Johannesburg: Gold Teeth and Empty Pockets

Johannesburg in South Africa is a simply wonderful city.

From Johannesburg you can get a train to Durban or to Cape Town, you can fly to Singapore or to Perth, and you can get a bus or a long-distance taxi to any damn where you please – so long as it is not Johannesburg, an excrescence of a place, and one that is so good to get away from. So in at least one sense it is a wonderful place.

To be fair, I have to admit that I spent one hour there (seated in my Singapore Airlines aeroplane) on the way to Cape Town, another four hours there between arriving from Pretoria on the superb Gautrain and departing for Durban on a sleeper train, and a further one hour there, again seated in my comfortable little SQ aeroplane bound for Singapore again.

Does one need any more time than this to assess this place?

Men on the line

I know that South Africa has terrible unemployment, that there are many illegal immigrants from all over the African continent, that the country’s history has been a mishmash of imperial British and Dutch colonial rule, that clashes between so many indigenous kingdoms have also bloodied its past, and that it was torn apart for so many years by the brutal and inhumane laws of segregation – but where is the future and what is the future?

I went from J’burg to Pretoria hoping to learn a little more about this country, and stayed in a nice little hotel – the Menlyn Boutique Hotel ( with its wonderful collection of Anton Smit sculptures (See featured image left). I enjoyed the sight of the cantilevered buildings of the University of South Africa jutting out over the slopes of the city, and the superb jacaranda trees that lined the city streets.

But I was told quite forcibly by hotel staff that if I wanted to go to the Menlyn Mall or to a near-by bar that I wanted to visit – both just a short walk away – I must take a hotel car as they could not guarantee my safety. Outside Johannesburg there is a factory that produces “Ripper Razor Wire” and there are many kilometres of their products on view in that city and in Pretoria.

In several places in South Africa I noticed that street signs are being proudly changed to reflect the “Africanisation” of the place and a rejection of the colonial heritage. Pretoria’s Charles Street is now so much more inspiring as Justice Mohamed Street, and Durban’s West Street is so much better now that it is known as Dr Pixley KaSeme Street, named for one of the founders of the African National Congress.

But if the move to be more African is to be seen in places other than cosmetic street name changes, then the crime rate has to be addressed and resolved.

A few days ago, the Pretorian News carried the headline:

  • Hijacking, burglary of homes soar in city

The leader went on to give frightening figures for this one city: over 2500 cars hijacked between April last year and March this year, and over 3700 house burglaries. The next day the same newspaper gave the recently released South African national crime figures for the 2016 – 2017 financial year:

  • 19,016 murders
  • 49,600 sexual offences
  • 18,205 attempted murders
  • 170,616 assaults with the intention of causing grievous bodily harm (GBH)

In total, these crimes amount to just over 250,000 incidents. South Africa has a population of about 55 million people so if you live in this country or if you visit it you can calculate your chances of surviving the year or getting out in one piece.

One source (1) placed South Africa as the world’s 41st most dangerous place, with Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq as the worst three. But as that same source placed Israel at No 20 and India at No 27, I disagree. I have been to Israel and India and would happily visit either country again … but doubt that I will ever visit South Africa again … unless it is en route for somewhere else.

I guess I was wise, after all, to listen to the staff at my Pretoria hotel.

For the first time in my travelling life, I arrived in a city, took a taxi to an hotel, stayed at the hotel in its security-fenced grounds, left the hotel and left the city.


Two taxi rides. One photograph – and a self-important Gautrain security guard told me I should have a permit if I wanted to take photos within the station area. Other petty security guards cautioned passengers queuing to buy tickets that they must remain behind lines painted on the ground one metre from the ticket office window. Microphones, speakers, security glass windows, and cash and tickets slid under the glass on a tiny tray.

Who was Johannes …

… and why did anyone bother naming a town after him?

 Walking Johannesburg’s streets in the few hours I had before my next train was a challenge.

I kept my head down, my eyes cast down as well, and paced rapidly as if I knew where I was going. I didn’t really, as my Pretoria hotel did not have maps of its city, the J’burg railway station did not have left-luggage offices or tourist offices with city maps, and so I walked where I thought I would find Constitution Hill – a place with good views, I had been told.

The streets were filthy, with broken pavements, filth and litter in gutters and street signs torn from their brackets, leaving stumpy blind unhelpful stalks. Most shops were heavily barred and sales were – again – made through narrow slits in the bars. Towering grim and shabby blocks of flats lined the streets, broken car windshields and shattered safety glass glittered in the sun, and crowds of men aimlessly walked about. For two hours I did not spot another white face.

I ducked into superettes and petrol stations to find where I was, as I figured that if this little old white solo traveller stood on a street corner peering myopically at a tattered map ripped from a guide book, with cameras draped around his neck, Gucci shoes gleaming through the dust and Patek Philippe diamond wrist watches glittering in the afternoon sun, he might as well have had sandwich boards strapped to his front and back saying “Please mug me!”

However, on each occasion I asked for help or directions, people were warm, welcoming and helpful. One man came out of his shop, took me to the corner and pointed the right way to go and assured me that crossing THAT particular park was quite safe.

At THAT particular time of day, at least.

Outside the Johannesburg Park railway station is a billboard that cries:

  • Four children die of hunger in South Africa every day, yet ANC wastes R35 billion for their rich friends to fly SAA

A South African friend in Australia told me that the reason – or one reason – for the terrible situation in today’s SA is the high level of corruption. The ANC (African National Congress) has ruled the country since 1994 when Nelson Mandela became the first black South African President.

Subsequent events and subsequent leaders have not been so favourably viewed, and the current President, Jacob Zuma, has been accused of rape and corruption. Charges in both areas were subsequently dropped amid allegations of political backstabbing in a form of political manoeuvring that is reminiscent of the absurd Trump allegations against the Press and just about everyone else in the USA today.

Earlier this year South Africa’s largest trade union (Congress of South African Trade Unions) went on strike in protest against ANC corruption. COSATU claims (2) that almost US$11 billion is illegally taken out of the country each year – lining, no doubt, someone’s very deep pockets for a cushy life at some time in the future and to hell with the people living in tin shed townships on the edges of the cities.

If even a small part of these allegations is true, then there is no wonder that there is 27% unemployment (38% according to COSATU) and that there is so much crime and violence and frustration and hopelessness. Mandela and Biko must be rolling in their graves and Tutu must be wondering if there is any god at all.

And then there is Durban

I was looking forward to Durban for all sorts of reasons and I was not disappointed.

Yes – the city is still part of the same South Africa that suffers from the same ailments I have mentioned but it has a totally different vibe.

Durban promenade and delicious Durban bums

I escaped touts on arrival at the Durban railway station and walked off once again as if I knew where I was going … and was very pleased to find myself on the busy Umgeni Road. I have since been told that this place is dangerous … but I found it full of craft stalls, crazy mini-bus taxis, loud people and fun. Perhaps if I went back there late at night it would give a different impression and not be quite so much fun.

When I was in Cape Town a week or so before my arrival in the KwaZulu-Natal state, I happened to turn on the television and rejoiced to find some local Rugby Union. As I was at that stage in South Africa’s Western Provinces I cheered for the WP team as it defeated Johannesburg’s Golden Lions in the Currie Cup Semi-final match.

Dating from the 1890s, the Currie Cup is one of Rugby Union’s oldest trophies and is awarded each year to South Africa’s top RU team. The Grand Final was held in Durban on the day of my arrival so I raced to my hotel, asked the Duty Manager to ring the stadium to see if tickets were still available and took a taxi to the stadium hoping that “my” team – the Cape Town WP boys – could trounce the hometown team from Durban, the Sharks. It was an exciting game in the Sharks’ crowded home stadium and my team took the Cup back to Cape Town after a 33:21 win.

Twenty-Carat Smile

As the crowd left the stadium, going past the massive and impressive Moses Mabhida soccer stadium, strolling along Durban’s wonderful five- or six-kilometre beachfront promenade, there were smiles a’plenty … and many of them featuring a gold tooth or two.

I have never seen so many gold teeth!

In Pretoria and Johannesburg and Durban almost every adult man and woman has one or more gold teeth or gold fillings. One of my gold-toothed taxi drivers in Pretoria explained that it was the fashion when he was at school – and so the fashion seems to have continued. If there is ever a world shortage of gold for wedding rings or other jewellery, just send out an expeditionary force of miners to excavate the mouths of the South Africans in this part of the world!

Durban lifesavers

The beachside promenade follows OR Tambo Parade (aka in earlier days as Marine Parade) past the lovely Art Deco Suncoast Casino and its associated buildings, past the young hopefuls competing in the Tin Man challenge (mums and dads riding bicycles beside the littl’uns), past trim young lifesavers competing in a surf rescue challenge, and all the way down to the uShaka Marine World – a place of huge water slides and all sorts of other aquatic fun, as well as an excellent aquarium, gondola rides, shops selling the latest Billabong bikinis, buskers, acrobats, singers, rap dancers, jugglers, restaurants and “living statues” – performers in full make-up who popped out of character to steal up behind unsuspecting merrymakers and to steal a “selfie” moment with them.

These performers were fun, unlike the rather sad young men I saw on several occasions in “white face” (Al Jolson eat your heart out) – with white-painted faces and limbs – at street corners or traffic lights whistling for attention and for a few stray coins tossed by passing motorists.

Durban is not Bondi Beach or Oahu Beach. The narrow strips of sea and sand and promenade (largely remade for the 2010 soccer World Cup) are lovely and comfortable and fun areas … but to travel even one block west you come across streets reminiscent of J’burg … but not quite so bad. Durban seems to be more uplifted and more fun and even the towering blocks of flats are in better condition.

The lads

over the road from the lovely 1896 Playhouse Theatre in Anton Lembede Street a bunch of kids – fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boys sharing a can or two of Castle lager beer – came onto me, jostling and chatting and asking for photos to be taken. I took a pic or two. They asked for a quid or two. I smiled and shook my head. They went on their way. I went on my way. I think that had that happened in J’burg the ending might have been different.

Perhaps things are different in Durban on other days, but my day of strolling was a Sunday.

I saw well-dressed families coming out of Methodist and Roman Catholic churches, crowds in parking-garage chapels, and a pretty woman in a skin-tight red dress strolling demurely with a prayer book in her hands. There were occasional rough-sleeping people and occasional piles of broken glass from car windows or windscreens that had been smashed the previous night, and plenty of horn-tooting, tout-whistling mini-bus taxis scouring the streets looking for more passengers:

  • You go to XXX?
  • Room for one more inside!
  • Where you are going?

And the cries were almost as colourful as the names on the vans themselves:

  • Slow Poison
  • We put da beat back on da street (LOUD music pulsing from this one)
  • Boyz 2 Men
  • Jaidon
  • SpitFire
  • God has Heard

Near the beach towards sundown these vans were being filled with damp, sandy kids, and gold-toothed men and women all heading home after a day in the sun and on the beach.

South Africa is a challenging but rewarding place to visit.

When I was in KwaZulu-Natal I bought a hand-woven beer basket made by Hlengwue Zwane, a Zulu villager.  Her design features triangles and other decorations in white, brown and black, representing, perhaps, men, women, and people of all races united in one almost spherical unit, that could be, if we stretch hyperbole a little, a new world.

Were I one who wanted to hunt with a camera or with a Holland & Holland Royal Side by Side shotgun I might want to go to Kruger or some other place – but I think I am just about done with South Africa, but its trains and its train travel opportunities are still things that tweak my travel antennae. Perhaps one day I will try the Cape to Cairo train extravaganza … but not just today.


Journey October 2017

Text and photographs © Christopher Hall 2017; Billboard image from Internet

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If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight. 

Attributed to Marcus Tullius Cicero – On Friendship






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