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A Tale of two cities – The contrasting fortunes of Joburg and Cape Town…A fun, subjective as well as more serious look at the understated reasons why Joburg always comes out on top

Following a decade in Cape Town, I finally made the move to Joburg.  A move that had been in the planning for years.   Since re-location last May, bucking the recent trend of people almost overwhelmingly moving in the opposite direction, there has been a well-documented gas explosion in CBD, a couple of small earthquakes, two serious armed robberies within our boom estate, the worst series of rolling blackouts last few months I have personally experienced on the continent, let alone in South Africa, and a near-catastrophic fire at my cottage where the fire brigade took almost an hour to show up….

But I haven’t regretted or looked back in nostalgia for a single second.

At heart, Joburg will always be a more dynamic, vibrant city with hidden natural beauty that is surprisingly close by and some of the best art, culture and nightlife on the continent.   It will always trump a flood and drought-prone city like Cape Town, which lacks a dynamic urban core and is as racially segregated as it was back in the mid-90s.  A city that has focused nearly all its resources on a few well-placed areas such as CBD and affluent neighbourhoods in southern and northern suburbs – and explains why it has a murder rate almost DOUBLE that of Joburg; A city that has essentially pushed its real problems out to the periphery and that will one day come back to bite it ferociously on its precious backside.

Joburg has certainly taken a battering of late. 

The culmination of years of neglect through local government mismanagement and on the wrong end of the global trend and collective re-think following the pandemic where a slower paced lifestyle in a less-urban, more pleasant surroundings was deemed more ideal following isolation and lockdown – A trend that saw Cape Town being its main beneficiary.   Far better-run by the opposition Democratic Alliance party, its CBD could almost be one in a small southern European country if it wasn’t for the breath-taking backdrops of vertiginous mountain rises that surround it and are synonymous with the mother city.   It experiences fewer blackouts than Joburg after splashing out on a hydroelectric dam.  And its mayor, Geordin Hill-Lewis promises far more, often reminding anyone that will listen that over the next three years, Cape Town will spend more on infrastructure than Joburg and the country’s third largest city, Durban, combined.

Joburg on the other hand, has been paralysed by coalition politics where the mayorship has lurched from DA to ANC.  It is now held by a mayor who leads an obscure Islamic party with less than 1% of the vote.  In his position since May 2023, Kabelo Gwamanda is the city’s 9th mayor since 2016; Almost as dizzying as the managerial turnaround at Tottenham football club in U.K.  Faced with overwhelming infrastructural and other urban problems, Joburg has been further blighted in its ability to resolve them by a debt load that was recently downgraded by GCR –one of the main credit-rating agencies on the continent, from stable to negative.  The main reason for the downgrade has been the collapse in revenue collection in the city.  In October last year it was down a full 89% from the year before.  Residents have quickly racked up debts owed to the municipal council as their ability to pay in the debilitating economic climate we all find ourselves in is hampered.  A clearer sign of one city’s fall and another’s recent rise are the job figures: While employment in Western Cape (the province in which Cape Town is located) increased by 6.9%, it fell in Gauteng (Joburg and Pretoria) by 0.4% in the quarter up to March 2023.

This bad picture has been taken up with glee by many corners of the media, always ready to put the proverbial boot into the so-called gangster city.  The Daily Maverick, with its propensity for dry wit and drama recently jibed,” For the past year, it feels like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have descended on Johannesburg AKA JoHellesburg…. Johannesburg is no longer on the “verge of collapse”.  It is collapsing.”  Even the usually, cold objective Economist succumbed to more verbose language in a recent piece describing the city, and not without reason as such: “A drive through Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city, can feel dystopian.  For-sale signs line suburban lawns; empty offices advertise vacancies; sewage gurgles over uncollected rubbish.  Lights are often out at junctions. Potholes circled in paint are labelled ANC, a dig at the African National Congress, the ruling party that many residents blame for the city’s plight.”

It is no surprise therefore that my move up here has been almost ubiquitously greeted with a quizzical, raised eyebrow.  My standard glib response to deflect the need for a longer reply is that it is good for work. As a journo, it is better to be closer to the action so to speak – both in political terms and for what is considered newsworthy internationally speaking.  But to be honest, as someone who has moved as much into the data-crunching world of journalism, I spend most of my time in front of a computer these days.  In fact, I’ve spent the last three months mostly chasing an offshore company in three different opaque jurisdictions linked to a faraway African country.  Not really shoe-leather, Joburg-busting reporting really.

To be very honest.  If I could sum up my real reason for moving up here in one terse sentence, it would be as follows:

I moved to Joburg to try to try to protect and preserve my sanity.    

There are so many reasons as to why on a personal level, Cape Town just wasn’t the right fit.  I came to the continent to report or photograph Africa.  Cape Town is not Africa.  A wannabe French Riviera, it is as far removed from the continent as you can get while still being on it; A last stop before reaching Antarctica and feels very much that way when living there.  Cape Town is officially considered the furthest of the 5 gateway cities to the southern continent and is being touted as a future hub for tourism to Antarctica.  I can remember the very moment I realised I needed to get out of the place.  I was sitting in an English pub on the wind-swept, sand-sculpted suburb of Cape Town where I used to live.  I looked up and there were a few old English retirees drunk who could hardly lift their pint glasses.  The golf was in full swing on all three televisions.  You could almost hear the heart monitor expire:

Beep…Beep… Beeeeeeeeeeeeeeee…

My girlfriend and I renamed the place after that: “The pub at the end of the world, where everybody goes to die.”

It is not just the isolation though.  Most Capetonians – as pleasant as there are superficially – are as vague and vacuous as the cold expanse of the South Atlantic Ocean on whose shores the city inhabits.  I mean, it really is the only city on earth where you can literally have a 20-minute conversation only using the half-words “hey” and “ya”.  Honestly, try it next time you are down there.  You’ll probably be lauded as a “good oak” and invited to a braai (BBQ). 

Joburg annoyances with Capetonians were brilliantly summed up recently by the actor and writer, Anton Taylor in two short Tik-Tok-style videos.  Here’s one:

The best part of Anton’s video, apart from the whole not indicating when turning, (Capetonians all drive like pensioners and are quick to point out your slightest mistake, driven by an almost religious conviction that your minor infringement may bring civilisation itself down on our heads.  But then they themselves never indicate… the delusional hypocrisy of it all), is the bit about a Joburger having the temerity to follow-up and invite him as a Capetonian out after a brief encounter between old friends.  In the year I have been in Joburg, I have met more people and established more meaningful relationships than I ever did in Cape Town.  Coming from London and then living in another African city, Nairobi, that big city curiosity is important for me. 

Cape Town is essentially a little village playing at big city.

And it is not just about social interactions that betray Cape Town’s small-town credentials. It simply doesn’t have a functioning urban core like most big cities, and its economic growth is therefore disjointed and far more polarised between rich and poor. Sure, the statistics will tell you that its economy is driven by a vibrant finance and manufacturing sector. But in reality, Cape Town is utterly dominated by the economics and culture of retirees and tourism.  The problem with that is much of the city’s wealth comes from the outside.  This then has the knock-on effect of increasing demand in a city geographically restricted by mountains and pushing the price of everything up across the board. And without an internal dynamic economy, wages are lower and mostly stagnant for the majority. 

Executive jobs for example in Cape Town are a full 18% lower than their equivalent in Joburg, while rent is 49.9% HIGHER in Cape Town.  And the variety and spread of jobs in different sectors is far more developed in Joburg.  Just ask my relatively well-paid girlfriend who is in the financial sector in Cape Town.  She took a pay cut from working in Joburg for a promotion at an internationally recognised financial services company in Cape Town.  And even at the operations manager level, she found herself with near to no financial wiggle room, her rent being three times higher in a similarly-sized apartment than what it was back in Pretoria where she lived before.

What all this ultimately does is to deal a terminal hammer blow to any prospects for the middle class in Cape Town, traditionally one of the most important drivers of inclusive, widespread growth in any big city.  A lot has been made of the Cape Town’s rising property market too, lauded in much of the media.  But what is mostly not discussed is the way it has completely priced out most South Africans.  And not just Capetonians; My affluent lawyer who is a native Joburg’er and migrated down three years ago was shocked at property prices there when he started looking around.  A Business Tech article earlier in June this year, gives a glowing appraisal of Cape Town’s property market unhindered by rising interest rates.  That was according to Seeff, a real estate and property group.  The article casually drops the following bombshell, “Many of Seeff’s agents have also seen a shortage of stock in many price bands across the city, especially in the R3m to R18m range.” 

ZAR3 MILLION (approx. USD$158,000) TO ZAR18 MILLION (approx USD$950,000)?! 

That might all seem really affordable to foreigners in the west, but for most South Africans that is way out of reach.  At the bottom end of that range and at current interest rates (of – to be lenient – 10%), a native here would be looking at a monthly bond payment of above R22,000 (USD$1150) a month… over 30 years.  And that would be with a R400,000 (approx. USD$21,000) deposit.  That is simply completely unaffordable to most South Africans right now. 

In Joburg on the other hand, I myself have been eyeing property in Modderfontein, a relatively new suburb located on an actual nature reserve on a pristine clean river. The area is located close to the highways going both ways round the city and to Pretoria on its east side and a very short drive to the modern train system known as Gautrain.  From there both Sandton or Pretoria are easily accessible.  A 108m2 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom apartment that comes fully-furnished with Wifi cameras, and I quote, “a clubhouse with a heated pool and kiddies play area, restaurant and bar, conference rooms, cinema, tv lounge, wellness spa, laundry, games room, workout station and a fitness track, Gym & squash facility”, is going for around R1,500,000 (approx. USD$79,000).  And with a cash buy, you could almost definitely get it for lower.

In the long-run the economics of Joburg means it will always outlast and outgrow Cape Town, attracting that young middle-class populace that every city needs so it can be a dynamic engine for growth.  A young populace that for now might be enjoying a more leisurely lifestyle down in Cape Town, but might ultimately realise that the city is just not economically viable for them. 

A lot has been made of the new ZAR 4.5 billion (approx. USD$236 million) African headquarters of Amazon in Cape Town.  And the city has been quite successful in promoting itself as a new IT hub on the continent.  But this new found attention has partly distorted the bigger picture, one where Joburg is still home to the headquarters of 70% of all South African companies and multinationals in the country and makes up 20% of the country’s entire GDP. 

But it is more than the economic reality of it all.  Joburg is a city that doesn’t realize its own value.  The true problem lies not with the city itself, but with how South Africans generally live their lives.  And that is that they mostly stay local and are fearful of anything beyond the small area they know and inhabit.  Basically they live like Shire folk, like hobbits.  As someone who grew up in North London, and often frequented places such as Camden Town, Hornsey, Finsbury Park, Hackney and Old Street and with family originally based in Wood Green and Tottenham – truly the Hillbrow of London – I have no problem travelling out into Joburg CBD or anywhere that is of interest. 

And Joburg really is an amazing city if you know where to go.  From the art galleries and coffee shops of Rosebank and Parktown North.  To hidden gems such as China Town in Cyrildene or the top-side of Melville where you find Pablo House, a bistro and guest house with amazing food and unbelievable vistas.  To vibrant night time monthly markets at Benoni or Bedfordview where I live.  To the clubs and bars of inner city Maboneng (the feature photo at the top was taken at sunset from the Living Room bar and club), Joburg has the variety of any big city – and some.  And certainly blows the usual panoply of mountain walks, beaches too cold to swim at and the wine farms of Cape Town that after a while become as monotonous as the dry, barren landscape it inhabits.

And not just that.  Travel a bit out, and Joburg’s landscape and wildlife more than rivals that of Cape Town.  A 50-minute drive from my place and you find yourself at Crater Moon Game Lodge where you can swim in its pristine lake that is home to a family of hippos or hike past zebras in the surrounding forested breath-taking terrain.  Or Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens, where you can sit in a birdhouse and view rare African birds or simply sit and enjoy the waterfall there.  Sure, you have to pay for entrance for most of the best getaways that you do not have to in Cape Town, but to be honest, I’d rather pay the odd R50-R100 every now and again than have to put up with the far more extortionate cost of living in Cape Town.

For all its nonsense, that you might have felt and read about Joburg, what has basically happened is it has become just another African city and undergone the same post-colonial transition as other urban centres on the continent; Where a poorer and initially uneducated population is more preoccupied with vying to fill a power vacuum left behind than it is with serving the people and their needs as a whole.  But just like say Nairobi where I used to live, it can turn it around relatively quickly if the economic climate – and more importantly the collective will exists to do so. 

Cape Town on the other hand has just postponed this inevitable reckoning.  It has preserved the apartheid-era urban racial segregation in all but law.  When I first got to Cape Town from Nairobi, I was truly shocked at the complete absence of a black middle class there.  I just hadn’t seen it before in any of the many cities I have visited on the continent.  It is not my remit to discuss the moral implications of all this.  I can tell you that while living in Cape Town with my black South African girlfriend we have experienced our fair share of discrimination.  But to be honest, it’s very much water off a duck’s back for us so to speak.  I have learnt to ignore it all.  After all, being of that dark, olive skin colour, with a Black African dad and white European mum, I get treated like a colored gangster here, a white colonialist on the rest of the continent and an Arab terrorist whenever I go back to Europe.  Basically everyone hates me and you learn to live with that.

But simply from a brutal economic perspective and outlook in general, the segregation is untenable in the long-run and will eventually be Cape Town’s undoing.  It is an artificial construct that will go one of two ways: Either, it will be set in stone, say if the Western Cape does eventually secede. This will cause a level of stagnation and will suffer from rising prices, lower growth and higher debt as the city struggles to keep its problems on the periphery (just as Brexit has done for the U.K. on a larger scale).

Or it will explode. 

As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, many people are surprised to find out that Cape Town has a far higher murder rate than Joburg, at 57 per 100,000 compared to 38 per 100,000 in the so-called gangster city.  It is just that the perception of crime is more distorted amongst Joburg’ers, something that ossified in the 1990s when crime truly was worse than every else in the country.  But it is Cape Town that has now succumbed to severe gangsterism and lawlessness on its periphery.  By concentrating all its resources on a few areas and with racially-segregated communities, it means that every time a township protests in and around Cape Town, say for service delivery failures or other government mismanagement issues, it becomes far more than just a rich/poor issue as it is in more ethnically-diverse Joburg.  It essentially becomes incendiary and far more dangerous. I speak with good experience having lived in a property for over ten years in Cape Town that backed onto a mountain pass not 300metres from a large township – one of the only places in Cape Town where the two worlds collided like that and were otherwise spatially separate.

 And there is one issue lurking in the background.  One that has already affected Cape Town far more than Joburg.  And that is changes in weather patterns that appear linked to human-induced climate change.  While it is almost a fool’s errand to make prediction on the weather of course, it is not unreasonable to assume that inland cities at altitude – such as Joburg or even Nairobi where I used to live, will fair far better than coastal ones.  Especially cities such as Cape Town that have already succumbed to drought in 2016 and more recently persistent flooding. Geordin Hill-Lewis, may be proving himself to be highly competent and his city basking in glory and praise, recently proclaiming his aim for Cape Town as that of “..building resilience in response to state failure.” But even he may find it hard to hold back the deeper problems lurking in the shadows of Cape Town’s sunny moment.

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