Ben Leander Willgruber | Visual Designer and Writer

Accidentally staying in Johannesburg’s Ghetto during aggressive Civil Riots

As I am writing this, I am sitting in my hotel room in Johannesburg because doing so is basically the only safe thing to do at the moment. It was a beautiful vacation but the past couple of days Johannesburg (or as inhabitants like to call it: Joburg) has been shaken by aggressive civil riots. Tomorrow I am leaving Joburg, I am leaving South Africa and before that, I wanted to write down a couple of thoughts on the situation.

‘You’re brave to have come here.’

This story begins about 1 1/2 months ago when my boyfriend and I booked this trip. We had a certain time frame in which we could go on vacation, so we headed over to Kayak, a site I know because one of my former Berlin flatmates works there, and looked for cheap places to fly to.

One of the places that popped up was South Africa and I remembered that I always wanted to go there. Booking it we didn’t think inform ourselves about the different areas of Johannesburg. We booked something close to the city center because that’s always were the most fun is going down and where cities are safest. Right? No.

We stayed in a safer area in Cape Town

The Uber took us to our crazily cheap place in Johannesburg and didn’t really give us an answer if the area was safe to live in. The hotel owner did, however, when she explained that this was a bad area, lots of drugs and gang shit happening on the one side. The other side is constantly being improved and becoming more and more of a hipster area. We were staying right in the middle and began to worry when the hotel owner told us we were brave to have come here (being the two slices of white bread that we are).

Joburg House Builder: Electric Fences, Barbwire and CCTV cameras

In the beginning, we worried a lot but this got better over time. The first few days we only left the hotel with an Uber waiting to pick us up but later we decided to walk around the block and found out that we were living in quite the regular area. Not fancy or anything but also not overly sketchy. The only thing I could never get used to is that every house in all of Joburg had high walls around it and most of them barbwires, electric fences and CCTV cameras.

You may ask yourself now why we idiots decided to stay in an area that people kept warning us about. No, it wasn’t that we were too lazy to look for something else and No, it wasn’t because a night there cost less than a large meal at home (ok, that honestly did help our decision to stay too). More than anything we stayed because of the great hotel staff. We might have been staying in a ‘ghetto’ (if you wanna call it that) but these guys took good care of us. Sometimes I think that they worried more about us than we did. They ended up playing taxi drivers and tourist guides when we needed them to be and we felt like they always had our backs. So, we didn’t worry much about life in Joburg. Until today, a week later.

The real-life Purge

We spend about a week in Cape Town and we flew back to Joburg yesterday for one last night before flying back home tomorrow. In the meantime, riots have taken down large neighborhoods and whole areas of Joburg. In a nutshell, South Africans and foreigners are fighting with each other. Poverty levels are high and people from South Africa feel that foreigners take away their jobs. So, they demolish foreigner’s shops, loot them and fight. A few people have even been killed in the riots that feel a lot like the plot of the movie The Purge.

Of course, we incidentally booked our hotel in one of the areas where the riots are happening. We’re so lucky. We wanted to go there today but as we saw cars leaving the district in masses, shops being shut down and the area itself empty as a ghost town we decided to go back to the airport and book another hotel in a safer area. That’s where we are right now and that’s where I am writing this blog entry. It is also the place I am asking myself why international media isn’t covering any of this even though it feels like the beginning of a small civil war here.

I am just glad I will be home safely tomorrow. (Unless my flight crashes which would not only be the cherry on top of the irony milkshake but would also mean that this blog post never sees the light of day.) Let’s just hope the situation here – and in many other places in the world – calms down soon.

Ben

1 thought on “Accidentally staying in Johannesburg’s Ghetto during aggressive Civil Riots

  1. Good to know you’re back safe and sound.
    It would set off alarm bells in my head if the hotel staff told me I was brave to come there and that it was a terrible area. I cannot even imagine what would possess someone to push people away from their business.

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