

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

If you’re a nature and animal lover, escape the hustle of the city to Joburg’s surroundings where you can ride on an elephant (or be kissed by one), at the Elephant Sanctuary. Pet cheetahs and watch them run at the nearby Ann Van Dyk Cheetah Centre at De Wildt, hurl yourself into the void on a canopy tour in the Magaliesberg mountain range, and self-drive through Pilanesberg National Park to see the Big Five in their natural habitat.

While Joburg might pale in comparison to its glitzier cousin Cape Town in terms of world-class restaurants, it nevertheless offers countless options for high quality, yet affordable dining. And while it can’t compete with the view from Table Mountain, a drive to its highest point, Northcliff Hill, rewards you with panoramic views of the city skyline. If you’re adventurous, you can go off the beaten track on a graffiti walking tour, join the Joburg Photowalkers on a Sunday, or find a guide taking you into Alexandra, Johannesburg’s oldest (and most infamous) township.

johannesburg skyline from northcliff hill

Photo by Eva Melusine Thieme

What strikes most visitors is Johannesburg’s youth and vibrancy. Having only been founded in the late 19th century after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, it has managed to retain an air of perpetual youth while constantly remaking itself. It is also one of the greenest cities in the world, lending its neighborhoods a park-like air despite the semi-arid climate. Johannesburg is the largest city in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is home to Hillbrow Tower, the tallest tower in all of Africa, and it produces almost half of the world’s gold.

Paradoxically, the Johannesburg area can also be considered the world’s oldest human habitation. It is known as the Cradle of Humankind, home to over half of the world’s humanoid fossils including “Mrs. Ples,” one of the most perfect pre-human skulls ever found.

Yes, visitors should be careful and sensible while touring Johannesburg, especially at night and in unfamiliar places, much like any metropolitan area. Some people make a point of not stopping their cars at red lights at night (which, you might recall, are likely not working anyway). Residents who can afford it live in fenced-in estates with round-the-clock security and frequent shopping centers with guarded parking.

But you should never veer too far on the side of caution. Some of my most memorable experiences in Johannesburg occurred when I stepped out of my comfort zone and into places I was warned to never visit.

Remember this: The biggest fear for most expats living in Johannesburg isn’t crime. Rather, it’s the fear of being sent back home one day and having to give up the best life they’ve ever known.

Eva Melusine Thieme is the author of the travel memoir Kilimanjaro Diaries: Or, How I Spent a Week Dreaming of Toilets, Drinking Crappy Water, and Making Bad Jokes While Having the Time of My Life. You can follow her on her blog, Joburg Expat, where she has been chronicling her family’s adventures while living in South Africa, or you can learn more about her next book about a road trip through Namibia with six people in a five-person car on www.EvaMelusineThieme.com. She currently resides in Brentwood, Tennessee, with her husband and four children.

  • Xixi

    Eva, I love your privileged “let’s keep our tourist blinkers on” approach to JHB. For those of us who grew up in poorer areas of the city, that luxury does not exist. Did you know that between 17000 to 19000 people are murdered in this country every year, mostly in poorer areas? By comparison, between 13-14 thousand civilians died in Syria in the last two years. Less innocent people died in a war zone, than this country Eva. And your account of it as some sort of magical wonderland does nothing to help address that huge issue for the rest of us who have to face it every day. I am sick of expats coming to this country knowing that they can pack up and leave (oh, and they do!) at any point when it gets rough, and then lecture us on how safe our cities are. Many of us would love to have that same luxury. Check your privilege next time.

    • joe soap

      Not cool. This lady is trying to talk up a city that is notorious for crime. She is trying to sell Joburg as a great destination. What the F!@#K is “check your privilege????? Grow up and get a life.

      • Xixi

        But then do that. Sell JHB as a great destination. Good food, history, culture. Don’t brush crime off like “oh I lived there for 2 whole years so I am uniquely qualified to say that South Africans are just paranoid and they don’t know what they are talking about. It’s no more dangerous than any other city, really.” Really? Even those of us who have had to see their brother attacked and stabbed and almost killed by thugs? Who’s mother was beaten on public transport which she is forced to take? Who has supported their childhood friend who was gang raped because she has a girlfriend? Sorry, that’s insulting to us. And don’t ignorantly punt lion cub petting either. That’s an industry which is wiping out our wildlife.

        • Tobian

          Xixi, I think the author was talking about how the rest of the world views Johannesburg as a no-go zone. Perhaps you’re not aware that South Africa has one of the worst reputations in the world, if not the worst, on safety? To be honest, it may only be surpassed by war zones like Iraq & Afghanistan. Yes there is crime, but it is nowhere near how the wold views South Africa.

          I have invited various friends to take the opportunity to visit me in SA while I will be here for a few (finite) years — the majority have declined citing safety. On the other hand, I have pending requests from a number of friends who want an opportunity to join me in my home country, another African country, poorer and less equipped to handle tourist needs. Some of my friends (who continue to show no interest in South Africa) have already successfully made the trip to my home country. But South Africa? God forbid, they tell me, they want to live a long.

          On related note, as an outsider, it bewildering to watch the different cross sections of South Africa (black, white …) generally content to promote this overly distorted view of their country to outsiders for completely different agendas. It’s a bit mind boggling.

        • Mo Haarhoff

          Have to agree. Some tips on how best to stay safe would go down well for tourists: how to avoid car break-ins, what to do if being followed and such. Tourists can be sitting ducks from the moment they walk out of arrivals at the airport.

          • King Trollo

            tourists rarely get killed in sa, which is weird given your comment and the fact that it has 10-12 million tourists annually. not exactly a global hotspot for crime

            now columbia is a place where tourists get killed and with a significantly smaller industry to boot. the difference is (unlike south africans) columbians pretend nothing bad ever happens

            so having a positive outlook helps, even if columbians are deluded in their optimism. theyre the polar opposite to south africans who have this weird desire to be the worlds #1 crime capital

        • King Trollo

          why did you insult syrians xixi? im waiting for a retraction

    • joe soap

      Better yet, You tell people how fucked up the country is since ANC independence and ask the hard questions about WHY??? What has happened to the Working south africa and how can you get it back???

      • Xixi

        Greed, corruption and societal decay. That’s what happened. Common knowledge. Sure, and your point is? This is not a political piece.

        • King Trollo

          sa isnt even a corrupt country xixi

    • King Trollo

      no xixi, get your facts straight. far more people die in ‘syria’ than south africa. hello? maybe you should get a plane ticket to syria to see what its like? south africans dont seem to have a clue just how violent the world is. lots of countries are more violent than south africa

      maybe you should also stop lecturing syrians, huh? instead of taking an article personally that has ‘the worlds most dangerous city’ as the headline i mean wtf? johannesburg?!?!?!?

  • Jacques du Toit

    What ANC inspired propaganda bullshit is this?

  • Annie DuPre

    I love as a Joburg transplant! I agree that people always hone in on the crime but there’s so much more to this city than that. Please just note one thing – any place that allows people to ride elephants or touch wild animals at all is not for animal lovers. If it’s a sanctuary, animals should be protected not used like carts.

  • BenHigham

    Even though I cannot honestly respect the views of anyone that uses the expression “Check your privilege”, Xixi is correct. This article is totally blinkered. I think it’s irresponsible to paint Joburg as a viable choice to visit, or choose to live in. The place is a rancid shit hole of corruption, mis-management and crime. Of course there are good bits, every turd has it’s peanuts, but really? Daily life in Joburg is shit. I did 20 years as a privileged upper middle class white male, and I still think it’s shit. While she was in Joburg I bet she didn’t put her 4 kids into a public school or use the local government doctors. I’m sure Joburg looked great though the rose-tinted glass of her luxury SUV, but the reality is that there is a very good reason everyone who could leave, has left.

  • Róża Turowska

    I don’t know what about African elephants, but if you are an animal lover you don’t ride elephants (a spine of Asian elephant is not strong enough to carry a person)

  • Theo Gerritsen

    Fuck off and stay in Tenesee Eva…I lost three friend and colleagues to murder so get off your privileged high horse and pain a real picture. What is next… ” I had a lovely time watching art in Alepo..” Get real

  • Katherine Henry

    I’m really glad that you had a wonderful experience of Johannesburg, but after living there for most of my adult life (and other parts of SA for the rest) and being car-jacked, held hostage in an armed robbery, broken into, followed home by armed gunmen, having my husband drive through a gun battle on his way home from work, seeing my elderly neighbours beaten in a house break in and several other horrible experiences, I find your comment of “You are much more likely to be helped by a complete stranger than have your car broken into” naive at best. It is a beautiful country, but you were lucky, because your experience is not the norm.

    • Katherine Henry

      Sorry Eva, I only just read the other comments and realised you’re really getting a beating for this. I didn’t intend to jump on the bandwagon – but I think you can see you’ve hit a real nerve with those of us who have seen the darker side of Joburg life. I count myself extremely lucky to have been able to get out – I was sponsored by family because I could never afford it on my own, and would never go back.

  • Tanner

    To the haters:
    I lived in and around Johannesburg for two years, spending months at a time every day with and among the people in just about every situation. On one side I was in Tembisa, Alex, Diepsloot, and Soweto, and on the other side I was in Fourways and Bedfordview. I also saw the in-between of Kensington and Orange Grove and learned to especially love Yeoville. Additionally, I spent significant time in Klerksdorp as well as Vereeniging (which certainly aren’t quite like Jozi, but still worth mentioning). Nowhere is perfect, but everywhere it is easy to find good people. The extreme diversity and the relative ability to coexist in South Africa amazes me, and I never felt unsafe as my friend and I walked the streets of Soweto (or any of the places I mentioned) starting in the morning and going until 9 or half nine at night. I never felt unsafe, but I also truly never felt as if I was in a bubble, either. That is to say, I really believe my experience was authentic and not seen through rose-coloured lenses.

    Horrible things happen, which is unfortunate. Just because I was never mugged or was the victim of a smash and grab doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. However, people don’t talk about the inherent good nearly enough. I once had a knife pulled on me after a car chase in Tembisa, but I kept my cool and talked to him. He quickly put the knife in his pocket, at which point a handful of regular kasi drunks materialised on the scene and further diffused it. “Brothas, feel free. You are safe here. Feel free,” they kept telling us. We believed them, and that was my experience everywhere I went.

    Yes, I am also a white American. Yes, I also only lived in your amazing country for two years. You can say all you want about how Eva and I just don’t get it, how we don’t understand the struggle. You are right, in many ways we could never know. However—I, for one, think that America fails miserably at ubuntu. It was my experience in South Africa that taught me a lot about the good in the world. I really truly love that land and had an amazing time there. There is nothing here in America that can satisfy a craving quite like a fully-loaded kota with an ice-cold ginger beer. Boerwors, Iron Brew, biltong, mageu (Number 1 banana custard flavor, of course), chutney, and a host of other things are impossible to find here in the US, and I miss them terribly. But most of all, I miss the goodness in the people.

    I believe the purpose of this article was to give South Africa the credit it deserves for all its many redeeming qualities because it gets so much bad press around the world. I think it is sad that this article is getting so much hate from the very people it is praising. This is not ANC propoganda, people. Take a look around and notice the good you are surrounded by.

    America certainly is not perfect and we are faced with some very serious problems of our own, as are you. But life goes on for both of us, and we have a lot to learn from a country like yours.

    Personally, my time in Jozi left a piece of gold inside me I know will never go away. I hope you who get to live there can appreciate this blessing as well.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2bfd683ca389b969100d2f6260dc7add978715c9096c84f7f71c399efe415ecf.jpg
    The Jozi skyline visible from Diepsloot ext. 3

  • King Trollo

    drama queens on a south african forum again? shocking. i also spy the usual insults thrown at other countries and the people that live in them (syria)

    youd think joburg was san pedro sula reading the comments, its nowhere near that level