Joburg, Capital of Crime. Excuse me, Kindness.

Once you’ve got a reputation, it’s so incredibly hard to get rid of it. So it is for Johannesburg, our home for the last two and a half years. It’s been stuck with the “World’s Crime Capital” label ever since the post-Apartheid years of the early 1990s, when indeed horrible things did happen here in Joburg and other parts of  South Africa. And I won’t claim it’s the safest place in the world now, but it’s nothing close to what some internet pundits (most likely typing away from their misery in London, where they escaped to get away from here, sitting in a drafty house during what passes for an English summer trying to justify their reasons for leaving) will make you believe.

View of Joburg from Carlton Centre. Photo: Zax

The 2010 Soccer World Cup has done a lot to enhance Joburg’s reputation. And, I sometimes like to think, the collective effort of some expat bloggers has done its little share too.

And still people new to South Africa or those still mulling over the prospect of moving here typically are, to the last person, utterly afraid. How dangerous is it is the question I get asked most on my blog by such people. No one first asks about the weather, or the people, or the travel opportunities. Everyone expects security and safety to be the number one issue of life in Johannesburg.

I’ve told the story before, as recounted to me by an acquaintance: An expat new to Joburg gets lost in Alexandra. He has a flat tire, sees two black men approaching his window, and thinks he’s doomed, waiting for the assault. But instead the men, with hand gestures, signal that they can help and end up changing the tire for him, making sure he gets back to his family safely and conveniently.

One of my earlier tire repair episodes, Oct 2010. A small army to my rescue!

My own story from today isn’t nearly as dramatic, but it has a similarly happy ending.

I was in the school car park this morning when a guy approached my window. If you’ll remember, I’m a bit wary of guys who approach my window. Not because of safety concerns, mind you. It’s just that I don’t need any more cowboy hats. I rolled it down eventually, thinking he wanted money, but he just pointed to the back of my car and asked whether I knew I had a flat tire.

I did not know. And indeed it was flat, upon closer inspection. I should have expected it, actually, due to the never failing workings of Murphy’s Law. As I’ve told you, since Noisette has been traveling, I’ve had more than a fair share of things break around the house and beyond. It was just a matter if time before the tires were up again. I do have a special relationship with those tires, you know!

In any case, I think the guy wanted to help and earn a tip, but I didn’t get the hint. This would be a good time to check out that roadside assistance plan provided by our insurance, I thought. We’ve lived here for two and a half years and believe it or not, I had never used it before.

I called the number and worked through a bad connection and even worse English to try and convey my predicament. When it was finally understood, I was told to wait for a callback in 20 minutes.

This is the point where back home I already would have been tense. No, excuse me, that would have been even earlier, when the tire dared to cross my plans for a nice coffee morning with a friend. Or rather a reader of my blog I actually hadn’t met yet but am sure will become a friend. What inconvenience to have my schedule messed up like that!

In my old days I would have sat there fuming, drumming my fingers on the dashboard, calling the insurance people back and demanding to speak to a supervisor. Here? I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hear back, and it didn’t faze me one bit. I must say being in the school carpark made it easier, because I can walk home from there. Though wouldn’t you know it, a friend offered to drive me instead. Because people in Joburg are kind.

Yep, yet another tire change, this one ca. 2011

I called my coffee date and advised her of the potentially changed plans. It didn’t faze her one bit either.

Coming home I came upon Jabulani, who I only then remembered had stayed home that morning not feeling well, and a plan started to form. Seeing as he was happily watching TV, always a sign that the sickness doesn’t seem to be too deadly, I asked him to come help me change the tire. Jabulani and Zax, you see, became experts at this in about four hours during our Namibia trip in August, when no less than four tires got busted all on the same stretch of gravel road. I have yet to write about that story. Who better to help me change this tire than the freshly trained young mechanic, I thought.

To get back to the school, we had to walk. Through the fingerprint-powered security gate. Except guess what didn’t work? The fingerprinting machine. But the thing is, this also came as no surprise. I’ve lived in Africa long enough to have learned that you often have to work your way through problems in stages. Kind of like Greg Mortenson in Three Cups of Tea, taking almost a year to raise money and buy supplies to build his first school in Pakistan, only to get there and realize there was no bridge over the river he had to haul the materials over. Obviously, a bridge would first have to be built, so back he went to start from scratch.

We were standing at the gate waiting for the security guard to come and let us through. Who of course was taking his time. But we were having a nice mother-son chat. If you don’t expect much, you are not disappointed. I know to some of you this will sound like a defeatist attitude. The reason perhaps that Africa lags behind the rest of the world. No one holds it accountable and so it doesn’t deliver. Some of that is true, but in so many ways the world has much to learn from Africa, not the other way around. You can bookmark that, it’s true.

Like in terms of kindness. When we got back to the school and started unpacking the spare wheel from the boot, a guy (not the same as before) materialized almost instantly. He was a bus driver from a visiting school with nothing to do, so he came and helped. Jabulani was almost disappointed that he was deprived of this job, but it was kind of nice to have someone do the heavy lifting.

Thanks to my lessons learned from previous experience, the tire lock nut was quickly located and the spare wheel put on without a hitch. The only snag was that it wasn’t inflated. What? What kind of use is a spare wheel if it’s just as flat as the tire that it’s replacing?

You tell me where to find the tire pump in this mess? Though I’m sure it is perfectly explained, via a tidy pictogram no one can understand, somewhere in my 550 pages of owner’s manual.

But who needs to worry about details like that when you live in a city like Joburg, where kind people are all around you. Just as we were bent over the tire scratching our heads about what to do, another acquaintance of mine pulled in the carpark. Why not hop into her car, she offered, take the tire with us to have it fixed, and bring it back? That way we wouldn’t have to worry about the spare wheel.

Sounded great but rather inconvenient to my friend, don’t you think? Didn’t she have other places to be and other things to do?

If she did, she didn’t show it. We happily accepted, hopped in, and drove off to the little place not far down the road where sadly I’m already a rather well-known customer. The tire was whisked off our hands to be examined in the shop, while the three of us sat around a table in the sunshine and sipped cokes from the butchery next door, having a lovely conversation. So I didn’t even have to miss my coffee morning, you see. It was just with a different friend. And it was also a bit too short, because the tire was repaired all too quickly and loaded back into the car before we had even had a chance to finish our drinks. What did I owe, I wanted to know, purse in hand. Oh nothing, said the owner. I know you’ll come back here to buy new tires eventually.

I’ll put this one down as kindness as well, although he probably had a point with his prediction and was merely a good businessman.

Back to the school carpark, where our friendly bus driver was already ambling over to now help finish the job. The thing is, I had already given him his tip, and he could have just stayed away. But by now he’d developed a genuine interest in this project and wanted to see it through. That is Africa for you.

Jacking up the car was Jabulani’s handiwork, before the friendly bus driver took over

And who else should have arrived by now? The roadside assistance service of course. Obviously they were too late and I told them so, but they did prove to be useful in that they pointed out that my car had an air pump stashed somewhere in the nether regions of my boot, for the very purpose of inflating the spare wheel via the cigarette lighter. Because the spare wheel can only be stowed in a deflated state, you see. German engineering, is all I can say. Although you are allowed to point out that I should have known this, given my previous exposure to tire-related mishaps with this particular car.

It was a win-win situation for everyone, I’d like to think. I got my problem solved and spent a nice morning with Jabulani, away from the TV. The bus driver earned a tip which he happily went and spent on lunch at our tuck shop. The towing service was able to charge the insurance without actually having to do any work, and Star Butchery sold a few more Cokes that day.

And all of it because people were kind.

I’d actually like to run an experiment one day, to test my theory: I bet you it’s virtually impossible to break down with your car in any corner of Africa without someone coming to your rescue, unasked. I’m absolutely convinced you could try as hard as you wanted, you wouldn’t succeed in being left to deal alone with your problem. It just would never happen. There would always be someone taking an interest and wanting to help. Can you say that about the rest of the world? I know I’m often accused of being too harsh on my fellow-Germans, but I tried to picture the same situation happening in Germany, and all I could think of was being chased away from the spot I was trying to change the tire because it was “verboten” to park there.

Joburg, above all, should be known all over the world for its kind people, not its crime. For every smash-and-grab you hear about, there are probably ten stories just like this one today.

Let’s toast to the World’s Capital of Kindness. Come visit Joburg and collect your share of kindness today.

It’s not just kind. It’s also quite beautiful,  don’t you think? Photo: Zax.

And once you’re there, click here for all the great things you can DO in Joburg.