We explore the contrasting and co-existing facets of the great African metropolis… Johannesburg
JOBURG a sophisticated, stylish, glass-steel-and-concrete international city
JOZI a trendingly cool, vibrant, unique, progressive blend of Afro-chic re-imagined creativity
Johannesburg, quite simply, is a publicist’s nightmare – in world city terms, she’s a split-personality barely legal teenager that defiantly defies easy definition. And therein lies her appeal. Even her taglines – official and unofficial – don’t make sense.
“A World-Class African City”…
So, who are these millions of Portuguese, Greeks, Italians, eastern Europeans, Chinese, Lebanese and Indians pulsing through her seemingly endless freeway system?
“The New York of Africa”… So, why does she look like Los Angeles, sprawling across the African veld as far as the eye can see? The 269m Hillbrow Tower is the city’s official icon, appearing on all council communications, but has been closed to the public since 1981 – look, but don’t touch.
Never known for her looks, Johannesburg has to rely on her personality. Or, rather, her multiple personalities. In the beauty pageants of world cities, Johannesburg consistently nabs the Miss Understood award, year after year. She always wins the talent competition in the all-African finals. She can roller derby, give you a tattoo, put together a gallery show, party all night, broker a multinational deal, strut the catwalk and throw a ball with the best of them. But don’t be fooled. She’ll wink at you, have a drink with you and whisper in your ear, but she’ll never marry you – as she’s already promised herself to the entire world.
Most international visitors set up base-camp in Joburg’s gilded northern suburbs that splash the cash and push the “dash” in Kardashian. Expect shiny shopping malls bursting with international brands, mid-life crisis support groups, air-kiss art events, temples of self-indulgence, super-car showrooms and soaring glass skyscrapers surrounded by upwardly mobile cranes. In short, if you’re a suburbanite, you can expect a flashy sense of home (albeit often surrounded by state-of-the-art security). Sandton, Rosebank and Melrose Arch are the main work-play pulse-points, home to both big-brand and boutique-stay hotels.
To balance the soul-numbing glass and gloss, the northern suburbs feature dozens of village-like suburbs centred on high-streets, each with a different feel – there’s Parkhurst’s Fourth Avenue for wining and dining, Kramerville for design and décor, Melville’s Seventh Street for drinks and bohemian rhapsody, Parkwood for galleries and bars, Parkview’s Tyrone Avenue for academics and media workers, Glenhazels’ side streets for Jewish nosh; and Fordsburg for authentic curries and shopping bargains.
Johannesburg has always positioned itself as the economic capital of Africa – with its often-bruised colonial eyes historically laser-focused on the fashion and architectural trends and financial activities of London and New York. Since the transition to democracy in 1994, the city has looked inwards for inspiration and has since reinvented itself as the sub-continent’s de facto shopping and medical hub, giving birth to veritable fly-and-buy industries. Without the benefit of mountains, an ocean or big game, post-colonial Johannesburg has become the African continent’s top destination, with some 4,6 million overnight visitors spending an estimated $2,5-billion a year. International expats have regular long-weekend jaunts to Joburg built into their contracts. Africa’s growing globetrotting class is well aware that European luxury brands are more expensive in Joburg than Europe, but that its food and accommodation options are decidedly cheaper, and often of better quality, than those offered by European capitals. Of course, for many pan-African shoppers, Joburg tends to be closer (and, respectfully, it’s not as if one can pop into Louis Vuitton, Gucci or Cartier – let alone Starbucks, Krispy Kreme or Burger King – in Harare, Nairobi or Lagos).
Symbolic of the city’s attention deficit disorder, Joburg’s city centre has been rebuilt four times since the city’s founding. With the discovery of gold in 1886 (some 40% of the world’s gold lies beneath Johannesburg), its first incarnation was a slapped-together mix of shacks and tents, which soon gave way to British Empire-inspired public buildings, banks and homes. Jozi’s next party trick was an Art Deco-meets-Brasilia look between the 1930s and 1950s, before embracing her inner American with 1970s-era skyscrapers.
Says Gerald Garner, founder of Joburg Places, “Joburg is a city of migrants, Pan-African and from all over the world. It’s a melting pot of people and cultures and it’s this African diversity that provides the unique identity.” His tourism company specialises in telling the city’s stories through its people, “Anyone from anywhere in the world can feel welcome in Joburg as there’s a story here that will somehow relate to them.”
Nozizwe Jele, Joburg-based author (Happiness Is a Four-Letter Word, which was made into a hit film in 2016; The Ones With Purpose), agrees, “Joburg is full of stories, it’s absolutely bursting with them. You’ll always find me staring at people in their cars, creating stories about my fellow commuters. In that sense, it’s an endlessly inspiring city.”
This tangible dynamism is coming to life in scores of bricks-and-mortar urban renewal projects that are popping up throughout the city centre, from the Victoria Yards and Maboneng precincts in the east to the financial and mining district and Braamfontein student precinct in the west. Brian Green, lead developer and co-owner of the recently opened Victoria Yards precinct says, “Joburg is definitely moving toward a place that’s starting to sing. There’s a real surge of passion throughout the city, and we’re starting to see its many pockets of excellence beginning to merge. I would like to think that in three or four years Joburg will be a place that tourists will actively visit instead of inadvertently transiting through.”
A new generation of creative energy is making waves throughout the city. Says Bradley Kirshenbaum, founder and designer of the LoveJozi brand, “Hanging out in areas like Maboneng and Braamfontein really gives visitors an idea of the city’s new energy.” But, as a designer, he’s spent a decade helping define Jozi, the undefinable, “We design and manufacture ‘global-looking’ objects, but they’re ‘African’ because they’re creatively birthed and born here. We sell gifts that diligently live up to our ‘Made in Jozi’ brand promise. Nothing we sell is mass-produced or imported. People want something unique that they can relate to, and that will remind them of their visit, and that’s what we aim to do.”
Creative activist and glam-girl-around-town Pilani Bubu says it’s a good place to make great work, “Everything I do is centred around creative, conscious and collective/collaborative projects. Joburg has become a Pan-African city and has the same values and energy that Africans hold dear for ingenuity, hustle, a drive for change and always searching for a better life.” Her business, Bupila, lives up to the new-generation Jozi hustle: its media arm produces and publishes Bubu’s music, writing, poetic and social education content while its lifestyle division curates concepts across design and decor, art, comedy and music disciplines.
Bradley Williams and Kenny Nzama have just opened The Artivist, an eat-drink-gallery space in Reserve Street, Braamfontein, which promotes and celebrates this new-found creative spirit. “We see ourselves as a communal hub for Pan-African creatives,” says Bradley, “where anyone from the continent and diaspora can come to connect with like-minded folks in Joburg, bringing the two degrees of digital separation into a physical realm. We want locals to connect with tastemakers and innovators from across the world, and vice versa, over a drink and a meal to share their visions.”
Katleho Tsoku, chief business officer for Amazi Nail & Beauty spa, which has also just opened in Reserve Street, says, “Joburg gives you the best of both worlds. You can literally morph from starting your day with a Mimosa breakfast at one of the city’s top hotels to bungee jumping in Soweto while sipping on local beer and ending your day with sunset salsa dancing on a rooftop in Maboneng, while having margaritas.”
It’s taken 130 years, but it seems the world is beginning to discover what Johannesburg always knew about herself, but never shared – that Joburg’s real gold reserves are held in the hearts and minds of its Babelistic people, a mindboggling mix of races, languages, cultures and religions that’s unique on the African continent.
Claim your stake now.
Population 4,4-million (city); 10,5-million (metro)
When to visit Spring, summer and autumn are best if you’re exploring the city. Winter is the best time if you’re also travelling to the bush to view game.
Climate It’s a fresh climate, expect hot summer days followed by cool nights.
Health The city is well-equipped with specialist medical personnel and state-of-the-art facilities, with a large and growing medical-tourism industry. It is safe to drink the tap water.
Safety As in any large city, put on your big-city game face. But no, you don’t need help with the ATM; no, you do not need a private tour. Be aware (but not paranoid) of hustlers and swindlers. Keep your valuables out of sight.
Food Enjoy thousands of dining options, from Argentinian to Zimbawean cuisine. For suburban street-side café-style dining, head to Parkhurst or Melville; for urban street-sass, check out the grittier Maboneng or Braamfontein districts. Eat Out(print and online) is a great go-to source for listings.