There is a fine chocolatier in the South African city of Johannesburg that carefully giftwraps confections in frothy layers of tissue paper. It’s down the road from the Ferrari dealership and the boys’ school where annual fees start at $7,500 - roughly equal to three years’ tuition at the University of Johannesburg.
But drive your Ferrari a few miles north and you’ll find Diepsloot, the notorious, trash-strewn shack settlement known for violent attacks on foreigners, episodes of mob justice and protests by residents demanding running water and electricity.
It’s those sharp contradictions that bothered resident Steven Haywood when he heard a radio ad touting the city with the tagline, “Joburg, a World-Class African City.”
And this week, South Africa’s Advertising Standards Authority upheld his complaint, ruling that Johannesburg must stop airing the ad, arguing it is inaccurate.
The authority made its decision based on data that shows that the city has been audited three times, that its waste management company often leaves trash lying about for days, and its roads agency doesn’t have money to fix the roads.
The city, Haywood noted, has also had to write off $1.2 billion in missing revenue.
The data was published on the city’s own website.
Nthatisi Modingoane, a city spokesman, said the city will appeal the ruling on the grounds that Johannesburg is striving to be financially and environmentally strong.
“Whoever is listening might be saying [that] I’m biased, because they pay my salary. But for me it’s beyond that. … We attract so many people coming to Johannesburg," said Modingoane. "People are rushing here. It says there is something that is being talked about through the word of mouth in terms of how great this city is.”
Gerald Garner of the Joburg City Tourism Association said he thinks this city is “one of the most exciting on the planet.”
“The city is a melting pot, it’s a very creative place, one of the most creative cities on the planet, and you never have a dull moment in this city. … If you talk about diversity, there are so many different areas, but it’s also so many different stories," he said.
Many South Africans love to sneer at Johannesburg. Since its founding in 1886, this mining town has been a place where people come from all over Africa to make money. Johannesburg is often accused of not having a soul.
Garner strongly disagrees. He said, “I think that is the biggest misconception on the planet. Johannesburg especially has soul, look at the art and culture in this city, look at the public art in the inner city, look at the incredible regeneration of the city happening, look at this entrepreneurial spirit. I mean, if that’s not soul, then I don’t know -- the one thing Johannesburg has is soul.”
Sometimes I am reminded of my childhood home of Houston, Texas, a sprawling metropolis filled with big houses built on oil money.
But in other ways I’m often reminded of the town I consider home: Austin, Texas. The city’s motto is “keep Austin weird,” by virtue of its organic grocery stores, its live music scene and its unofficial patron saint, country singer Willie Nelson.
Johannesburg is a city with more people than Chicago or Berlin, yet there is no consolidated transport network. Packed minibuses careen wildly through the streets, seemingly impervious to physics and road rules, and screech to a stop for passengers who deploy a wild array of hand gestures to indicate their general destination. It’s a wonder anyone gets anywhere.
I once asked a passenger, “where is this bus going?” “I’m not sure,” she replied, “But I’m sure we’ll find out.”
Officially Johannesburg’s nickname is “Egoli” - or the city of gold. But the unofficial motto of this place also seems to be “you’ll get killed.” Johannesburgers of all stripes have said this to me, as if this city is stalked by a ninja hit squad.
"You want to walk through your neighborhood?" asks the woman who takes the bus in everyday from the impoverished township. Oh, no, my dear, you’ll get killed. "You live where?" says the friend who lives five minutes away. You’ll get killed.
Even inanimate objects promote this. There is a cheap local beer that comes in milk cartons, called Joburg Beer. Emblazoned on the side of the carton is “don’t drink and walk in the road. You may be killed.”
So far, knock on wood, they have all been wrong.
This is the place that formed the front line of the fight against apartheid, but where until six years ago a main road was still named after Hendrik Verwoerd, the man who came up with the racist, discriminatory system.
There is a Louis Vuitton store - the busiest in Africa, I’m told - and an internationally respected art and literary scene.
This is also a city where you can purchase desiccated monkey paws at a bustling traditional market and hire a self-appointed prophet to do anything from bringing back your lost lover to enlarging parts of your anatomy. Some prophets, I’m told, will consult with you on your iPhone.
This all sounds a bit chaotic, and perhaps not fodder for a compelling ad. But this city’s hard edge is tempered by an energy that I’ve rarely seen elsewhere - certainly not in Cape Town, the so-called “mother city,” whose intense beauty is chilled by the frostiness of its residents.
Here in Johannesburg, anything goes and everyone is welcome. And we like it that way. The other day, as I drove to work, I watched, captivated, as a man did a series of backflips in the intersection.
Across the road, an artist sat on the sidewalk, offering an assortment of beaded giraffes, sheep, and monkeys. He looked up and saw me - and then held aloft a fully beaded, accurate-to-scale AK-47.
World-class weirdness, indeed.