Johannesburg: A double take at downtown

FULL OF WARMTH: "I found I was either ignored as people got on with their business downtown or greeted with a smile."
FULL OF WARMTH: "I found I was either ignored as people got on with their business downtown or greeted with a smile."

It has been described as one of the most dangerous cities on earth, but Winsor Dobbin finds Johannesburg surprisingly vibrant and safe.

I broke all the rules and ignored all the advice I was given, but I survived.

Expatriate South Africans and alarmist guidebooks had urged me to avoid Johannesburg - the city where I used to live and work - completely. It was too dangerous, they said, not worth the risk - a crime-ridden mess waiting to explode. Head straight to Cape Town or the Kruger National Park, I was told.

I was advised to avoid downtown, never to walk anywhere, to dress down, to always drive with my windows up and to make sure my car was locked when driving. Also, I should leave a space between my hire car and the car in front should car jackers attempt to block me in.

I was told to give Soweto a miss, too, as I would be a certain target. I was, but only for street vendors seeking to sell me handicrafts and Nelson Mandela memorabilia.

I drove through townships, walked the streets of Soweto and even ventured into the no-go zones of Berea and Hillbrow, where I was warned Nigerian drug gangs now rule the streets where I once lived in the 50-storey high-rise known as Ponte.

Maybe I was lucky. A former school friend and now successful businessman, Richard Allen, told me he had been car-jacked twice and considered himself lucky to have lived to tell the tale. But another old friend, former South African Football Association chief Robin Petersen, insists Johannesburg is as safe as any other city as long as you take reasonable precautions.

"A lot of the talk of violence comes from white South Africans who left the country, perhaps to justify their decision to themselves," he says.

There is violence, no doubt. If you wander around the night-life zone of Hillbrow late at night after a drink or two too many, you are likely to be mugged. Same story if you hang around too long in a Soweto shebeen, but you would also be at risk in New York, Rio de Janeiro or London's Kings Cross station late at night.

"If Jo'burg were a drug, it would be cocaine. On steroids," says Tim Richman in his guide to South Africa Ja, Well, No, Fine.

The reality is that much of the remaining violence - and police figures say it is decreasing - is in remote areas that few tourists would ever venture near.

Today, Soweto is welcoming new restaurants and bed and breakfasts every day, with tourism a valuable source of income to the locals. They aren't going to let a few tsotsis spoil that.

For more than a century, Egoli - the city of gold - has been a magnet for South Africa's poor rural blacks, who head to the metropolis looking for work. Today, it attracts would-be workers from across the continent.

But the largest city on the planet not on a river, lake or ocean can also be a boulevard of broken dreams. There are far more new arrivals than jobs, making it a blend of First-World promise and Third-World realities and corruption. Super-luxe shopping malls are reached via roads where the traffic lights, quaintly called "robots" by the locals, are often out of order.

The downtown Johannesburg core, once home to some of the richest mining companies and grandest department stores in the world, now has a uniquely and emphatically black African vibe - a rainbow mixture of languages and cultures - as do the centres of nearby mining towns such as Germiston, Boksburg and my former home town of Benoni.

There are burnt-out, gutted buildings and a cacophony of sound and colour. Jazz music belts out from cheap speakers, and crazed drivers of the minibuses that serve as taxis to and from the townships toot their horns relentlessly in a bid to drum up business.

You will find makeshift markets with vendors spreading their goods out on the sidewalks, rubbish discarded randomly and small fires burning.

The High Court sits just a couple of blocks away from ramshackle shops in which witchdoctors offer to cure broken hearts or enlarge penises for a modest fee, while fast-food outlets compete with stalls selling roasted sweet corn on the cob.

Yes, people may come up to your car window at intersections - not to rob you but hoping to sell trinkets or a daily newspaper. The vibe is African, but at the same time exciting and energising.

While many white South Africans prefer to stay in the safety of the airconditioned malls of the northern suburbs, I found I was either ignored as people got on with their business downtown or greeted with a smile.

I found no threats here, during the day at least. Different doesn't necessarily mean dangerous.

Some of the unemployed have taken it upon themselves to improve what could have been crime-ridden neighbourhoods not so long ago. I saw one man with a sign saying: "I keep this intersection clean and crime-free." He was hoping for donations, of course, but showing considerable ingenuity.

Other impoverished young men help you find a parking space and ensure your car is safe and sound on your return, in exchange for a couple of rand (about 20¢). That seemed like a fair deal to me.

Crime levels in Johannesburg have dropped as the economy has stabilised and begun to grow, although it is still a place where you should remain on your guard. The luxury Saxon Hotel, with its private grounds behind high fences, offers the services of security guards should you feel you need one.

Driving is easy and the motorways are excellent, although the signage is dodgy. I found myself well out of my way in Sophiatown and Roodepoort, trusting my instincts rather than GPS.

However, the naysayers will not be swayed. "South Africa is a crime-ridden mess that is just waiting to explode," Donald Trump recently tweeted. But Robin Petersen says avoiding Johannesburg because of crime is "like avoiding the US in case you get gunned down in mall".

If you were visiting Mexico City, you would not wander around the streets of the Neza ghetto. In Rio, you would not stroll blithely into some of the favelas. Adopt a similar policy in Johannesburg.

Much of the crime occurs in townships or squatter camps that are almost impossible for the average visitor to find.

Two important messages: dress down and drive down. There is a story, probably apocryphal, about rental car agents who select the most obnoxious tourists for "upgrades". The unsuspecting visitor is delighted to be driving around in a BMW or Mercedes, but has been given a car no local wants, and has become an instant target for car-jackers.

The writer was a guest of The Saxon and Ten Bompas and was assisted by South African Airways.


NEWTOWN An arts precinct on the fringe of downtown that's full of galleries and funky eateries.

BRAAMFONTEIN A lively quarter with cafes and delis favoured by hip young university students of all creeds and colours.

MABONENG A funky urban renewal project across city blocks that were formerly no-go areas.

SOWETO A mix of Beverly Hills and squatter camps - but visitors are made welcome. Try to get to a local football match.

SANDTON The enclave of well-to-do whites and the new black elite. Great places to shop and eat.


The Saxon Hotel, a luxury boutique hotel in the suburb of Sandhurst, is known as a temple of African gastronomy. It has an on-site spa and top service. See

Ten Bompas, a boutique hotel in the leafy suburb of Dunkeld West, is super chic with just 10 individually designed suites. There is an excellent restaurant and extensive wine cellar.