The Lightning in Johannesburg
I grew up being told that Johannesburg was ‘the lightning capital of the world’. It was one of two facts that the adults and more statistically minded children of my acquaintance seemed to love bringing up whenever Jo’burg was mentioned. The other was that the city was ‘the largest man-made urban forest on earth’, a claim with too many qualifiers to be impressive. Children don’t really care about things like municipal tree-planting projects, or at least I didn’t. And I didn’t understand the miraculous transformation all those oaks and plane trees wrought on a new city whose location would seem perversely ill-chosen – dumped arbitrarily in the brown grass of the Highveld like something thrown absent-mindedly out of a car window on a trip to somewhere beautiful – if you didn’t know about the seams of gold running beneath everyone’s feet. The ‘urban forest’ stuff sounded too much like a competition Jo’burg had won only because nobody else bothered to enter. This business of its being the lightning capital of the world, however, was irresistible.
It figured prominently in the posters we had to make in geography lessons at primary school, and Johannesburg’s claim to the title was never disputed. We believed that people came from all over the world to study it, sitting on the terrace of the hotel that overlooks the Johannesburg Zoo, close enough to see the elephants and hear the lions, and watching as the white bolts tore up the sky during the afternoon storms in summer.
Most major cities, as William Kentridge put it in one of his 2012 Norton Lectures, have a ‘geographical raison d’être’. It’s at the mouth of a river. It’s on a harbour. It’s on a trade route. It’s close to a mountain pass. Johannesburg (where Kentridge has lived all his life) instead ‘has an entirely vertical, geological justification’: the gold mines. The city is where it is because of what’s underneath it, which you couldn’t work out just by looking: you can see the mine dumps but they’re easily mistaken for slightly disappointing hills. There are no natural landmarks, unless you count the almost daily summer lightning storms, which of course we did.
The strikes, we believed, were superior in quality as well as in quantity, pure evil electricity that could reduce an oak tree to a smouldering black stump in seconds. All lightning does this, but I grew up with the conviction that the lightning in Johannesburg did it harder and worse, electrocuting children in swimming pools more efficiently than it could in other places, and making a more frightening example of anyone who thought it was fine to walk across an open field.
None of this was true. According to a study published by the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in 2016, the official lightning capital of the world is Lake Maracaibo, an inlet of the Caribbean Sea in north-west Venezuela with mountains on three sides. Lightning storms crack the sky there three hundred nights a year, so bright they can be observed from four hundred kilometres away, which is like being able to see lightning over London from a rooftop in Amsterdam. Lake Maracaibo gets 250 ground strikes per square km per year; New York, for instance, gets about two.
The second most lightning-struck place on earth is Kabare, on the edge of Lake Kivu in the DRC, with 205 ground strikes per year. Places in the DRC take up ten of the top twenty spots on the study’s list; the rest are found mainly in Central America and Asia. Johannesburg doesn’t even make it into the top fifty. But still.
Two years ago, a woman standing on a street corner in central Johannesburg in the middle of the afternoon was struck by lightning and died at the scene, on the same day that the same thing happened to a labourer on a farm twenty minutes outside the city. Ten years before that, also on a Monday afternoon, thirteen teenagers were hospitalised after lightning struck twice: four sixteen-year-old girls while they were walking home from school in Soweto, and nine sixteen-year-old boys while they were pulling covers over a cricket pitch after a match had been rained off.
The number of annual lightning-related deaths in South Africa is fifteen times the global average – 260 people a year – and there are news stories far more gruesome than these ones, where even the blandest description of what happened sounds like something out of Revelation. Still, those are the stories I think about, especially the woman in Melville at four in the afternoon, waiting to be killed in a famously unlikely way.
It’s the quality of sheer improbability that makes the lightning capital label for Johannesburg seem accurate, even though it isn’t. I’ve never been to another city where something like that seemed even remotely plausible. It just wouldn’t happen. Something would intercede, the air would behave rationally, it might be a close thing but the elements would ultimately combine in such a way as to confirm the sense that people in busy financial capitals don’t go around getting struck and killed by lightning in the middle of a Monday afternoon. But the staticky strangeness of Johannesburg – where I once saw a driverless Jeep roll backwards down a hill and straight into someone else’s open garage door, and thought ‘Well, I suppose it makes sense that some ghosts know how to drive’ before I caught myself and remembered that I don’t believe in ghosts; where the whole place seems electrocuted for weeks at a time – makes anything seem possible.
Amitav Ghosh has described how he watched a tornado rip through Delhi in 1978, but has never put the scene in a novel because it wouldn’t be believable. One of the effects of climate change is to increase the likelihood of extreme weather events. In Johannesburg, according to the city’s climate action plan published last year (with lightning strikes in the cover photograph), that means ‘a significant increase in interannual rainfall variability, resulting in wet or extremely wet years followed by exceptionally dry years’ and ‘an increase in rainfall intensity in the summer months’ – even more thunderstorms, in other words, in this place that already doesn’t know lightning’s not meant to strike twice.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.