Johannesburg is not for the faint-hearted. The South African economy has its
ups and downs and the city has a deserved reputation for violent crime. But that
does not prevent it being a wonderful place to live.
It has possibly the best climate in the world. Summer nights and days are
balmy, with none of the irritating humidity of Hong Kong or New York.
Thunder storms roll in majestically in the afternoon, leaving the air clean,
fresh and invigorating.
Winter days are warm. Admittedly, night-time temperatures often drop below
freezing, as the city lies at 1,700 meters on the high veldt. But that
allows plenty of romantic evenings in front of a blazing fire (few houses
have central heating).
Air quality in Joburg is generally good -- bring the kids!
Housing and financial district
For the well paid, houses are built on a generous scale, with grounds to
match. Anyone on an overseas posting is likely to be living in one of the
wealthy suburbs to the north of downtown Joburg, such as Rosebank,
Parktown, Parkhurst or Sandton.
You will think you are in the first world: the phones will work, the streets will be cleaned, you will not get diarrhoea from drinking the water.
But venture into downtown Joburg and the decay is palpable. The steel and
glass skyscrapers are still there, but the sheer weight of crime and
municipal neglect has driven most of the stockbrokers, bankers and mining
magnates out of the old city centre and north into or near that enclave of
The five star hotels and upmarket restaurants have trekked north too.
The international financial institutions are now well represented in and around
Sandton - ABN Amro, Barclays, Deutsche Bank,
Merrill Lynch Capital Markets and Societe Generale are just some of those
with a substantial presence.
The big four local banks are ABSA, First National Bank, Standard Bank and Nedbank.
Despite the economic problems, such as huge unemployment and an unstable
currency, South Africa is by no means a basket case.
Moody's, the credit rating agency, said in October this year that the government's macroeconomic track record had been impressive in recent years, particularly in fiscal
policy but increasingly in monetary and exchange rate policy as well.
Health and leisure
Remember that South Africa is the country that gave the world Dr. Christian Barnard, so if you fall ill you can expect a reassuring level of expertise at the private clinic of your choice.
But avoid the overcrowded, overwhelmed and understaffed state hospitals.
Remember too that South Africa is the country that gave the world Gary
Player, so expect to be impressed by the golf courses.
The one at Lost City,
a two-hour drive away, hosts the annual Million-Dollar Challenge and is
Rugby, cricket and soccer are followed fanatically and are widely available on pay TV or at a stadium.
It is is the outdoor recreational opportunities that make Joburg such a
desirable posting. For all its leafy suburbs, the city itself is scenically challenged,
set as it is in a patch of barren veldt whose monotony is relieved only by lumpy mine dumps and thrusting power station cooling towers.
More tempting playgrounds are only a few hours away. About 400km to the
east is the Kruger National Park, the famous game reserve packed with 'big
Luxury game lodges have sprouted all around its periphery,
offering the perfect weekend getaway from the stresses of the city -
complete with Hemingwayesque recliners on which to sip G and Ts as the
sun sets behind the silhouette of a spreading baobab and lions roar
in the distance etc etc.
Many people will be satisfied by make a killing betting against the rand.
But others might prefer to go out and slay something living.
Based in Joburg, you can shoot some innocent buck, butcher it, hang strips of its
flesh out to dry, and then enjoy same dried meat -- known as biltong -- with
a few beers. Preferably at what is known as a braaivleis, or barbecue.
The braaivleis is the central cultural event of white South Africa. A
great deal of meat is consumed, along with vast quantities of alcohol.
The discriminating visitor might stick to the excellent Cape wines, but
brandy and coke is the staple.
Taxes and crime
Tax rates were cut recently, but you still start paying the top rate when
your income hits 215,000 rand a year -- just 17,000 pounds. Once in this
bracket you start paying tax at 42 percent, which many foreign residents will
The tremendous downside of life in Joburg is crime. Car hijacking is one of
the more notorious problems, so it is unwise to drive anywhere with car
windows open or doors unlocked.
After a couple of weeks new arrivals get used to taking precautions, such
as checking out suspicious-looking pedestrians if they have to stop at a red
robot (as traffic lights are known).
To deal with intruders in their homes, wealthy residents tend to rely on a
private armed response service that responds to an alarm system. Yards are
enclosed, and often patrolled by dogs.
Is a see-through fence better than a wall? Once the housebreakers get over the wall, no one can see what they are up to. Should you acquire a gun for self-defence? Or will the robbers find
it and use it to shoot you? Such topics are the bread and butter of Joburg
dinner table conversation.
But many foreigners who spend a few years in the city speak of it
afterwards with nostalgic yearning. The adrenaline flows fast in Joburg
and makes most Western cities seem bland.