To talk to strangers, or to avoid really talking to strangers, the British have the weather. In Johannesburg, what the South Africans have instead is ”the traffic”. The state of the roads, the amount of traffic on them, debates about road usage and improvements, the advent of toll charges and the seemingly insurmountable topic of the amount of time that it takes to get from A to B, and at what time of day, are what forms the safe subject for any chat.
Jo’burg has invested a lot in its road system in recent years. The World Cup finals were a big part of this on the highways, but they have also systematically replaced many of the chuggering, smoke-blowing old buses and regulated what was a decrepit and corrupt network of privately owned licensed mini-buses with a modern and corrupt network of licensed minibuses. The minibuses are the main means of transport to and from work for thousands of Jo’burgers, and they can be ruthless in their road tactics.
Some countries have road rage to deal with but this city once had serious road crime, with not infrequent car-jackings and armed theft, though this seems to have gone now. Yet the roads remain a staple of conversation and dictate what time things start and stop, what sacrifices people need to make to arrive for important things (such as their jobs, or MBA workshops) on time. The city is spreading and the middle classes are demanding safe housing on new gated estates at the fringes of the sprawl. But the infrastructure doesn’t keep up, and what might once have been quiet suburban roads have become choked single-lane routes that now feed the (finally) free-moving freeways. South Africans call traffic lights “robots”, and these too have been the victim of crime here in the past.
But this is a terrific city. It feels big and wide (it is that, for sure) and full of light. The hills roll on and reveal gentle dips with greenery and streams, and the earth is variously the most fantastic shades of ochre, red, orange and rust. The sky stretches out over it and feels twice the size of the sky in the UK and there is always the feeling (in my mind) that these roads, cluttered though they may be, would eventually lead one out into a massive and fascinating continent full of possibility, culture and history (social and natural) and - above all – stories.
We start our workshop tomorrow bright and early. We’ll be leaving the hotel at 7 a.m. To avoid the traffic. And have something to talk about.