How Johannesburg became the New York of Africa

After years of decline, the city is on a decided upswing, returning to its roots as the cultural heart of southern Africa

Johannesburg has always had a bad case of sibling rivalry. Outshone for decades by beautiful, universally adored Cape Town, it developed a reputation for being loud, moody and dangerous – and the tourists kept well away, seeing it as little more than an airport stop-off en route to the wine farms of the Cape and the game farms of the Lowveld region. But with the bold regeneration of the once-abandoned city centre, Johannesburg is reclaiming its role as the cultural hub of southern Africa and fast attracting international artists, musicians and chefs to its skyscraper-strewn metropolis.

For the past two decades, Joburg’s more affluent residents have insulated themselves from the colourful heart of the city, basing their lives in the climate-controlled malls and leafy streets of the northern suburbs. This is because there is an undeniable grittiness to the city centre. The grand old stone buildings are covered in graffiti and the street corners teem with people from around the continent – women having their hair braided and men selling chicken sosaties and used mobile phones.

But since 2010, the topography of the city has shifted as savvier members of the younger generation, tired of California-style suburbia, have started to create the African version of big-city life in the empty office blocks, warehouses and faded ornate mining-era buildings downtown. This is no ordinary gentrification story. In recent years, areas such as Braamfontein and Maboneng have gone from being ghettoes blighted by crime to thriving districts filled with jazz clubs, pan-African art galleries, experimental theatres, Peruvian restaurants and Manhattan-style cocktail bars.

Johannesburg culture
Marc Shoul

‘What happened to Joburg was almost unprecedented. We had an inner-city area worth hundreds of millions of dollars that literally got abandoned,’ says Jonathan Liebmann, the property developer behind the hugely popular Maboneng Precinct, four blocks in the city centre crammed with museums, galleries, restaurants and live music venues. ‘But the great thing was that there was an existing infrastructure that we could re-engage with, which made it a bit like resuscitating someone after a heart attack – it was dicey but definitely doable.’

Aptly, Maboneng means ‘place of light’ in Sotho, and it stands out like a beacon amid its more dilapidated surrounding areas. Liebmann designed it as a place for creative young Joburgers to come together and work, with cheap studio spaces, edgy bars and really good coffee shops. And today it is a destination in itself. There is the gallery complex Arts on Main, cutting-edge fashion stores such as Vintage Zionist and Loin Cloth and Ashes, and the achingly hip Bioscope Independent Cinema. There’s The Blackanese Sushi and Wine Bar, which fuses African flavours with Japanese cuisine (think biltong sushi), and Lenin’s Vodka Bar, where paintings of the late Russian leader adorn the walls and fashionably dressed men and women sip on fynbos or fig martinis. The biggest draw of the week is the music-filled Sunday Market on Main, when hundreds of sleek locals descend on the area to buy food, clothes, art and furniture from pop-up stalls cluttering the pavements.

Aaron Kohn, a New Yorker who visited Johannesburg on a whim five years ago and moved there six months later, opened The Museum of African Design on the borders of Maboneng. It is a vast warehouse-like space filled with rainbow-bright sculptures and beaded furniture from around the continent. ‘Johannesburg is what New York used to be like,’ says Kohn. ‘It’s filled with cool creative people who can actually afford to follow their dreams thanks to cheap rents and lots of space. If I was still in New York I’d be working at someone else’s gallery, but here I’m curating my own museum.’

Johannesburg culture
Marc Shoul

The Wits Art Museum (WAM) is a 10-minute drive away and is another space dedicated to contemporary African art, which is fast gaining traction both internationally and at home. A striking glass structure reminiscent of Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum, WAM sits at the edge of the city’s biggest university campus in the thriving area of Braamfontein. WAM is famous for its collections of beading, South African modern art and traditional sub-equatorial African art, and it has become a popular destination for artists and students who gather in its vast glass-walled cafe decorated with beaded chandeliers and sculptures.

Braamfontein is another inner-city success story that didn’t exist in its current incarnation five years ago. Juta Street is the main artery of Braamfontein, a San Francisco-style street filled with gems such as the sleek wood-panelled coffee shop Father Coffee, men’s department store Stache and interior design boutique Dokter and Misses, which stocks everything from polished wooden love seats to canary-yellow mirrors. Anti Est, Great Dane and Kitchener’s Carvery Bar are often cited as the three best bars in Joburg, and they ensure Braamfontein hums with activity until dawn. Saturdays see the Neighbourgoods Market, a multi-level food lovers’ paradise and the edgier, louder sister to Cape Town’s more refined Biscuit Mill market. There are Mozambican prawns, Parisian crepes, English cider and Vietnamese rolls, as well as upbeat live bands that have young Joburgers clutching their craft beers and dancing on rooftops by 11am each weekend.

Johannesburg culture
Marc Shoul

Joburg has always had the most diverse theatre scene on the continent and in the past decade it has welcomed a number of new venues including The Lyric and The Alexander Theatre. The Soweto Theatre opened in Jabulani four years ago, but it is the historic Market Theatre in Newtown, which recently got a US$9 million (HK$70 million) refurbishment, that everyone is talking about thanks to a series of plays that take an unflinching look at life in post-apartheid South Africa. ‘I’ve tried living in London and Cape Town but I found I really missed the adrenaline rush that comes from being in Johannesburg,’ says Craig Higginson, a prominent playwright and a curator at Everard Read art gallery. ‘I thrive on the high-octane clash of cultures and the boundless energy you get here. Joburg is the beating heart of South Africa, and it’s impossible to understand the country without spending time in this complicated, fearless city.’   

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