Last week I took a sojourn into the heartland of Johannesburg, popularly known as Jozi, and was greeted by the most shocking revelation of my life. The South Africa that I knew some 20 years back is not the same any more.
Last time I was in Jozi was when South Africa was just two into democracy. Mandela was in charge; the spirit of reconciliation was everywhere; there were no tsotsis in town; there were bright lights everywhere and you could do your shopping peacefully and enjoy the surroundings. All that is gone.
The town is literally infested with people, taxis and vehicles that make noise of unprecedented levels. Everyone is so busy calling out for customers and if you take a taxi it takes you around the city leaving you wondering whether you’d reach your destination. And that’s minus the excessive over-charging for the journey.
Street vendors had overtaken the shops and stench coming from uncollected garbage was unbearable. Workers at the garbage collection company called Pikitup (Pick-it-up?) had gone on strike and the workers (who are mostly street people) had splashed the city of Jozi with trash so their statement could be heard. The strike had been going on for three weeks and no impasse had been reached, so I was told.
Police no longer move around on foot, and if they do they move around in groups of three or more; they too, stand the risk being shot at. So most of them remain safely in their barricaded vehicles while all sorts of misdemeanour is going on outside. They only take action when there is an armed robbery or shootout.
Welcome to Gauteng
When you board a coach at the Maseru Bridge into South Africa you are driven all the way past the Free State countryside into Gauteng province a serene and peaceful environment that makes you want to forget you are no longer in the mountain kingdom. The driver plays nothing else but our very own famo traditional music for the next four to five hours. Things only change when a road sign reads: Welcome to Gauteng Province.
After this sign, the road network becomes wider. There are more vehicles on the criss-crossing roads and it’s just amazing how the drive knows which route to take. You start seeing the tall grey buildings from afar and the famous Johannesburg icon tower and before you know it you’re in the Jozi.
Our coach finally stopped at a dirty alley meant for passengers going to and from Maseru. I got my bags and wondered what my next would be. I had two choices; either to find a place to stay in the city or ‘visit’ one of my long-lost cousins in Diepkloof, Soweto. By the way it is very un-African to alert relatives of your intended visit, so one can just show up and still be welcome.
But then I thought, in this modern day they might not even be there or moved to other places in South Africa or worst of all, they might be dead. So I thought it was best for me to find a place to stay in central Joburg but that was the worst mistake I have ever made in my life, apart from drinking.
Whatever happened afterwards are lessons learnt, that are meant to educate my fellow Basotho about how to stay safely in South Africa in this modern day era. If you want to survive like I did you have to live by the rules of Jozi and here are some that I designed for myself:
Rule No.1: Be self-confident
The first rule I had to live by right from the first day is to be self-confident and not to look as a foreigner. Coming from the mountain kingdom one has to throw away that blanket and mulamu and dress ‘appropriately’ when they are in Jozi. Unlike other people who have come here from other parts of Africa, Basotho have assimilated to the South African culture for a long time in history and that should be our advantage.
Most of the elderly men who left Lesotho for South Africa earlier in history came to work for the mines in Welkom, Egoli, Rustenburg, Wenela and other labour-provision centres, leaving their families behind. Those who got swallowed by the glitz and glam of Jozi and other cities completely forgot they left families behind and some would only come back home once every two or three years to ‘make another baby’.
However, some men would only discover when they come back home that someone had done the job for them. In Sesotho or African culture a man is not supposed to ask whether the first born child or any other children born whilst he was away are his – they belong to our clan.
Therefore, when you are in Jozi act like one of them and by doing so you are much safer from being mugged.
Rule No.2: Don’t ask for directions
One thing you must never do in Jozi is ask for directions to a place, any place for that matter. This I did and the first person I asked if they knew of a reasonably priced hotel in the city answered to me with a somewhat West African accent: “How-much-do-you-have my broda woh?”
Obviously, he wanted to have a slice of the little I had on me. In other words, his idea of ‘assisting me’ with directions for a place I could stay should be rewarded. While we were talking another young guy, probably a South African, was after me. He grabbed my luggage and took me away from the West African guy who was trying to ‘help’ me.
By the time I reached a dinghy-looking place in Hillbrow he asked for R500 which I obviously didn’t have. All hell broke loose as the guy threated to stab me with something that looked like a screwdriver. I had to give in.
Rule No.3: There are no rules
Having encountered a rough first-night out I decided to move out and live by the jungle. They say in a jungle only the fittest animal survives and Jozi is one such place, therefore I devised my third survival tactic – that there are no rules. And if they do exist, they shall be broken.
Hillbrow is not for the faint-hearted. Here everything is moving at a fast pace. It is here that you find bars and gambling houses open 24/7 and the ladies of the night do not only operate at night; they do so even in daytime. Add to that, blocks of derelict buildings where people live and the constant sound of police sirens remind of movies such as the South African blockbuster movie Tsotsi.
I did survive the first night and other days that followed though.
One of the most dangerous places to go through when you are in the middle of Jozi is the MTN taxi rank. Here you encounter touts shouting for you to board taxis, you also ‘street children’ in their 20s asking for money to buy food or ‘volunteering’ to look after your car. Sometimes if you fall into their trap you might be robbed of your belongings.
I am still here, having spent over a week in Jozi and I can safely say I am learning the survival skills of staying here by the book. Next week I shall, in great detail, narrate of my experiences here. I know I will make it for as long as I cannot live by the rules.
Till next week, Ha re ee!