Recently, I overheard a radio talk conversation on Highveld (local station in Joburg) talking about Conde Nast’s 2014 release of the friendliest and unfriendliest cities in the world. As the talk show host counted down the unfriendliest cities, France had a handful of cities (no surprise to me), Moscow, Beijing, etc. all which aren’t big surprises to me. Rounding up the top of the list with the unfriendliest city in the world was Johannesburg! The question for all foreigners reading this becomes, is this true??
From Conde Nast:
Though Johannesburg is “one of the most beautiful cities in the world,” safety still remains a serious concern. “It is not safe to travel in Johannesburg independently,” one reader warned, while others called it “dangerous” and “a city of crime and contrasts.” In one instance, a visitor was “pressured to give a tip for personal service, which was not received.” Despite its iffy reputation, South Africa’s largest city remains a burgeoning cultural capital with a stunning urban landscape, “excellent breweries,” and “great shopping.”
Living in Joburg for the past year and a half, I’ve stayed here long enough to really immerse myself in the day to day life and culture of the city. I’ve seen how the rich live (and they live damn well) and how the poor live (and they live extremely poor). Nevertheless, I’ve tried to interact with and learn as much about my new surroundings as possible. No matter who these interactions are with, I can come to one conclusion, people here are extremely friendly. Then there comes the eternal question of Is South Africa Safe which I have diligently answered here.
South Africa is the most multi-racial and multi-lingual country in the world. America is these things but if you take out all first generation immigrants, English is primarily spoken. Having never been to any part of Africa, and having read about Apartheid, I was anxious to see what the people would be like. Were white people still racist and closed off? Were black people still angry from the generations of Apartheid? While I’m sure you can and will find these types of people in South Africa, my worries were almost instantly calmed.
My experiences in Joburg
Most conversations with people at bars, the gym, or anywhere really have resulted in people really curious and eager to know what I’m doing in Joburg. Questions about life in America always arise too as people here love the states. People always ask me how I’m liking the country, to which I reply, I’m loving it. People are genuinely happy when I tell them this because they feel like they’re doing right and shedding whatever negative stigma South Africa has attained over the years. Some are even concerned that I am not enjoying my time here and offer to show me around to which I reassure them that my experience has been nothing but positive.
My day to day interactions with people, whether it’s the doorman in my building, the security staff at work, or the guy taking my orders at Nandos, I’ve felt nothing but good hospitality. People here like to use the phrase “Shap Shap” which essentially is verbalizing a thumbs up. Being the foreigner that I am, I like this phrase and have picked it up myself so whenever someone says shap shap to me, I return the favor with my own “Shap Shap”. In fact, I say this phrase all the time now. “Howzit man? Shap”. Some people have perplexed looks at times thinking “did that asian guy just say shap to me?” but nonetheless, they smile and say shap back to me. Yep, I probably think I’m pretty cool.
I’ve made trips to the townships (slums), and people are even MORE friendly in these poorer parts of the country. I’ve been to Pretoria, the Afrikaans stronghold, to watch rugby games, and most people are excited to ask me what I think of rugby games vs football games (obviously football is the winner but I am nice and say how much I am enjoying the rugby game).
At times I’m almost at a lost for words at people’s kindness. Here is a country that only came out of arguably the worst racial segregation in modern history twenty years ago, and the guys working as parking lot attendants earn next to nothing, but yet they still go about their days with smiles? It truly feels genuine too.
Conde Nast, Think again
So with that said, wtf kind of studies were Conde Nast conducting when they released this? They claim that Joburg is one of the most beautiful cities in the world but is crime ridden and tourists were pressured into giving tips for a service. First of all, I wouldn’t even consider Joburg to be a beautiful city. It’s not ugly but if you want a beautiful city in South Africa, Cape Town is your spot and then some (also ranked 8th friendliest on their list). Second, crime is everywhere! Yes there is crime in Johannesburg, and I’ve been fortunate enough not to experience any of it but what city doesn’t have this? I lived in New York prior to moving here and there are many places I’d recommend a tourist to steer clear from. Third, what city does NOT have people that want tips for services from tourists?
Perhaps Conde Nast should have rephrased their article for Joburg. If the list was “World’s most dangerous cities”, I can understand Joburg being on that list because statistically speaking, Joburg does not fare so well on that front. World’s unfriendliest? That I just don’t agree with.
Being a foreigner may be the root cause, but this article from Conde Nast is tourists’ opinions on the cities so they must have had REALLY horrible experiences. I’ve experienced nothing but warm hospitality everywhere that I’ve been in Joburg. Perhaps it’s because I’m a foreigner living in a foreign land and striking up a conversation is easy. Perhaps, it’s because I’m just a friendly guy myself and like attracts like. Perhaps it’s something else, but regardless, one of the things I will miss most about living in SA when I leave is just how warm everyone is and the kindness I’ve been shown.
Joburg, however, is NOT a place I’d advise tourists to visit. This is not because it is unfriendly or dangerous or whatever. There’s simply not much to do here from a tourism perspective and for someone with limited time trying to make the most of their vacation, Joburg should not no more than a place to stop over before heading to the Kruger or some other game reserve.. On the other hand, Joburg IS a great place to live and work, which is precisely what I am doing. Anyone else planning to do the same, hopefully this post clears some things up!
With that said, now that all your questions have been answered about traveling in South Africa, read my perfect itinerary for planning a trip to the Rainbow Nation!