When you look down at South Africa’s most notorious city from the sky the first thing that strikes you is the vast expanse of flat land. For someone whose ideas about Africa have been informed largely by movies classics like Born Free the huge expanses strike you at once. Especially if the last time you were on land was the urban sprawl surrounding the international airport at Mumbai.
From the ground, though, it becomes quickly apparent that illusion of flatness was just that. As you drive towards the city from the airport the hilly terrain shows itself, but you’re still taken by surprise.
In almost every direction skyscrapers sprout seemingly out of nowhere. There’s a fantastic description of this in Alan Paton’s 1948 epic novel on South Africa, “Cry, the Beloved Country.” In that novel, the protagonist Stephen Kumalo, a humble black priest from the fictional village of Ndotsheni is floored by his first visit to the big city.
“A great white hill, and an endless procession of trucks climbing upon it, high up in the air. On the ground, motor cars, buses, lorries, one great confusion,” is how Kumalo describes his first impressions. “The buildings are endless, streets without number … stations, stations, more than he has ever imagined …”
In the opening scenes of the book Kumalo struggles to work out little things, like how he will cross the road without getting hit or how to buy a bus ticket, and is promptly cheated out of a hard-earned pound trying to do the latter. That was 1948.
Even half a century later, if you’re a first-time visitor to Jo’burg, the nerves jangle in much the same way. This city has a reputation, and you’d better respect it.