Are we falling out of love with Jo’burg? (Oh, My Heart)

The corner with the water leak and the stripped electricity box. With the broken robots and the Somali spaza shop. On the street where kids play barefoot soccer and use bricks as goalposts.

This is my Jo’burg.

But I don’t know how I feel about you anymore.

I’ve noticed a change in the city’s atmosphere (and it’s not just the air quality). I can’t articulate it, but something changed after the hard lockdowns. It became more pronounced after the attempted insurrection and looting. Then Stage 6 load-shedding just drove the unease to the surface.

Like any complicated relationship, these feelings are tumultuous. It’s always been love/hate, but something has shifted.

Are we falling out of love with Jo’burg?

A while ago, I met up with two of my friends – two ardent Jo’burg lovers – and I was surprised to hear how they’re struggling to feel positive about the place. I was both relieved and deeply concerned.

I felt the same, but if long-time Jozi lovers feel bleak, how is everyone else navigating the potholes, stolen cables, and broken reservoir pumps?

Jo’burg, corrupted (I took this a while back on my phone, only to see the image had been corrupted…)

Jo’burg, I’ve been cheating on you; I’ve been looking at other places to live.

I’ve even considered Cape Town, it’s that bad. You know I had a dalliance with her years ago. Lately, I’m thinking maybe I’ve changed, and we could make it work this time around?

I’m not the only one.

According to a report, between 2016 and 2021, the Western Cape gained nearly 300 000 people. Net in-migration contributed to almost half the total population growth. It’s estimated that due to ‘semigration’, the Western Cape will overtake Gauteng’s GDP per capita by 2040 (or sooner).

That’s insane, considering a quarter of South Africa’s population currently lives in Gauteng (all 14.3 million of us), but 11.5% lives in the Western Cape (that’s 6.5 million Capetonians).

Anecdotally I know of a few people – Joziphiles no less – who have moved further south. Probably because “it’s still South Africa, but you can pretend you don’t live in South Africa by enjoying one less stage of load-shedding” (as comedian Nik Rabinowitz said at the ‘Move to the Cape expo’ in December last year. Yes, there’s an expo).

According to journalist Sarah Smit in an article entitled Semigration: A tale of two South Africas, this increase in migration can be attributed to Covid-19. For many people it meant the beginning of the end, like job losses and a big slide backwards in the lifestyle they’d become accustomed to. But for others, says Smit, the pandemic paradoxically brought “an opportunity to escape Johannesburg’s hard edge in favour of a softer, less backbreaking, lifestyle”.

So here I am, Jo’burg. What must I do? Move to the Cape? Because you don’t make it easy.

Are we falling out of love with Jo'burg?
Jo’burg, corrupted II (with added corruption)

Yesterday I literally googled ‘falling out of love with Joburg’. Turns out that last month the Mail & Guardian ran a couple of articles with that very theme. So, there must be something distinctly unlovable in the water (but it’s not cholera).

Both articles lamented the loss of love but maintained that all is not yet lost.

In Jo’burg, There’s Still Life in the Old Skelm, Drew Forrest writes:

“I have no plans to emigrate or join the Little Trek to the ‘Mother City’, with its insufferably cultish attitude to its mountain and its whales […]. Traffic still flows, despite the dead traffic lights. Supermarket shelves are full. The generator’s purr has become the defiant anthem of suburbia.”

In The Indescribable Allure of Johannesburg, Luke Feltham ends with:

“We haven’t fallen out of love with Joburg. We are just really, really pissed off.”

Under the bridge

I’m really, really pissed off. Have I fallen out of love?

A bit.

Does a long-term relationship take work?

A lot.

A distant volley of bullets and a full moon, a preacher on a park bench, a patch of bullrushes that extend through the asphalt.

This is my Jo’burg.

It’s backbreaking with a hard edge. I resent you because you expect so much from me; you can be unreasonable and difficult to live with.

I don’t know what’s next, but I know we need to work on things to get through this – otherwise another city might entice me.

Jo’burg, I don’t know what else to say to you. Except that you make me think of a song by R.E.M that Michael Stipe wrote about New Orleans, just after Katrina:

This place needs me here to start
This place is the beat of my heart
Oh, my heart
Oh, my heart
(Oh, my heart)

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13 comments Add yours
  1. I feel I extremely validated by this Post. Thank you for putting these complex feelings to words.

  2. Very true. I feel so disconnected at times. So the question is, how does one reconnect? Is it possible?

  3. A person far more elegant with words than I can ever hope to be said:

    “Loving Joburg is a bit like being in love with a brilliant, neurotic, psychotic, charming, bi-polar person, whom you can love passionately and loathe violently. When you experience hate, it can be lethal. When you feel the love, it is sheer ecstasy.”

  4. I know the feeling! Thank you for adding your thoughts, Gina. Hopefully things improve.

  5. There are still deep pockets of love among the many hopeless corners. I try and focus on that, but agree that it’s harder than ever.

  6. At the moment I am out of love with Joburg but that was due to the theft of our property cameras last night. I will always love Joburg with all my heart but I am severly disillusioned at the moment… I keep hoping for a brighter future for our beautiful city but wondering how we will get there.

  7. Hi Tom, nice to hear from you!

    I also feel like there used to be a time when things were ‘better’; there was a sense of revitalisation and hope, but that seems to have disappeared. I keep thinking that maybe it’s just me – because I’ve done the same as you and kept to my community (again, this was a result of Covid, that just stuck). I like my suburb and it has everything I need, plus a strong sense of community. However, now I feel like I’ve been living in a bubble and I need to get back to exploring more and expanding – but when I do, it tends to dishearten me. Maybe I’m just going to the wrong places. I know that the Jo’burg I love hasn’t gone anywhere. But where do I find it? An easier way of living is definitely appealing. It’s very conflicting.

  8. SAME. Coming back to Joburg after spending 3 years in the US really does reveal how difficult it is to live in this city. Sometimes (or, often I now find!) I want to live in a place that is easy. Joburg isn’t easy, for anyone, and I don’t believe we have a local government invested in making it better. I think we did have this around 2008-2015, and we got caught up with World Cup and there public-infrastructure-investment fever, but there is precious little of that now, and the empty and yet completed Rea Vaya stations down Louis Botha are a testament to that.

    I’ve found it helpful however to localize my interaction with this city. I love Norwood, where I live. It’s walkable, it’s got a kick ass high street and I know my neighbours. I’ve also found it useful to find and make community. Communities sustain us in times of turmoil.

  9. Every time I drive around Joburg I just feel despair. I love the city and have always felt that this is home but it’s now so much harder to love. It breaks my heart a bit to be honest.

  10. Thanks Gail! I’m glad to hear your love has been restored – a tale of hope 🙂

  11. Brilliant blog post Ang. I’ve recently spent time in the CBD sketching and now having just attended the Human Rights Festival my love has being restored – by the amazing people of this city. They are so dare special that it blocks out all the other stuff that annoys us. I hope your love for this city is somehow restored even enough for you not to venture to the Cape.

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