It's lunchtime at the zone, an American-style shopping mall in the once whites-only Johannesburg suburb of Rosebank, and I'm sitting in a glass-walled café on the second floor checking out the mall rats. Black teenagers, cell phones to ears, are wandering marble aisles, past glittering boutiques, wearing the baggy jeans and sneakers hip-hop uniform of American kids but with African twists: brightly colored floppy hats pulled low over the eyes to make them look like township gangsters; designer T-shirts by local fashion icons Magents and Stoned Cherrie, with political slogans referencing South Africa's past struggle. DieSel, one reads, a play on the clothing label and the Afrikaans words for the cell; it has a picture of Nelson Mandela's jail cell on it.
A popular gathering point in the mall, outside the YShoppe and YFM Studio, is next to the café. YFM is the Joburg youth music radio station—set up after the deregulation, in 1997, of the formerly state-controlled airwaves—that first brought kwaito to the people. South Africa's hip-hop, a thunderous fusion of slowed-down Western dance tracks overlaid with lyrics rapped in the dozen languages that make up the expressive street slang spoken in Soweto, kwaito hit the mainstream in the townships soon after the election of Mandela in 1994. Its songs are less about race or politics than they are the confident assertion of a new young black identity. "Nee baas,"—no boss—Arthur Mafokate sang on the first major kwaito hit in 1995, "Don't call me Kaffir." Today YFM's audience is almost 2 million, Joburg's youth are known as the Y Generation, and kwaito's biggest stars and producers, once penniless township kids, are millionaires with their own TV shows, fashion labels, and record companies. How far have things come?I'm about to order when a tall black man in a Nike tracksuit cruises up the escalator in front of me and two white kids in baseball caps ask him for his autograph. It's Oscar waRona, superstar producer and big name DJ at YMF—the Dr. Dre of the scene.
It's been 10 years since I lived here, and the culture has changed so dramatically it's barely recognizable. I cut my teeth here as a reporter in the early nineties, and back then Joburg was a scary place. At the epicenter of the struggle against apartheid, I reported on escalating township violence between rival political factions; I was even shot at while covering the gun battles between warring taxi gangs in the inner city. The swearing in of Mandela was a miracle for South Africa, but it didn't make Joburg any safer. The inequalities of apartheid remained, and the city buckled under a crime wave. Business abandoned the city for the suburbs, and many whites fled for the European-style civility of Cape Town.
Which is not to say that it wasn't a manic thrill to live here. Joburg made the heart race. There was a nihilistic energy like nowhere else. We called it "the jol"—the party—and we drank as if there were no tomorrow, partly because, given the political violence and level of gun crime, there might well not be. DRIVE FASTER, LIVE LONGER read a popular bumper sticker at the time, and Joburgers lived foot-to-the-pedal fast. But there's only so much adrenaline one can take, and in 1995, I confess, I packed up and left. By the late nineties, I and everyone else in the media had written off Joburg as the murder capital of the world, the most dangerous city outside a war zone.
And that's how most Westerners still regard it today. American tourists flooding into South Africa prefer the boutique safari lodges of the veld and the pristine beaches of the Cape, where the only black people they come across are those carrying their bags or pouring the Pinot Noir. They're sadly missing out on the new South Africa. Joburg is the beating heart of African life, an energetic town where cultures from every nation collide and the old prejudices are fading fast.
South Africa's biggest city and the continent's one true metropolis, Johannesburg is an urban sprawl of more than 3 million people in a 635-square-mile area (almost twice the space that New York City's 8 million residents inhabit). The headquarters of the country's vast gold- and diamond-mining companies, industrial giants, and media conglomerates, it has been an African El Dorado since 1886, when the rock under the Highveld ridges over which it spreads turned out to be the richest reef of gold on earth. Empire builders and fortune seekers from Europe, Australia, and the United States settled here, and between 1890 and 1920, it was the fastest-growing city in the world, a Wild West on the African savanna. By the 1950's mine shafts plunged a mile down, skyscrapers reached for the clouds, and townships of urban black poor, most famously Soweto, grew up on the edges of the city, providing cheap labor for the great capitalist machine. Given this vulgar disparity of wealth and such close proximity of rich and poor, the crime wave of the last decade was perhaps inevitable.
And yet for all its perceived dangers, a remarkable thing is happening in Joburg. Whisper it, but the city is not so frightening anymore. In the past two years, the economy has boomed, and the free-market and black-empowerment policies pursued by the ANC government are producing a burgeoning black bourgeoisie. Crime is falling, too—you can feel a careful calm on the streets, thanks to a strong police presence that has helped reel in the bad guys. Whites, meanwhile, instead of fleeing, are buying apartments in the former no-go zone of the inner city. And the opposite is also happening: middle-class blacks are moving to the suburbs. As a result of this cross-cultural exchange, mixed-race relationships are common in every enclave.