Johannesburg in 2017

My wife and I spent about a week driving around the city of Johannesburg. While crime statistics in South Africa can be scary for the casual traveller, I found that the wealth of culture, experiences, languages, and ethnicities was well worth the effort. This is a city with all of the 11 official languages of South Africa! This is also a city with large socio-economic disparities that have not significantly been offset by the end of Apartheid. A shocking statistic coming from the Census is that the ratio of White to Black income barely changed over the last 30 years.

In the city of Johannesburg itself, the geography of the city center has been dramatically transformed over the last 3 decades. Business activity has largely moved out of downtown Johannesburg, where the imposing facades of Anglo American’s offices are still dominating the landscape. As in a city like Detroit, the scale of architecture in downtown does not seem to match its current purpose. Large parts of Johannesburg business have moved to Sandton, where glittering buildings, manicured lawns, and large security details fence areas from the surrounding activity. In a perhaps ironic twist of history, Sandton’s statue of Nelson Mandela sits at the center of a high-end luxury mall. While World Bank statistics suggest that about 17% of the population lives below the poverty line, and the Gini stands at a very high 63.4, one sure thing is that such high-end malls see a mix all ethnicities and a thriving (but likely small) Black upper-middle class.

South African data is good. My World Bank contacts are fascinated by the care and the precision of its statistical agency when it comes to collecting census data. So I downloaded the Census of Communities 2011 to draw a map of average household income by ward.

The distribution of household income suggests that downtown Johannesburg is indeed the poorest ward of the city. While high-income households are not living in downtown — and have likely moved out of it –, they have not moved to the farthest wards of the city. In fact they have moved to suburban areas south, east, and north-west of downtown, within reach of downtown. As in the U.S. suburbs of Johannesburg are well-connected with a strong system of highways, and feature malls and other shopping facilities.

Notes: log income at 11.5 is about 100,000 South African Rands, or 7,388 USD at the current exchange rate. This is about 20-25% above the country’s GDP per capita. Household income is reported as a count of households per bracket. See the questionnaire here. Average income is proxied by the average of the brackets’ mid point. The white areas are areas with no reported household data.


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