2. Johannesburg traffic is a circus.

I nearly got involved in a fender-bender the other day. I was driving down a busy, three-lane road in town, and glanced down for a second. Mistake. I looked up to see that, to my horror, I was about to drive over a cow. I had to swerve sharply to miss her, and nearly hit another car.

I should have known she would be there. I was coming up to a robot (that’s what we call traffic lights ‘round here). She was a rather fetching cow. She had enormous googly eyes and was wearing a natty pair of brogues on her hind feet. And she was dancing; shaking what her mamma gave her, waving her hoofs in the air like she just didn’t care. Either that or she was having an epileptic fit.

Not the sort of livestock one expects to find on the roads of Africa.

Not the sort of livestock one expects to find on the roads of Africa.

She was a toy. She’d been put down on the ground to tempt children into bullying their parents into buying her. This sort of thing is pretty common. Our traffic lights are becoming huge open air markets for cheap junk. It started out small, with car-chargers and hands-free kits for cellphones. This makes sense. You need these things in your car. Then came the sunglasses. Also sensible. Then came the huge inflatable beach-balls covered in multi-coloured spandex. Less sensible.

How many times have you found yourself stuck in traffic without a huge inflatable beach-ball covered in multi-coloured spandex?

How many times have you found yourself stuck in traffic without a huge inflatable beach-ball covered in multi-coloured spandex?

Now nothing makes sense. You never know what’s coming. A fake Rolex? A space hopper? Perfume? A Polo handbag? I’ve seen them all. The sellers know their market, too. When the wind blows, they sell kites. When it rains; umbrellas. But I have absolutely no idea what prompted the sudden, albeit brief, influx of huge rolled-up wall-maps. Who buys one of those on impulse?

More worrying is the latest trend; sjamboks. A sjambok is a very nasty thing indeed. It’s a whip. Not a fancy bullwhip, or a kinky little riding-crop to cash in on the whole 50 Shades phenomenon. It’s a weapon of torture. Its only purpose is to cause pain. It is used to beat animals. And people. It was a favourite of the apartheid police. And now you can pick one up on the freeway off-ramp.

What to get for the psychopath who has everything.

What to get for the psychopath who has everything.

Someone must be buying them. On a whim. Who? Are they being watched by the police? What goes through their minds? “Look at all this cool stuff! I should get something for the family. We don’t have a huge ball covered in multi-coloured spandex. Wait! Look at that! A sjambok! A good solid beating should really bring the family together!”

These things are cheap junk, bought up in bulk from Chinese factory shops. But you can buy other things, too. Beautiful things. These are made of wire and beads. By a guy sitting on the side of the road.

He would have made his life much easier if he had just made himself a wire-and-bead sheepdog or two!

He would have made his life much easier if he had just made himself a wire-and-bead sheepdog or two!

Some of these wire-and-bead sculptures are spectacular. They’re art. They could hold their own in any gallery in the world.

Zoom in. It's made of beads. I promise.

Zoom in. It’s made of beads. I promise.

But they won’t. Nobody knows these artists names. They’re just random guys sitting in the shade next to busy intersections, armed with pliers and some cheap glass beads.

They don’t see themselves as artists. They are businessmen. And so, come Valentine’s Day, you can buy a wire-and-bead rose. At Christmas; Christmas tree decorations, or, if you get caught up in the excitement, the whole tree. And last year in June, for reasons that completely elude me, you could buy Bull-terriers.

Why? And why June?

Why? And why June?

With all this commerce going on, there was an urgent need for some entertainment. This started slowly.

It started with those guys who paint themselves like statues and stand still for money. They upped the ante by doing this in busy Jo’burg traffic. They didn’t even have to be very good. People gave them money for managing to avoid the motorbikes weaving through the traffic without seeming to move their feet.

Then came the jugglers. As the robots turn red, they step out into the middle of the intersection; get four balls up into the air for half a second, and then dash off between the cars to collect donations.

They told me to go and play in traffic.

They told me to go and play in traffic.

They must have done well, because they were soon followed by those guys who keep one stick up in the air by using two others sticks. But last week things reached a climax. As I pulled up to the robots, a young man on the pavement lifted his arms in the air, took a graceful step into the road, and proceeded to do a series of flick-flacks across three lanes of traffic.

I can’t wait to see what’s next. Human cannonballs? Fire-eaters? Will there be dizzying trapeze acts on the overhanging traffic lights? One thing I do know. It’s only a matter of time before those salesmen start selling programmes. And popcorn.

Downtown Johannesburg, sometime next year.

Downtown Johannesburg, sometime next year.

42 thoughts on “2. Johannesburg traffic is a circus.

  1. Love the beaded aloe vera bush! If you want to see some amazing beaded animals from South Africa check this out:

  2. kokkieh says:

    Found this one via your link in today’s post. It’s brilliant. I wish I can see these guys this way – mostly they just frustrate me.

    But this reminds me of one of Gauteng’s urban legends: as it goes an elderly lady was stopped at a traffic light when she heard a knocking on her window. She looked up to see a man gesturing at her with a 9mm pistol – a hijacker. She waved him off, the light turned green and she drove off. When she got home she told her husband that you can now even buy firearms at the intersections. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

  3. […] saw a man performing a series of elegant flick-flacks across three lanes of busy rush-hour traffic, as one does, you might exclaim “Yoh!” And when you are relating the story to a friend later on, you might […]

  4. In Lagos they all sorts of things by the road- fruit, nuts, drinks and puppies but mostly it’s just beggars- sometimes with horrible deformities. My husband keeps money in the car to give them, even though we’re not supposed to for security reasons but it’s too hard to just turn the other way. If we go on the mainland we take an armoured car and a police escort. The traffic police here are armed and wear body armour. It can take an hour to get through an intersection at the wrong time of day. I rarely leave our “compound” (actually a very nice apartment complex with a lovely pool) as I find it so stressful. In Australia, where I am from, washing windows and the like is actually illegal and police are pretty quick to put a stop to it.

  5. beebeejaybee says:

    wow, and here We have window washers who I only see when I have no change or just washed the window myself..or the man dancing and waving on the corner while wearing a sandwich board saying honk if your happy and don’t worry be happy… wire beaded sheep would be so awesome to have in my yard

  6. umashankar says:

    Interesting to the hilt! But if you think you have described a circus, we have a jungle waiting for you out here in Mumbai!

  7. Joel says:

    Tremendous! When I consider all the times I’ve sat impatiently at traffic lights and counted the seconds while waiting for them to change, I wonder if my blood pressure would have remained lower if I was being entertained.

  8. cari365 says:

    LOL, as a fellow Jo’burger, i’m loving your post! And for any sceptics out there…every word is true 🙂 only in South Africa!! JHB anticts should help for material, for at least another 50 days LOL. great post, thanks a mil.

  9. Sounds much like the restaurants in Phuket. Ok, maybe not the full works you’ve described but the “buy my flower chain/wooden frog musical instrument toy/t-shirt/piece of crap whilst you’re eating”. Anything to keep the kids occupied when you’re eating out hey. Oh, and then there’s the “give us a fiver for a handful of manky baby bananas and feed the baby elephant/hold this strange and exotic (and probably narc’d up) animal for a photo” peddlers. Here in Oz it’s only the window washers or the “give us your spare change for our charity” people. And no traffic lights in my town either. 🙂

    • 23thorns says:

      I’m trying hard not to feel just a little bitter about some of the comments on this post. The drive to our kids’ schools has seven traffic lights. That means that even if all we do in a day is take the kids to school and fetch them, we go through 28 of the #£%&ing things. I envy you your tree change!

  10. narf77 says:

    (I am going to have to do this EVERY DAY?!!!…sigh…) Firstly, I need to make it clear that I am all for free enterprise and this form of marketing certainly has an edge over the window cleaners in the U.S. I wonder how long it is before the window cleaners in the U.S. catch on to this trend? Actually, strike that…the “drivers” in the U.S. would just drive over the top of the merchandise, obviously drivers in Africa are a much more polite and tolerant group of individuals… Sounds like the South African police had to make a fast buck for their next office party and decided to flog (HA…did you see that? did you see how clever I was there? Not bad for 3.47am eh? 😉 ) those whips to make a fast buck (I did it again! Whips…roebucks…fast…sigh…) and the result is road whips. At least you can’t say that a trip down to the shops to buy a carton of milk is boring Mr 23 Thorns!
    That’s it…”I am moving to Africa Steve!”. The christmas decorations (twitching about the whole tree…) had me but the bull terrier sold me! On the side of the road you say? Bull terriers, whips AND large spandex covered beachballs (to amuse the kids whilst you flagelate the wife…) what’s not to love about your amazing country sir!

    • 23thorns says:

      Don’t worry, it’s only for a hundred days. By the end of it you’ll be sleeping through ’til a decent hour just to avoid my posts, and you’ll thank me!
      We have the window washers already. Nasty bunch. They work a lot more like a Mafia protection racket than anything else. But every now and then you get to watch an enormous, rugby-playing farmer jump out of his bakkie (I think you guys call it a ute) and chase them off through the traffic. Things like that beat the hell out of jugglers and flick-flacks!

      • narf77 says:

        Now THAT is where one of those whips would come in handy…”that’s not a whip…THIS is a whip!” Oh for a video camera at the robots eh? Imagine the traffic you would generate with a youtube channel full of entertainment like that? In fact…guess who is going to go trawling to see if anyone has Iphoned some of these kind of events in African traffic? (Who am I kidding of COURSE they have! 😉 ). I don’t sleep… sleep is for wussies (our Aussie word for people who need to sleep…)

      • 23thorns says:

        Let me know if you find anything. Strange coincidence- “wussies” is the South African word for Australian rugby players!

      • narf77 says:

        Lucky I don’t follow Rugby Mr 23 Thorns isn’t it? They don’t happen to sell that Professors buttock rubbing cream at the robots do they?

  11. lennymaysay says:

    Trucks are the real menace on JHB roads; taxis I can deal with.

    • 23thorns says:

      I live out in Four ways,where we don’t have too many, but I’ve had to drive out to Isando a few time recently, and I think you might be right. But there’s something about sitting stuck in a rush hour traffic jam watching taxis whizz past on the pavement that damages the soul.

  12. janelily7 says:

    What memories. I lived in J’burg for 12 years before moving down to Durbs. I loved the African art. I now live in the UK and miss so much. Thanks for the memories – I feel like breaking into song…

  13. Sue says:

    What interesting “customs” you have in your country. And the inventive creations to make a buck are inspiring, although it seems like it would create chaos in traffic.

  14. cvheerden says:

    I have both the spandexcovered inflatable ball and the singing dancing toy – ours is a donkey. And my two

    • cvheerden says:

      sons bullyied me into buying them. Sorry, dont’ know why this comment was posted before it was finished. Anyway, yes this is how it is right?

      • 23thorns says:

        I nearly bought a cowboy hat the other day. The guy pushed one into my window and said I could have it for free. When I gave him twenty Rand he thanked me profusely, took back his hat, and disappeared into the traffic. This is indeed how it is.

  15. Perfect description of the Joburg traffic. I recently nearly ran over an acrobatic cyclist…the elephant would really put the icing on the cake. Loving your blog!!!

  16. Fascinating. Our worlds could hardly be more different. We only got a set of traffic lights 5 years ago. The next set of lights is about 45 miles south of our set.

    • 23thorns says:

      It sounds like paradise. We go through seven robots just to drop our kids at school. And then we do them all again on the drive back. Only one of those is one of these open air markets though.

  17. For me in my little farm life here in Kentucky, where I rarely get to venture into the “city” (4 miles away) for errands…that kind of street entertainment would be worth the gas money just for the lift in my soul. For an every day occurrence, I’m not sure I could handle all the different tactics!

    • 23thorns says:

      Save your gas money. I only had room to talk about the fun stuff. Some pretty hairy stuff happens as well. There are smash-and grab gangs, beggars with tiny babies, and various disabled people hiring themselves out to begging syndicates for a handful of coins.

  18. Marcia says:

    What an amazing concept. I can’t imagine anyone risking life and limb in our local traffic to do any of these things! First of all, they’d be arrested pretty quickly. Unless they are carrying buckets marked for donations to the local policeman’s fund, in which case, they are allowed to accost every driver at the intersection, before scurrying off when the light changes.

    The wire and bead art is incredible, btw. Love the sheep! But what, may I ask, is a flick-flack? I’m guessing acrobatic tumbling?

    I am loving your new experiment, 23. You CAN write shorter posts that are just as interesting and entertaining as your longer ones. But I’m so glad you don’t plan to give up on THOSE, either. I’m of the opinion that you can write pretty much anything you decide you want to tackle. Looking forward to tomorrow. I know I will learn. Or laugh. Or both.

    Watch out for dancing cows!

    • 23thorns says:

      Things are a little different here. There are guys selling pirated DVD’s at the traffic light next to our local police station.
      The wire and bead stuff is pretty cool. Last year they made a life-sized rhino for the save-the-rhino campaign. It was quite a thing.

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