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A Comprehensive Guide about Living in Johannesburg

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  • Claude Maurin

    After I followed my wife to Johannesburg, InterNations and its expat circles helped me find free-lance work with South African clients.

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Life in Johannesburg

There is a lot that can be said about life in Johannesburg, but by all accounts, a fitting way of thinking of it is metropolitan life, but pushed to extremes. This encompasses the good and the bad: in Johannesburg, you will experience the division between rich and poor in a much more pronounced manner than in most other places. You will see urban sprawl of huge dimensions, a great multitude of different ethnicities and cultures, and unfortunately, health and crime issues that also reach rare extremes.

With that said, no experience of living in Johannesburg is quite like another. The city offers a multitude of opportunities and faces, some of which are indeed undesirable, but many others of which make for a fascinating time as an expat abroad.

The Johannesburgers

Johannesburg is the most populous city in South Africa. At the time of the latest census conducted in 2014, roughly 4.3 million people were living in Johannesburg. Not only expats, but also many people coming to Johannesburg and its metro area from other, economically weak provinces keep the numbers rising.

In terms of ethnicity — still an important aspect in post-Apartheid South Africa — roughly three quarters of the population were of African descent. Another 16% identified as whites, with coloureds and Asians, mainly due to a numerously represented Indian community, accounting for 6% and 4% of the population, respectively. Our article on living in South Africa has further information on this classification as well as the cultural backgrounds of these heterogeneous groups.

A Multilingual City

Expats living in Johannesburg can expect to hear a variety of languages — a fairly unsurprising fact given the variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the population of Johannesburg and South Africa as a whole. Speakers of all of the nation’s eleven official languages live in Johannesburg, although in wildly varying numbers. While the most important and significant language, at least for business and corporate life, is undoubtedly English, it is by far not the most widespread first language.

As of the last census, most widespread mother tongues were Sotho and Nguni languages, with more than half of the population of the city between them. English came in third, with about a fifth of the population considering it their first language. It is, however, entirely possible to get by with good command of the English language alone. You will only very rarely, if ever, get into situations in which you will not be understood. This holds especially true for the expat-heavy and professional circles many of you will probably frequent.

What to Do in Your Spare Time

One thing is certain: no matter what your interests are, you will surely find a great way to spend your leisure time in Johannesburg. Sports buff? Go enjoy soccer, rugby, or cricket matches of some of South Africa’s biggest names in Africa’s most modern arenas. Interested in the nation’s past? There are museums commemorating the gold rush that led to the founding of the city as well as several dealing specifically with the nation’s troubled Apartheid past, notably the Mandela Museum in Soweto, a former township.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site d믭 “cradle of humankind” is also right outside of town — known worldwide for being the place where the oldest hominid skeletons were found. Of course, art connoisseurs living in Johannesburg are also in for a treat, namely the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Life in Johannesburg obviously does not stop at dusk, and the city’s bustling nightlife surely caters to every taste.

Joburg’s Climate

Johannesburg has a fairly mild climate with lots and lots of sunshine and a heightened rate of precipitation in the summer months from October to April. The rest of the year tends to be fairly dry. Due to the altitude of the city (elevated about 1750 m), living in Johannesburg is a viable option for expats who have trouble dealing with heat: temperatures average around 25°C in the summertime. Although it is a fairly uncommon sight in the city, expats should definitely make sure to stock up on warm clothes in case of snowfall.

Safety in Johannesburg

The Most Important of All: Your Personal Safety

Johannesburg’s “rival” city, Cape Town, often prides itself with being much safer than Gauteng’s metropolis. Unfortunately, there is truth to this claim: Johannesburg can be a dangerous place, even by South African standards. Obviously your personal experience of the city might be a different one, depending on which neighborhood you choose to settle in and whether or not you opt for the various security measures popular with expatriates. You will surely not be under constant threat at all times, but you should be aware of the potential dangers.

These dangers are visible and widespread enough — occurring in all areas of the city, although in varying frequency — to prompt the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC) of the US Department of State to rate the crime threat in Johannesburg as “critical”. The range of criminal activity in the city includes petty theft and pick-pocketing, scams (for example the infamous “419” scam and ATM manipulation), violent and confrontational crime such as robberies and burglaries. All these crimes are carried out in various degrees of sophistication, often by groups of experienced perpetrators. Elaborate armed robberies targeted at businesses or cash transports have reportedly been on the rise in the past years, but will probably rarely affect expatriates.

Violence in general is often seen by criminals as a viable ways of achieving whatever goals they had in mind. The inhibition threshold for resorting to violence is notoriously low amongst South Africa’s criminal elements — a mugger with a gun or knife is likely to use their weapon if provoked. If you should ever find yourself in a situation in which you are threatened, do not try to resist or even fight back. As there is no way of being 100% safe of being robbed, no matter what neighborhood you might be in, it is best to make yourself as little of an obvious target as possible. Do not carry large amounts of cash or valuables with you. Make copies of your important documents and keep the originals in a safe location in your home. The City of Johannesburg offers a fairly long list of safety tips for visitors, expats, and residents alike.

Security at Home

As we have already pointed out in our article on moving to Johannesburg, many expatriates and well-to-do citizens of Johannesburg opt for gated communities and compounds, which regularly feature camera surveillance, security personnel, as well as walls or fences. Johannesburg and Gauteng in general face a large number of home invasions, oftentimes with the victim being at home at the time of the burglary — the rising popularity and availability of high security gated communities is not a coincidence.

While these communities offer the highest possible level of security, they are not a guarantee for safety — as we have mentioned above, crime in Johannesburg can be carried out on an astonishing level of sophistication. However, even the most nervous of expats can feel at ease in one of the upscale compounds in the more affluent parts of Johannesburg. Again, it is entirely possible — and, for many expats, even probable — that you will not experience a lot of criminal activity during your time as an expat in Johannesburg. However, you should still be aware of the risks.


The city administration has heightened their efforts of combating crime, particularly in the Central Business District, where large scale camera surveillance and plans of reshaping the neighborhood so as to attract businesses and young professionals have somewhat alleviated the dire situation the district was in during the 1990s. But even though the actual crime rate in Johannesburg has decreased in recent years, Gauteng’s largest city still cannot shake its infamous reputation. The city’s Integrated Development Plan focuses on tackling the crime problem in two ways: by improving the living situation in the poorer parts of town, and by increasing the police force’s numbers and visibility. Results might not be immediate, but the city has hopes of lowering crime rates even further in the next years to come.

Health & Transport in Johannesburg

Healthcare Facilities

Johannesburg offers a fairly wide range of healthcare facilities fit to take care of any ailment expats and residents may have. A total of 80 fixed and satellite day clinics are the city’s pillars of basic primary healthcare, with about a dozen major hospitals taking care of serious ailments. A list of public hospitals and major clinics can be seen on the official page of the City of Johannesburg, which also offers this list of private hospitals.

The availability of healthcare facilities is rather good, albeit possibly below the standards you may be used to from your home country in some cases. However, we strongly advise you to either buy comprehensive health insurance with coverage in South Africa prior to your relocation, or to discuss a group or company healthcare benefit package with your employer in Johannesburg, as there is no national health plan.

The Most Common Health Issues

Apart from the widespread prevalence of tuberculosis as well as issues arising from the lack of access to safe drinking water in poorer areas, HIV and Aids are still the most dire health problems the entire nation has to face up to — this of course includes the city of Johannesburg. One of the city administration’s main goals for the future, and one which has already been achieved in part, is the implementation of widespread access to basic healthcare services. Among other improvements, the city administration hopes not only to increase the rate of cured tuberculosis patients, but also provide HIV testing and retroviral treatment for a larger segment of the population.

Due to the prevalence if the HI-Virus, you should be sure to adhere to the usual precautionary measures at all times and under all circumstances.

The Improved Public Transportation System

Prior to the Soccer World Cup in 2010, the public transportation options in Johannesburg were fairly limited, to say the least. Bus services did and do still connect most parts of the city. However, it was only in 2009 that the tried and tested, but ultimately insufficient bus lines of the Metrobus were supplemented by a second line of services called Rea Vaya. In contrast to the preexisting network, the Rea Vaya offers a rapid bus transit system on multiple routes, mainly aiming to offer improved connections between Soweto and the Central Business District. A full list of routes as well as the company’s future plans for expansion of its network can be seen on the Rea Vaya homepage. A complete overview of connections and timetables for the Metrobus service is offered on the pages of the City of Johannesburg.

Apart from these two bus services, the only existing public transportation service is the Gautrain, linking Johannesburg with neighboring Pretoria and the OR Tambo International Airport. The popularity and success of the existing stops of the rapid railway service, which include important suburbs such as Midrand and Sandton, has paved the way for a future expansion of the network, which should further improve the situation on Johannesburg’s streets and surrounding speedways.

One option we’d like to include if only for the sake of completeness is the informal minibus taxi, which enjoys a certain degree of popularity with the local population — however, it is the absence of affordable alternatives on which this popularity is based. Still, the services of the minibus taxis are invaluable to the general population and an important pillar of everyday life. Using the minibus taxi is a rather daunting affair, but one you might want to experience in order to get to know Johannesburg in its many facets.

Making Your Way through the Crazy Traffic

Famously, almost every major road in South Africa leads to Johannesburg. Combined with the massive urban sprawl of the city and its immense population, this does not make for pleasant car rides. Congestion is, probably to no one’s surprise, a very large problem, and one that has only been tackled recently. Even with an interconnected network of multi-lane freeways, clogging is the norm. The absence of a body of water in or near the city obviously severely limits the options for transportation of goods to and from Johannesburg, which further exacerbates the traffic situation. Unfortunately, there is a good chance that you will be reliant on your car during your time as an expat in Johannesburg — the existing public transportation options are rather insufficient.

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  • Claude Maurin

    After I followed my wife to Johannesburg, InterNations and its expat circles helped me find free-lance work with South African clients.

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