Oh boy, I can practically feel the wrath among the Cape Town lovers. You’ve seen the subject line, clicked on it furiously, and are now ready to dismantle my arguments in favor of Johannesburg vs Cape Town one by one. How can she pick a sprawling industrial hub over one fo the most beautiful cities in the world?
And you’re absolutely right. I won’t ever argue that point with you. I’ve never been to a city with more natural beauty, more stunning coastlines, and more exciting tourist attractions, than Cape Town. CNN’s 2018 list of top 50 restaurants in the world just came out, and Cape Town earned a spot (though not nearly high enough on the list in my opinion).
Moving to Cape Town sounds like a dream come true.
But this blog post was inspired by a reader who contacted me with a question about his upcoming move to South Africa. He had gotten – or was getting – a critical skills visa in IT and needed to find a job as soon as possible. He knew Cape Town was more beautiful, he said, but perhaps his chances of finding employment were better in Johannesburg. What should he do, he wanted to know?
I’ll tell you up front what I told him: Having lived in Johannesburg for three years, and never having lived in Cape Town, my answer is going to be biased. And I invite anyone who has lived or lives in Cape Town to share their views in order to help future expats make a well-informed decision.
Here are my reasons for recommending Johannesburg vs Cape Town:
Johannesburg is, without question, the business hub of South Africa, if not all of Africa. Gauteng, the small province encompassing Johannesburg, generates 35% of South Africa’s GDP, vs. only 14% for the Western Cape (based on Wikipedia 2010 numbers). 7 out of the 10 largest South African companies are headquartered in Johannesburg. I don’t have exact numbers, but I think it’s safe to say that if a Fortune 500 company has just one office in Africa, most likely it is located in Joburg. Yet another way to to look at it: Turn on Google Earth at Night. You’ll see a lot of darkness over Africa, with two exceptions – Cairo and Gauteng.
For someone who is moving to South Africa on a critical skills visa and is therefore dependent on finding his own work (versus those who are sent over by their employer), a job search in Johannesburg is bound to be more promising than one in Cape Town. This might be different in some select industries. If you’re a chef, or in interior design, or another vocation in the arts, Cape Town might be just the place to be. For most everything else, I’d hitch my fortune to the job market in Gauteng.
Diversity and Friendliness
Johannesburg, perhaps because of its attraction to migrants and foreigners, is one of the most diverse cities on Earth. This is reflected in an incredible offering of just about anything you can think of. Any service, ethnic food, religion, or fad you can think of, you’ll find in Johannesburg. It positively brims with youth and excitement and there is a lot of urban rejuvenation in the works. It has some incredibly hip new neighborhoods built up from former no-go zones that have become fashionable for young professionals to move to.
The people of Joburg also have a reputation of extreme friendliness and are generally very open to newcomers. I’ve heard Cape Town can be a bit stuffy and closed off to outsiders, but before you go and get your panties in a wad, I’ll admit that this is just hearsay. My visits to Cape Town have never yielded an unpleasant encounter of any kind.
Cost of Living
I would venture to guess that , on average, the cost of living is lower in Johannesburg vs Cape Town. This is just based on the lay of the land. Where Cape Town is hemmed in by a gorgeous coastline that naturally is dotted with some of the most exclusive mansions in the world, Johannesburg is landlocked with plenty of room for urban sprawl. You won’t have the beach at your doorstep, but you can likely afford a more spacious and luxurious home than in most other world cities.
Crime and Safety
It used to be said that Johannesburg has the higher crime rate of the two cities. In fact, it was often dubbed the crime capital of the world. But I don’t think that’s true anymore, if it ever was. I saw a recent statistic that listed Cape Town with higher crime statistics than Joburg for several years running. And in any case the crime statistics are scarier than the reality. Most neighborhoods in Joburg are very safe, you just have to be sensible. Several friends have recently told me about break-ins they or their family have experienced, and they all happened in Cape Town or Stellenbosch. This of course is anecdotal, but I do think it reflects the shifting reality.
Johannesburg scores a huge plus for its beautiful weather. And let me tell you, weather matters! Joburg has a climate comparable to San Diego – mild year-round, dry winters with cold nights and warm days and subtropical summers with enough rain to turn the city green and lush.
Cape Town also has lovely weather, no doubt. Three wonderful seasons of it. But its winters can be drizzly, cold, and stormy. If you’ve ever stood atop Table Mountain even on a lovely summer day and almost gotten blown off its cliffs, you’ll know what I mean. The weather there can change on a dime and be rather unpleasant.
Johannesburg is rarely windy it all. It’s more known for its electrical summer storms, and they are a thing of beauty.
Central Hub vs Tourist Destination
Johannesburg is closer to more of the safari destinations you’ll want to go to. One of the best kept secrets is Madikwe Game Reserve in the Northwest Province, which you can reach in a comfortable three-hour drive from Johannesburg.
Also, O.R. Tambo International Airport is the hub for all of Africa so you can easily fly anywhere you want with a direct flight. This is especially convenient for expats who go on home leave once a year.
Furthermore, Joburg and surroundings is actually a really interesting place to visit in its own right. To find out more, What to Do in Joburg gives you 25 attractions to start with. And Heather over at 2Summers has beautifully written about at least 250 more!
Cape Town, as stated before, is no doubt one of the most beautiful tourist attractions on Earth. Which means it also gets busloads of tourists. It is not uncommon to have to wait in line for over an hour if you want to take your picture in front of the sign at the Cape of Good Hope. The city gets particularly overrun December and January, when South African vacationers add themselves to the international influx. There is never a better time to be in Johannesburg than during summer break when everyone is gone!
Traffic and Public Transport
This is one in the plus column for Cape Town. Johannesburg traffic sucks, there is no other way to say it. Its rush hour spans more or less the entire day, and if you want to have any hope of making it to the office in less than an hour and a half, you have to get up well before 5 am. Even though Joburg boasts many well-maintained multi-lane highways, they are hopelessly clogged by vehicles running the gamut from old clunkers to European luxury cars, plus a gazillion Toyota minibus taxis that swerve in and out of traffic so recklessly you’ll learn to yield to them.
I’ve never experienced rush hour in Cape Town, so I can’t say for sure. But it really can’t be worse than Joburg, And, another plus, there actually is public transport in Cape Town in the form of a train and busses. I’m sure it’s not perfect, but it’s bound to be much better than nothing at all.
The verdict, despite the last point: If given the choice as an expat, I would move to Johannesburg. Cape Town rightfully has a place among the greatest cities in the world. There is no debate. While Joburg is much nicer than you might think, having never been there, it is still landlocked and sprawling and can get dusty in the dry season. Cape Town is absolutely gorgeous. The good news is, there are very inexpensive direct flights from Joburg to Cape Town that’ll easily get you there before 10 am for an entire weekend of exploring. You could basically fly down for a good dinner date once a month!
You could argue that this would work in reverse as well, and you wouldn’t be wrong. If you can find a flexible job that allows you to work away from the office on occasion, this might be just the solution for you.
But if you end up in Johannesburg because of all the reasons listed above, I can tell you now that you won’t regret it. All expats arrive in Johannesburg with a good portion of anxiety, but almost no one is ready to leave when their assignment is over.
And that’s just about all you need to know about a place.