First Impressions of Jo’burg

wits-campus-aerial-long-shotALTHOUGH I am only a few days into my research trip, my mind already feels more at ease than it has for months, now that I have arrived in Johannesburg.

In truth, there were many times these last few months when I probably wasn’t the best company in the world, particularly if you were a member of my family, given that most wonderful human tendency of taking out your stresses on those that love you most.

For months, I fantasised about finally arriving here and getting the data collection phase of my research underway. If I were to do it again, the countdown to Jo’burg would have been far shorter and I would have told nobody I was going until perhaps a fortnight beforehand.

I drove myself insane, fretting about the preparations I had in place and going so far as to fabricate ridiculously unlikely disaster scenarios when my planning had already addressed all of the likely ones. Even though all I have really done so far is arrive, already I can feel the pressure and angst that I crafted for myself these last few months start to subside.

My home for the next three months is a lovely little cottage next to a larger property just a few kilometres from the University of the Witwatersrand (‘Wits’ to its friends), where I will be based as a visiting international student in the School of International Relations. Every morning here, the brief groggy moment before I remember that I’m in a foreign country is rudely interrupted by a gang of rowdy hadada ibis birds that live on the lawn outside my door. Even at this early stage, I feel that they and I will not become friends.

Security at Wits is extremely tight by comparison to UL. In order to enter the campus you need to scan your ID card at turnstiles that are located at each of the multiple entry points to the University. The building through which I enter is in downtown Johannesburg and I’ve already been told by a few students and staff that it’s not wise to have a phone or laptop on display when you leave the campus at that exit.

It’s likely that the security measures also have something to do with protests against a hike in student fees that took place over several weeks in Wits a few months ago. A number of the demonstrations turned violent and saw clashes between students and police, a lecture hall getting set on fire and a campus-based priest being shot in the mouth by a stray police rubber bullet while trying to protect students who had ran into his church seeking sanctuary.

Other than hearing the occasional chatter about the protests, though, I have seen no remaining signs of student unrest on campus. In fact, students here are the most cheerful I have ever come across. The majority of them walk the corridors here with a smile on their face, if they’re not outright laughing with one another, and I don’t think I’ve gone for a coffee break once without hearing at least one person walking the corridors singing to themself. It’s contagious (the smiling, not so much the singing yet).

Although you wouldn’t even know you were entering a university when walking through the security turnstiles that I use on Jorrissen Street, Wits is a beautiful campus once you get inside. It’s also enormous, with about three times the student population of UL.

Needless to say, the demographics of the student population here are also very different from home. A record is taken of each student’s ethnic background when they register at Wits, something that seems unusual at first but I presume is in some way related to the ongoing efforts to address the legacy of Apartheid. The University has a breakdown of roughly 60% black Africans, 21% whites, 14% Indians, 4% coloureds (which means mixed race here as opposed to the derogatory interpretation we have at home) and 1% Chinese. I’ve yet to come across someone else from Ireland.

Having worked in UL’s International Office for a year and a half prior to leaving, it feels unusual to now be the uncertain new arrival on campus, rather than the one answering the questions. Both the staff and my fellow students have been incredibly welcoming though, the lovely vibe around the University makes it hard to believe that it was the site of such violence only a few months ago.

My off campus experience has been just as delightful so far. In the six days I’ve been here, I’ve been hosted for dinner on three different occasions by three different sets of wonderful South Africans. My new landlords had me for supper on my first night here, a welcome meal after a day of travelling. Another lovely couple, whom I had initially contacted about a property on Air BnB but which proved to be too far from Wits, had me around for drinks and dinner on Friday. It’s typical of the friendliness of strangers here that they had remained pally with me after my initial reason for contacting them had long passed.

Then on Saturday, I was brought to my first South African braai by a dear old friend of mine named Hamilton, who I first met six years ago when we played rugby for the same club in Vancouver. A braai is a traditional Afrikaans version of a barbecue but with bigger wood-burning flames and some of the nicest meat I have ever eaten.

As well as being shown such kindness by friends and almost strangers, I’ve been helped out by full-blown strangers as well. At the weekend I was searching for a barber in the Melville neighbourhood and got completely lost. After stopping into a shop to ask for directions, one of the customers there, upon hearing my situation, insisted that I take a lift from him. I’ve made a concerted effort to engage everyone I meet in conversation and I have yet to come across someone who hasn’t made me feel very welcome.

From a research point of view, I’ve gotten straight down to the business of establishing contact with targeted interviewees. The Irish embassy in Pretoria has been of great assistance by putting me in contact with civil society organisations that have linkages with some of the diplomats and politicians that I hope to interview regarding their involvement in the crafting of the Common African Defence and Security Policy of the African Union, the main focus of my research.

On my first full day in Jo’burg, I went to a public consultation that one of those organisations was hosting to discuss a new hate crimes and hate speech bill that is being considered by the South African Parliament. My primary reason for attending was to introduce myself to a former South African ambassador who was going to be there. While I achieved that goal within 15 minutes of arriving, the consultation proved to be an education in how politically engaged South Africans appear to be.

There was only standing room left in a large conference hall and the consultation went over an hour and a half beyond its scheduled finishing time due to the volume of impassioned contributions made by the audience after the various speakers at the front had said their part. It was genuinely inspiring and something I think you would be unlikely to see replicated in Ireland.

It’s not just at official public gatherings that this level of engagement is apparent either, you regularly overhear students in the corridors talking politics and almost every Uber driver that I’ve met has an opinion on President Jacob Zuma. I have yet to come across one of his defenders.

A few days ago, while in a bank, I asked a young teller if I was getting an accurate picture and the average citizen over here really is tuned into politics in a way that people just don’t seem to be in Ireland.

“Yes, many people are interested in it because politics really affects everyone here. In Ireland, politics probably doesn’t affect you as much in your day to day life,” he responded.

What he said made sense. It shouldn’t be surprising that students would be politically engaged when their status at students was so recently under threat due to financial shortfalls. Similarly it’s no shock that a public consultation on how to regulate hate speech and hate crime would draw such a passionate crowd, given South Africa’s recent history and ongoing problems. I’ve only been here for six days and I have already heard the ethnic slur ‘kaffir’ thrown around a few times, although not by any of my kind and gracious hosts or new friends.

There is still an obvious divide here and it’s never more obvious than when you travel around the suburbs of Jo’burg. Fortress-like houses are each defended by 10-foot high walls with barbed or electric fences (or both) on top of them, security cameras, bars over windows and electric gates that look as though they would withstand a large bomb blast. Everywhere in the suburbs, you can hear the crack coming from the electrified wires that encircle people’s homes. Patrolling armed private security companies are a fairly constant feature in these wealthier areas also.

Anyone I’ve spoken to says that these features are just a sad fact of South African life and, I’ll be honest, having them in place in my temporary home does allow me to sleep easier at night. That said, I do wonder if these elaborate security arrangements have become self-perpetuating at some point, as opposed to being necessitated by circumstances. Who is going to want to be the first person on the block that doesn’t have electrical beams running around the perimeter of their home?

As initially unsettling as the battle-ready conditions of the suburbs are though, they do nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for Jo’burg so far. Coming here from Limerick is a major culture shock and in ways it is certainly chaotic by comparison to home. But there is something very revitalising about stepping into the chaos after many months spent anticipating this period in my work. The fact that people are so bloody nice here just furthers my enthusiasm for what lies ahead.

Tomorrow night, Wednesday, represents a further step into the unknown as I begin a one-week trip to Nigeria. There, I hope to conduct a number of interviews and one very important one in particular that I won’t give any further details of now for fear of jeopardising it. More will be revealed as circumstances allow.

I’ll report next from Abeokuta.







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