|Kenyan visitor George Ogola was an anxious man as he flew into Johannesburg, a city he imagined to be teeming with criminals ready to pounce on unsuspecting foreigners like himself. Today, he's changed his mind. "There's a huge gap between the coverage of Johannesburg in the international media and my actual experience of the city," says Ogola, a journalist studying at the University of the Witwatersrand.|
Before he'd even set foot in Johannesburg, Ogola wrote a critical article about the city in the London-based weekly, NewsAfrica. In the article, he expressed his apprehension of Johannesburg, its xenophobia, erratic president and the Aids scourge. Today, he readily admits that his impression of Jo'burg then had been gleaned from the media. He chuckles with embarrassment as he recalls his initial impression of Jo'burg.
"I felt scared and suspicious of everybody. Now I know that the media coverage of crime in Johannesburg is exaggerated. Even the Central Business District is a lot safer than it's made out to be. We need to deconstruct the crime myth."
Ogola is particularly impressed by the infrastructure of the place he fondly calls Jozy. "It is more developed than the east African cities of Nairobi, Mombasa, Kampala and Dar es Salaam." He has settled in Parktown, which he describes as "serene and quiet."
For Ogola, Jo'burg is a melting pot of cultures. "There's no tribalism or ethnicity, but race remains a sensitive issue." He raves about night-life in Jo'burg. "The city really comes alive at night. The irony is that places known to be dangerous offer the best entertainment," Ogola adds, pointing to Yeoville as an example. He marvels particularly at the racial mix one finds in the hot spots of Yeoville. He is particularly complimentary of Rocky Street, which he describes as "one big party." He singles out Tandos as the best joint in the area, catering for all tastes. "Lovers of reggae music can have a jol upstairs and those who prefer kwaito, hip hop or house music are catered for downstairs." He also recommends other clubs in the area, which cater for more mature audiences by playing soft soothing ballads and jazz.
Ogola is full of praise for the movie industry in Jo'burg. "One gets to see movies within weeks of their release in the USA." For Ogola, the high number of movie houses in Jo'burg means that movie-goers have a broader choice of movies to watch.
He considers Johannesburg to be culturally vibrant, although he believes that more can be done to promote theatre. He is particularly disappointed by the decline of the Market Theatre in downtown Jo'burg. "In Kenya, the Market Theatre is known as the vanguard of South African, and by extension, African theatre. I was really looking forward to experiencing the vibrancy of the place. But I feel let down. For example, on Friday evenings, the Market precinct does not feel as lively as it should. You only see a couple of people lazing about," adds Ogola. Dramatizing his point, he concludes by saying provocatively that "theatrically speaking, apartheid was better than democracy."
Despite media reports of widespread xenophobia, his stay in Johannesburg has been incident-free. Ogola points out that he has not experienced any xenophobia. People sometimes misconstrue ignorance for xenophobia. He considers poor and illiterate people to be particularly prone to displaying this kind of ignorance. He describes the problems he has had to deal with as "problems of convenience - like when you meet a taxi driver who can't speak English."
He relates problems foreigners have in communicating with taxi operators. "I once waved down taxis but they all kept passing. That was before I learnt the use of finger signs." Ogola is particularly amused by the use of an index finger to stop taxis driving to the city centre. "In my country, pointing a finger like that would be an insult. You'd be beaten up for doing that."
He is thankful that Jo'burg taxis are not painted in extremely bright colours so popular with the 'matatus' of Nairobi. "The taxi industry in Nairobi is mad enough as it is. Using bright distasteful colours only adds to the madness. Thankfully, Jo'burg taxis have toned down colours that give an illusion of sanity."
Ogola can't help but notice some similarities between the two cities. He is particularly struck by the way the escort industry in Jo'burg is thriving. "As in Nairobi, prostitutes prowl many streets of Jo'burg at night. I guess this is the side effects of urbanisation," he observes.
Ogola is full of praise for Wits University, in particular its facilities, and the cultural mix of its student intake. He considers the institution to be rich in culture and academically inspiring. Judging from his impression of Jo'burg, Ogola is not in a hurry to leave the city anytime soon.