Snapshots of rich, poor South Africa


Thirty-three random, and not so random, things about Johannesburg:

1 Electric fences and security cameras on towering suburban walls.

2 Walls being rebuilt to make them 10 feet or 12 feet high instead of just 8.

3 Wide, manicured strips of lawn lining the streets, with concrete planters, pompom- shaped roses, hedges trimmed into fancy balls or cones. But no sidewalks.

4 Black people walking in the roads.

5 White people not walking, but zipping around in fancy cars (preferred color: silver).

6 Middle-aged maids wearing matching uniforms, kerchiefs and aprons in pastel colors: pink, pale blue, light green, buttercup yellow.

7 Gardeners in navy-colored overalls on their knees picking tiny weeds out of the cracks between driveway bricks.


8 Households with more than three dogs. We’re talking six, eight, even 11 dogs.

9 Rich white men in new Mercedeses running red “robots” (the term for traffic lights).

10 Rich black men in new Mercedeses running red robots.

11 Traffic lights and street poles knocked over. Last night’s accident debris -- glass and ripped-off bumpers -- scattered across intersections.

12 Ragged men towing homemade trolley carts piled high with waste cardboard, searching the trash bins for more.

13 Traffic-light panhandlers with signs like “I’d rather be a beggar than a thief.” Or “Please help. Poor old man.” Or women begging with babies on their backs. Or little girls with hands extended.

14 People dashing helter-skelter across the roads.

15 Pedestrian accidents.

16 Plump women plodding along with huge bags on their heads.

17 Security men wearing military-style uniforms hired to guard just one house.

18 Black gardeners or maids walking their employers’ dogs.

19 Black gardeners or maids with their employers’ dogs, standing on street corners, chatting happily in the sun.

20 Shopping mall restaurants where diners at one table are all one race, and the next table another race, and the next another.

21 Commuter minibuses blaring infectious music, the driver’s hand trailing casually out the window.


22 Men getting a full head shave at sidewalk barber stalls.

23 Signs on suburban walls warning of “24-hour armed response” teams: private police forces with names such as Stallion and Tactical.

24 Large armed-response SUVs with spotlights on the roof plying the suburban streets day and night -- and guys inside with big guns and flak jackets.

25 Pickup trucks, the back crammed with workmen -- on any road in any weather.

26 Dry wintry days with chilly winds blowing red dust.

27 Summery thunderstorms that dump inches of hail on the garden.

28 Burned-down thatched-roof houses.

29 Maids sitting on the lawns outside the high brick walls on a Sunday, their day off, because there’s not much else to do once church is over.

30 Men selling straw brooms and ostrich-feather dusters in psychedelic colors, gate to gate.

31 Throngs of freelance parking-space spotters racing one another for clients in the streets around the Wanderers cricket stadium whenever there’s a game.

32 Men sitting beside traffic lights making extraordinary sculptures of elephants, lions and antelopes -- any animal, really -- from wire and small colorful beads. Or making lampshades and wastebaskets out of shredded Coke cans.


33 Homeless men in parks sitting by streams in their underwear after washing their clothes in the river, their clothes drying on rocks in the sun.