Johannesburg Stories

Jovial Rantao hopes a little sustainable development trickles down to Jo'burg from the Earth summit to be hosted north of the city
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The World Summit on Sustainable Development, known to everyone here simply as the WSSD, starts in Johannesburg in eight days. Except it isn't actually taking place in Johannesburg.

When Tony Blair, Jiang Zemin and the rest arrive for the formal part of the summit, they will be based in up-market Sandton, north of the city, and will meet in the huge convention centre there. Once Sandton was just a suburb for the rich. Now it is a separate municipality that has sucked the smart shops and many of the businesses and jobs out of the heart of Jo'burg.

There is poverty a stone's throw away in Alexandra township, and plenty more in Soweto, Thembisa and Katlehong, if delegates want to look for it. The government representatives might not have the time or the inclination, but if you don't believe the saying that an African will easily give up his or her bed to a visitor, try the real Johannesburg: with more than 40,000 people attending what some say is the biggest summit the world has seen, accommodation will have to be found all over the city, including the parts in need of some sustainable development.

There are some who believe the summit will solve all of Jo'burg's problems – "Boon time for Jo'burg", screamed one newspaper poster. Ordinary citizens who might not have been up to speed with what the WSSD is, and what it is meant to achieve, are unable to distinguish between the political agenda of the summit and the logistics that have gone into preparing for such a major event.

Roads have been dug up and resurfaced, maintenance work has been going on for months and many new facilities have been built. There will be a rush of foreign currency and short-term jobs. Many people I know have spruced up their houses and cottages and look forward to making a fast buck by hosting summit visitors.

The formal hospitality sector is smiling. The transport industry is looking forward to its best two weeks ever. And so too are our alternative businessmen – the criminals who have given Jo'burg its often exaggerated reputation.

The website for delegates shows an awareness of this reputation. Extra police are being drafted in, it says, as well as soldiers to protect certain summit venues. "South Africa will be as safe as any other place in the world where a summit could be held," it assures, before going on to other safety issues, such as warning visitors from the northern hemisphere, "notably the European countries", to use sun cream.

One news agency thought it would be helpful to explain some of the local lingo to summit-goers. If a Jo'burger tells you to turn left at a robot, for example, he doesn't mean something out of Star Wars, he means a traffic light. It listed many other useful words, such as bakkie (a pickup truck) and braai (a barbecue), although one was missing: tsotsi, as criminals are called here.

But if the tsotsis are rubbing their hands, the police are promising they won't be able to do anything else during the summit. And that would indeed be a boon.

A burly Afrikaner made a name for himself during a Tri-nations rugby match between South Africa and New Zealand a few days ago. Pieter van Zyl broke through the security and tackled the Irish referee, Dave McHugh, who had to go off with a dislocated shoulder.

One section of the nation, mainly white and Afrikaner Springbok supporters who believe they have been cheated by the referees in this Tri-nations series, saw Van Zyl as a hero. Another section, mainly black, saw his action as pure thuggery. Amazing how much a small incident on a rugby field can tell about a nation.