Joburg vs. Cape Town: The Ultimate Showdown

May 18, 2013 • Reporting Trips, South Africa 2013, Uncategorized • Views: 799

By: Emma Goldberg

I used to think Yale and Quinnipiac students had quite the rivalry going on. But since arriving in South Africa, I’ve learned that our rivalry has nothing on Cape Town-Joburg. Everybody we’ve spoken to seems to have some strong preference between the two cities. And in everything from their appearance to their vibes, these cities could not be more different.

As we set out for our first meeting in Johannesburg yesterday, the first aspect of the city that I noticed were its walls. Though our hostel is located in a high-income suburb, every house lining our street is surrounded by a high wall, most of them covered at the top with barbed wire. The office buildings we visited yesterday were also surrounded by barbed wire fences, with high-level security at the entrance to each building. One building even required employees to scan their fingerprints before entering the office. Everywhere we go in Johannesburg, we are traveling in cars with drivers prepared to assist us. The city has a very different feel from Cape Town, where we could easily stroll down Long Street at night as fellow tourists poured in and out of posh restaurants.

It’s not so surprising that South Africa has cities that differ starkly, some marked by high-level security and others by a contagious free-spirited feel. After all, in the U.S. my home New York City has a very different feel than L.A., Dallas, or Memphis. What’s funny about the Cape Town-Joburg divide is the opinionated stances that South Africans assert about the two cities.

The day before we left Cape Town, we asked our cab driver what his thoughts on Johannesburg were.

“It’s a pretty dirty city, no one really likes it,” he told us. “Cape Town is much cleaner.”

A shopkeeper in a craft store on Long Street agreed. When we told her we were headed for Joburg she shook her head and wrinkled up in her nose in disgust.

“I don’t like Johannesburg at all,” she told us. She proceeded to regale us with stories of people she knew who had visited Johannesburg and had been scared off by the crime and grime, fleeing back to the loud and colorful streets of Cape Town.

The anti-Joburg sentiments we picked up left us feeling a little shaky when we first arrived here, but Joburg residents seem to have a fierce loyalty to the city—and a similar sort of antagonistic feeling toward Cape Town. The Cape Town-Joburg divide is a sort of personality test. In choosing a city to call home, South Africans are asked to pick: risk and grit verse posh tourism.

Yesterday we visited the office of CNN South Africa, and the producer Kim Norgaard laughed when we told him we had just spent a week in Cape Town.

“Cape Town?” he said with a chuckle. “Cape Town isn’t really Africa. It’s a tourist city.”

One summer in high school when I took a trip through Israel, my tour guide told me that he feels the best way to read someone’s personality is to ask them to choose between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. He told me that cities say a lot about their residents’ identities. If you choose to live in Jerusalem you’re picking a serious and religious sort of lifestyle, whereas Tel Aviv signifies a love for fun late-night partying, drinking fruity cocktails and lounging on the beach.

I get the sense that South Africans also place a lot of emphasis on the identities of their cities. Each metropolis bears a different portion of the country’s identity, and it’s difficult to wrap your head around what it means to be South African until you’ve experienced all of the different worlds within this country. And yes, though Joburg is a dangerous place (my mom certainly mentioned that a few times before I left), it’s also a fascinating city full of complexities and nuance. Today we visited the apartheid museum, which is located directly next to an enormous amusement park with roller-coasters. Kim Norgaard lives in a suburban house surrounded by an electric fence, but he says he loves this city and wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else. We’ll see where else our wanderings in Joburg take us tomorrow.

Comments are closed.