Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa


What am I doing in Johannesburg?

Is it worth flying a Canadian engineer across the world to volunteer for a low-income housing provider?  My interview involved questions on construction management and sustainable “green” technologies.  Flying me here does not seem very “green” considering the carbon footprint of my plane trip.

Being here, however, I’ve quickly realized the true value of this position is education.

Last Thursday,  violence erupted between a miners’ protest and the police.  As of right now, the media are saying that 34 miners were killed and 78+ are injured.  No police were hurt enough to be hospitalized.

The day before, two police officers had been murdered.  One was hacked to death.  This is arguably part of the reason why the police were nervous and quick to open fire on the protesting miners.

My supervisor, Neil, gave me a ride home today.  On the way we listened to the radio and he said, “You must be asking what you got yourself into.  You must wonder what sort of people are we.”

I told him that I’d done my research before coming to South Africa and knew what to expect.  I didn’t feel it necessary to tell him the terrible reputation Johannesburg has for crime, corruption, and security – which people back home keep constantly reminding me.

I also told him that I know not to judge a place on horror stories alone.  I told him about the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver last year.  I’d hate to believe the world thinks all Vancouverites set fire to police cars because of a hockey game.  I told him I was downtown while it was happening and it was mostly contained to a few blocks.  I’m not trying to downplay the incident – it was a serious event and internationally embarrassing – but the news made it sound much, much worse than it was.  I was walking home along Burrard Street and, besides smoke in the distance, the general atmosphere was of disappointment, not fear.

He agreed that the media always wants to make events as dramatic as possible.  We weren’t saying that that this massacre isn’t horrendous or a symptom of deep-rooted problems, but it alone does not define this country.  Honestly, so far I’ve encountered people much more friendly and respectful than Canadians.

My coworkers – who are both black and white – have been extremely helpful and welcoming.  They are concerned for my safety and wellbeing and are trying to help me find housing.

The people I’m staying with are friends of friend and we’ve never met before.  I am astounded with how generous they and their friends have been to me.

Yesterday I went for a walk to the grocery store.  Johannesburg is not designed to be pedestrian friendly so I basically walked 10 minutes along a highway with little or no sidewalk.  I was the only white woman walking, although there were also some black people.  Every woman I passed I smiled at and they all responded with a surprised, “Hello.”  Not sociable, but definitely more responsive than Canadians.

I went for a run in the park today and more than half the people I passed said hello or smiled or waved.  That does not happen when I run along the seawall in Kitsilano.

Unfortunately, international reputations are often based on politics and negative news events instead of the people on the street.  Most people think of Paris as refined and cultured, but I was there a few months ago and did not find the average person very friendly.  Truthfully, I would recommend Johannesburg over Paris any day.

Anyone want to come visit?


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One thought on “Reputations

  1. you are the only person in the world who considers yourself white. 😉

    not at all surprised to hear you finding people so friendly. esp my friends 😉 there is something about the history of the country that is very real and raw and – in my opinion – makes you appreciate everything just a little bit more than we do here.

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