I. Love. Johannesburg.
I just spent several weeks in the city, and it was perfect. I jogged up and down the Westcliff Stairs, ate seafood at the Troyeville Hotel, bought an ‘Igotshotinjoburg :)’ T-shirt (the smiley at the end is intentional; the slogan is not about crime but a photographic project) at the Arts on Main market, visited the Apartheid Museum, ate paella at the Neighborhood Market in Braamfontein, went to the Fort on Constitution Hill, shopped at Art Africa in Parkview, drank coffee at Bean There in 44 Stanley, got lost in Melrose Arch, saw a great cartoon exhibition at Museum Africa, went to an antique fair at Wanderers, sneaked into the amazing new Johannesburg Library, which is meant to reopen in February next year after a three-year renovation, and, best of all, saw possibly one of the most stupendous sights of my life – the jacarandas in bloom all over the city.
The thing that kept baffling me, as I wandered through the city, was this: Where are all the tourists? This is a world-class city. Johannesburg can hold a candle to the best. I love Los Angeles, and to me Johannesburg is just like L.A. The ribbon of highways, the ridges versus L.A.’s hills, the enclave suburbs (instead of Beverley Hills, West Hollywood and Los Feliz, you have Houghton, Parkhurst and Melville), the metropolitan area that runs on and on virtually till the Magaliesberg, the downtown area that noone wants to go to. It might not have the beach, but who goes to the beach when they visit L.A. anyway? In my opinion, it has a lot more energy than L.A. by a long shot.
So, once again, where are all the tourists? Where are all the people who would visit this city if they knew how fabulous it was? What is the Johannesburg tourist office doing to promote the city? Is there even a tourist office? As a journalist, I keep my eye out for things like that, and I never saw a single solitary a single tourist office. What I did see, though, were 1) people who are surprised when you tell them how fantastic their city is, and 2) murder, rape, and muti killings (not real murders, rapes and killings, but I’ll get to that).
The people who are surprised to hear a positive reaction about Johannesburg I can understand. Noone raves about Johannesburg. People rave about New York, even people who haven’t been there. I live in New York and I hear it constantly. ‘Oh, New York is fantastic.’ Even people who haven’t been there tell me New York is the best.
Well, maybe. But New York also has a fantastic PR department. They spend millions and millions to get tourists there to spend money and have a good time. They load the streets with thousands of policemen and police cars to make it safe for tourists to walk around. Johannesburg? Noone visits, so there’s noone to tell you how fantastic it is. And as Julia Roberts said in Pretty Woman, “You start to believe the bad stuff about yourself if you get told often enough.”
Which is where we come to No. 2. Murder, rape and muti killings. Drive around Johannesburg, and that’s about all you see. Not in reality but on telephone poles, on any available pole in sight. Thanks to bastions of journalism like The Star, The Citizen, The Sowetan, Rapport, even people who have never bought a newspaper can read headlines like ‘Terminal Patient Raped,’ ‘Mother Says I Love You as Son Kills Her.’
Great. This is the positive news Johannesburgers need to read every day, every few meters they drive along every road. If Johannesburg did some simple calculations, they would figure out that the revenue they earn from newspapers buying telephone poles to advertise crime is minuscule compared to the money they are losing from a) tourists who are too scared to visit the city and still think of it as ‘the crime capital of the world,’ and b) residents who are too depressed to do their jobs properly because they think they are surrounded by crime.
I’ve got a few suggestions. Plaster a happy face over the next crime headline you see. Tell people how fabulous Johannesburg is. Go see the jacarandas. Visit Johannesburg. You might be surprised.