Johannesburg in South Africa has a reputation for being crime-infested, so sometimes it’s best to just do what the locals do — stick to the suburbs and keep to the malls.
Modern-day Johannesburg, for the purpose of most foreign visitors, exists mainly as its satellites. And these are the outer suburbs.
Although much safer than before, the city centre is still generally considered out of bounds. And as unfortunate as this may be, it comes down to pragmatics. But what you might miss in atmosphere and “soul” is in good part made up for in security and convenience.
There are other perks as well.
The city’s satellites themselves are not entirely new. They were evolving well before the famous ‘94 elections opened up the city centre to the previously marginalised and highly underprivileged blacks. Plush northern suburbs such as Sandton, Houghton (where Nelson Mandala now resides) and Rivonia had already sprouted giant shopping malls — the likes of The Furrs and Fourways Mall.
The largest of these, Sandton City, came into being as long ago as 1973.
After the elections, what had previously been relatively small elite enclaves became increasingly seen as desirable safe havens, sanctuaries well removed from the rising wave of crime that was engulfing Joburg’s heart. The wealthy residents — mostly whites — fortified their homes, employing sophisticated security systems and small armies of guards. Their second refuge was the malls. And they still remain as such.
For the visitor, Sandton City is the kind of place where you’d want to stay for a few nights at most, en route to other places like Cape Town, Kruger National Park or neighbouring countries like Namibia or Mozambique. The range of accommodation, though, is excellent. Some of the five-star properties — The Intercontinental, Sandton Sun and Towers, and Michelangelo —are physically attached to the shopping mall itself. The Holiday Inn Garden City is just a stone’s throw away.
This obviates the need to walk what are still considered slightly dangerous streets at night. Other nearby properties offer regular shuttle services.
For many local residents, a Sandton City visit constitutes their big day out. For the visitor, the same might apply. The place is so enormous, multileveled and sprawling, you can actually get lost. The range of shopping options will astound — large department stores like Woolworths, Truworths, Edgars and Stutterfords and fashion icons such as Crabtree & Evelyn, Fendi, Gerani and Timberland.
There are some excellent African art and craft outlets as well, whose prices would be prohibitive were it not for the depleted value of the South African rand. There are also three huge book shops, which offer a comprehensive selection of splendid coffee-table books on African wildlife and tribal cultures. You’ll find top-of-the-range safari gear, and some very quirky old world fashion. Ladies might even emerge as latter day Karen Blixens.
Then there are the restaurants. All the favourite local fast food chains are represented: Nandos, Steers, Panarottis. But the most pleasant dining option is al fresco on the terrace. Local icons such as The Butchers Shop and Grill, Pappas, Trumps and Ghirardellis spill out onto airy Sandton Square.
This is a medieval-style plaza which is bordered on its eastern end by the municipal library. Relaxing here with a glass of silky South African red and a plate of Pappas famous spaghetti marinara — African skies above — you can easily forget that you are actually still within the confines of a shopping mall.
Most of the shops close at 6pm, but the eateries and book shops remain open till much later. The complex itself never closes. So the jet-lagged and sleepless can at least do window shopping in air-conditioned comfort and peace.
Opposite the mall, on its northern side, is the Sandton Convention Centre. Its ground floor is periodically given over to a giant antique fair — definitely worth a browse. The same fair is also hosted monthly in Sandton Square. Further east along Maude Street is another shopping mall, a much smaller one. This is the very chic and people-friendly Village Walk.
Check out the craft market in the Walk’s entrance courtyard. You’ll get plenty of great buys here if you bargain long and hard. Look out for malachite trinkets and beads, as well as wood carvings from the Congo, and tribal art from Zululand, Ndebele-land and Kenya.
Village Walk attracts the well-heeled, and those aspiring to be the same. And Johannesburg’s well-heeled seem very much inclined to let you know they are doing very well.
Diamonds, furs and semi-formal gowns are quite the norm. And much of this finery may well have been purchased at Village Walk’s super upscale boutiques. Still, you don’t have to be a millionaire to dine in the mall. There are eateries that offer an excellent range of light meals, coffees and cakes at prices that cause even the thriftiest to smile. You can sit out on the mezzanine and look down on other diners through abundant hanging ferns.
Village Walk, I have to say, became my favourite haunt.
Downtown Johannesburg, my guide reassured me, was getting safer all the time. Surveillance cameras are now everywhere installed, and policing is more stringent. All this is very positive, but there is still that discomforting feeling that there are those about whose will it is to rudely relieve you of your property and cash. Such a fate is worth avoiding.
It’s true that Sandton City is an artificial haven — a convenient means for political heads to be buried in the sand. But until the economic plight of Johannesburg’s black majority is properly relieved —and this is an enormous task, it must be said — it remains the most viable option for the visitor passing through. And as always, it’s best to make the most of what local circumstances afford. – By Tom Cockrem
Malaysia Airlines has regular flights from Kuala Lumpur to Johannesburg.