Rebuilding Foundations

An exploration of international development work in Africa

Hillbrow versus Parkhurst

The different suburbs of Johannesburg each have a distinct feel and vibe.  For example, I used to live in Melville.  It had a lively commercial street filled with delicious cocktail restaurants, second-hand bookstores, charity shops, and clothing boutiques.  It catered to students since it was close to the university, but also hippie, bohemian types.

I loved it.

Now, however, I live in Houghton across from a golf course.  Houghton is the Jozi suburb for old money.  Nelson Mandela’s house is in this area and there is tons of security patrolling the streets.  It’s one of the few areas where people feel safe to jog alone at night.

Hillbrow, where I work, is on the complete opposite end of the scale.  It’s known as the busiest, most dangerous part of Johannesburg.  Most white people have never even been there.  During the day, people are everywhere.  Driving through the area is hectic: pedestrians walk all over the roads, within 2 inches of your vehicle.  And you always keep your windows up.

Parkhurst, on the other hand, is a cute yuppie area where a group of my friends work.  Its main street is lined with upscale restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and expensive clothing boutiques.  Hanging out there feels like hanging out in Yaletown back in Vancouver: safe and pretentious.

But it also doesn’t feel like authentic Joburg – whatever that means.

I have mixed feelings about where I work.  On days where I don’t pack a big enough lunch, I would kill to be able to walk to a restaurant besides braai and pap alcoves or McDonalds.  Moreover, it would be nice to be able to simply go for a walk and enjoy it – no men asking, “How much?” or trying to touch me.  Sometimes it’s funny, like one group of men as I walked by:

Man 1: Eeish, that’s nice.
Man 2: It’s ok.

But usually it’s not.

On the other hand, I feel like I’ve experienced more of Joburg than my friends.  I get to see all sides of this crazy city.

Furthermore, I understand that I have to be careful.

One of my friends got his phone hijacked last week.  I was in the backseat and – I’m ashamed to say – completely useless.

A group of us were returning from Arts on Main on Thursday night around 10:30pm.  Arts on Main is a really cool market in the city that occurs every Sunday and the first Thursday of every night.  Five of us had gone and had a really good time drinking mojitos and people watching.

On the way home we had to drive through the city.  My friend, the driver, was confident with his window down and music pumping.

We weren’t in a bad area of the city, but I know hijackings happen all the time.  I considered telling him to roll his window up, but he has a girlfriend who constantly nags him so I decided not to say anything.  I did, however, put my purse under the seat in front of me.

We stopped at an intersection right before the Mandela Bridge, where I’ve heard about police sitting in cafes and watch car after car get their phones stolen while stuck in traffic.

At group of three men saw us stopped and started running toward us.

One friend, in the backseat beside me, told the driver, “Start driving.  Just start driving.  There are three of them.”

He wasn’t listening, however.  His girlfriend was speaking and a good song was on.

The first guy reached our open window.

“Hey man, how are you doing?” He leaned in, all smiles.

“Hey” the driver responded.

The man reached over and took the key out of the ignition.  “Give me your phone!  Give me your phone!” He yelled.

“I don’t have one!” the driver shouted back while held onto the keys.

“We don’t have anything!” the car full of people yelled.

“I’ll shoot you!  Give me your phone!  Hey, shoot this guy!” he yelled over his shoulder to his friends.

“There are two more coming,” my friend beside me said.

The two cars that were also stopped at the intersection took off.

The driver threw his phone out the window.

“Another one!  Give me another one!”

“We don’t have any more!  You already took mine!” the driver yelled back.

The man finally stepped away from the window and we drove off.

Shit, it was frustrating.  On the one hand, you know the guys probably don’t have a weapon.  Wedged in the backseat, I felt completely useless at helping my friend.  Even if I had been driving, though, what would I have done?  A finger lock to make him drop the keys?  But angering the guy doesn’t seem worth the potential risk.

It was scary.  And irritating.  That’s the second time my friend has had his phone stolen.  He says both times it’s been his fault, but that’s not true.  Canadians have a completely different mindset regarding safety and security.  It’s hard to wrap your head around the differences.

Almost every day, I experience the hectic side of Johannesburg.  I know I am a different country, outside of my element.  I’ve done some stupid stuff and been extremely lucky, but I’ve also been super careful.

To be honest, if I lived and worked in Parkhurst I probably wouldn’t be as careful in this city.  I’d forget.

Still, I wish I knew how to respond to shit like this.  The next day I spent a lot of time sitting at my desk, imagining someone standing on my right side, and experimenting with holding the keys/man’s hand in my right hand and palm heeling his face with my left.  It’s an awkward position, to say the least.  Maybe hold the keys with my left hand and chop the neck with my right hand?  Forget the keys, grab the wrist, and start throwing elbows?

But what if there are a group of them?  Do you stand a chance?

Furthermore, the whole thing happened crazy fast.

Not that I have a phone worth stealing, anyways.  People constantly make fun of me for this thing.

It's also a flashlight

It’s also a flashlight

Regardless, I want to know what to do.  I want to know how to respond.

So I’ve been role-playing.

What else can you do?  One of my friends will no longer drive in the CBD, but I refuse to let fear dictate my life.  And, even though I usually keep my windows up, sometimes you have to roll it down – like when you’re entering or leaving a parking garage.

I think it’s more beneficial to channel your nervous energy into something useful than let fear take over.

Joburg, I still love you – all your different suburbs.  But this relationship of ours needs some ironing out: we need to change some things.  It’s an ongoing process, but that’s ok.  We’ll figure it out.


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