When I tell my mom I went for a run in my neighborhood, I don’t know what she envisions. After all, Johannesburg has quite the international reputation for crime and violence. But it’s a big city, and a largely segregated one. My neighborhood is a case in point.
The area I live in, twenty minutes drive from downtown and midway between downtown Joburg and Sandton, is part of a larger area collectively known as the Northern Suburbs. It is a mostly white neighborhood, and full of the sort of people who used to live in downtown Johannesburg before the white flight of the 90s. I like to think of it as the Westchester of Joburg.
Joburg is full of surprises and one of them is that there are a ton of trees here. Apparently, they were planted when the Europeans first arrived to support the mining industry. Now Joburg has the reputation of being the largest man made forest in the world. I have no idea if it’s true, but it sure is leafy now that summer is here.
So my runs in these affluent neighborhoods crisscross quiet streets, lined with high security walls and beautiful jacaranda trees in full bloom, covered with purple flowers. The trees are stunning and I am beginning to think of each morning run as a holiday in and of itself.
The people on these streets reflect the city’s stark divide. I run by lots of Black South Africans in uniforms reflecting their status. First there’s security guards in their military boots and bullet proof vests, then the blue jumpsuit the men wear for construction and landscaping, and lets not forget the ladies in bright maids outfits (called overalls I learned). Kids are always in their very traditional school uniforms with knee socks and starched collared shirts.
There is also the occasional guy in rags pushing around a cart full of recyclables from people’s trash. I’m thinking these guys are at the bottom of the food chain. They are mostly young and their clothes are stained by the dirt. They might also wear a ski mask over their face like they don’t want to be seen. No pictures of these guys below but I do smile and say good-morning as I go by.
Contrast all that with if I do pass by another white person, it’ll be someone in athletic clothes like me or someone pulling out of their driveway in an Audi.
It’s chilling to have things so seemingly determined by race. Makes me think about how insipid and easily this can be turned into racism and misunderstanding. And how active I need to be in guarding against the internalization and acceptance of this status quo.