Where chilly winds blow, and blankets feel good . . .


July 13, 1993|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG -- As Baltimoreans desperately hope for the breath of a breeze to ease the heat, in Johannesburg, South Africans fear another cold wind arriving from the Cape.

It's winter in the Southern Hemisphere and, though the African continent is associated with the type of steamy tropical heat currently gripping much of the United States, Johannesburg is far enough away from the equator to experience the four seasons.

Still, a winter day that is considered numbingly cold is one with a temperature of about 50 degrees, no sun and a constant wind. Anything below freezing at night is worthy of extensive discussion the next day.

This city, the nation's largest, enjoys the benefits that come from its 6,000 feet in elevation -- a complete lack of humidity and a sun so strong it warms you instantly whenever it shines, which it does almost every day in winter, the dry season.

With the altitude also moderating the summer temperatures, Johannesburg has a ridiculously pleasant climate, much like Southern California. But as with so many things in this country, what nature has done right, leave it to man to mess up.

In this case, that mistake was simple, but fundamental. They don't heat the houses. Had central heat caught on, the weather here would be idyllic.

The lack of it is what makes a temperature of freezing at night such a notable event. Getting out of a warm bed in the morning can be daunting enough; approaching the toilet seat that still holds the night's chill is positively terrifying.

Ask people why the houses aren't heated, and you get a blank stare in return. They don't heat the houses because, well, because they don't heat the houses. Never have. Never will. That's the way it's done. And, for the most part, South Africans have been taught not to question the way things are done.

Some houses do have electric elements running under the floors, but that's considered a terribly expensive luxury, even in luxurious neighborhoods.

With the blazing wintry sun, you would think that solar heating would be immensely popular. The simplest passive system could keep a house warm all winter and heat the ubiquitous, backyard swimming pools all summer.

But precious few of the black panels sprout above the walls that surround these suburban houses. Even new construction doesn't include solar heat. Whatever the temperature outside, the attitude seems to be that this is Africa -- we can't need heat. Then again, the ability to deny reality is another well-developed South African trait.

Without central heat, methods for keeping warm in the winter, as with so many things in this country, divide along racial lines. In white neighborhoods, families huddle around oil-filled, plug-in electric radiators imported from Italy. In black neighborhoods, various forms of coal-fired stoves are used, covering the townships in a blanket of acrid smoke on the morning after a chilly night.

For the past few days, Johannesburg has been enjoying a spring-like respite from winter, daytime temperatures in the 70s, nighttime lows keeping in the 40s.

But residents fear the news from Cape Town, the picturesque port perched above the Cape of Good Hope.

In the winter, Cape Town is South Africa's equivalent of the United States' Northwest Coast -- it gets the weather first,

absorbing lots of rain in the process. For the past few days, it has been rocked by serious storms, sending ships out to sea to ride out the strong winds.

Pushing the cold fronts that cause these storms are not Arctic air masses, but Antarctic air masses. In the hemispherical mirror image of the United States, the weather comes from the southwest -- thus hitting Cape Town first, and sweeps north and east across the rest of the country.

The television weathermen -- who have a serious demeanor but at least try to smile, unlike their stiff-upper-lip news colleagues on the English language broadcasts, who deliver each story as if they know it's going to leave a bad taste in their mouth -- have been standing in front of their satellite images and warning the country that several more cold fronts lie behind the one troubling Cape Town's harbor.

This leaves Johannesburg bracing for more chilly nights in the 30s and windy days in the 50s. Eat your heart out, Baltimore.

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