Joburg's New Spin
Published: April 2009
By Douglas Rogers
Ten years after apartheid released its choke hold on South Africa, a new
generation is breathing life into the country's largest city. The economy is booming, crime is falling, and now Johannesburg—not Cape Town—is South Africa's promised land.
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.
Of all the transformations, though, it's the emergence of a vibrant black youth culture, inspired by kwaito, that I find most astonishing. From ghetto-fabulous music videos to glossy magazines and cutting-edge fashion shows, there's a creative energy in Joburg today that is as dynamic as anything in London or New York—but entirely homegrown. "This is the renaissance," says Ephraim Molingoana, 33, one of the country's rising fashion designers. "Once we used to look to America and Europe for our influences, but now we're coming up with original African arts. Now this is the most exciting city in the world!"
I talk to Ephraim over caffè lattes at Primi Piatti, a Rosebank café with a sassy black waitstaff, where he bounded in wearing a Louis Vuitton cap, Romeo Gigli shades, a skintight suede jacket, and flared patchwork jeans based on the hand-embroidered clothes of Zulu mine workers. Born in Soweto but raised in rural South Africa, Ephraim returned to Johannesburg in the late eighties and was snapped up to be the Face of Africa model for Diesel jeans. He traveled the world, his image appearing on billboards from Paris to Tokyo, but back home he could never find the streetwise African clothes he wanted to wear. So he started designing them himself. "I like this funky cross-pollination of African and Western styles," he says. "Armani suits with cheap white sneakers; African-patterned denims with shoes by township cobblers. This is the mix of tradition and modernity we see all over Joburg."
Through his label, Ephymol, he tailors handmade suits for South African soap opera actors and kwaito stars. He headlined a show at July's South African Fashion Week, which featured 45 local designers and attracted buyers and journalists from London and Paris. He takes me on a tour of the Zone's boutiques. First up is Stoned Cherrie, a design collective that references the retro, jazz-inflected street style of Sophiatown, the demimonde Joburg township demolished by apartheid police in 1955. Next we go downstairs to Sun Godd'ess, which offers women a more traditional African queen look: earth-toned dresses made from ethnic fabrics and cut to the African woman's shape of small waist and large hips. Hottest of all is the Space, a boutique stocked entirely with pieces by young designers, their witty names reflecting African empowerment: Craig Native, Darkie. Native recently made an entire wardrobe for Lenny Kravitz; Darkie, Themba Mngomezulu, recycles vintage and African fabrics into punky street wear. His label turns an old white insult for blacks on its head, much as kwaito star Arthur Mafokate reclaimed the word kaffir.
For all the glitz of the suburban malls, though, Ephraim finds inspiration in traditional Africa; and this being Joburg, we do not have to go far to find it. We speed off in his red Mazda sports car southeast over the ridge to Yeoville, the same high-rise suburbwhere I lived in the early nineties. Back then, Yeoville was one of the few mixed-race areas in Joburg; today it's home to the new migrants: Congolese, Ethiopian, Nigerian, and Zimbabwean émigrés who in the past decade have relocated to the city seeking freedom and fortune, just as the white gold rush pioneers did a century ago. We are only a few miles from Rosebank Mall and its label-obsessed crowd, but in Yeoville, check out the colorful suits, tribal headdresses, and kente cloth robes worn in the cafés: we could be in any of a dozen African capitals.
A more extreme culture shock is our next stop: Mai Mai, a traditional Zulu market in a recently rebuilt mine workers' hostel on the grim eastern edge of the inner city; this is where Ephraim comes to get the Zulu pata-pata sandals that will be worn at a viewing of his latest collection. If that sounds bizarre, there can be few more surreal snapshots than this: the Zulu cobbler who makes them works next to a traditional healer dispensing baboon skulls and snakeskins, while above us a neon sign flashes ads for cell phones. "I grew up in rural South Africa, so these traditions are part of my culture, too," says Ephraim as we head back to his car. In an instant I recognize that he is the typical New Joburger: someone as at home in rural Africa as he is in a first-world mall.
My old playground was Melville, a pretty tree-lined suburb of rambling tin-roofed Victorian houses just west of the inner city. These days it's called Little Hollywood and is home to many of the city's filmmakers and actors, so I decide to revisit my favorite haunts. Seventh Street, once a slightly seedy strip of bars, now has a refined stylishness to it. Coffee shops, retro-clothing stores, and vegetarian delis have sprung up and the gorgeously groomed blondes dining at pavement tables with their black work friends in designer labels remind me more of Los Angeles than Africa. "We are living for our lives, not running for our lives," says Ananais Roberts, a biracial sculptor I meet at Six Restaurant & Cocktail Bar, a hip, art-filled lounge opened last March by two South African-Indian entrepreneurs who would not look out of place in New York's SoHo. Greenside, just to the north, was a bland white suburb when I lived here. It's suddenly become the city's foodie district—all sushi bars and minimalist eateries, chefs in toques creating plates of braised ostrich and kingklip (eel) on arugula.
The Joburgers I meet are still up for the jol. I end the night at Color Bar, an industrial-style nightclub near Melville where most of the barmen are white, half the customers are black, and interracial couples are the norm. No one notices except me. Color Bar is color-blind. I can appreciate the beauty of the suburbs more now than I did when I lived in one of them. Six million trees, more than in any other city on earth, have been planted in Johannesburg since the Boers settled these plains two centuries ago. Most are in the northern suburbs, and the best view of this sprawling green forest of jacaranda, oak, and pine is from the pool deck at the Westcliff Hotel, an icing-pink set of villas built into the cliffs above the Johannesburg Zoo. I'm certain this is the only city where you can sip a martini by a swimming pool and listen to lions roar.
Joburg darling Charlize Theron stayed at the Westcliff on her recent post-Oscar-winning homecoming. After a drink there, I head to a sultry Parisian-style lounge called La Suite, a few miles east of the bohemian suburb of Norwood, to meet a polyglot mix of New Joburgers and discuss the city's fresh dynamism. For black filmmaker and historian Palesa Letlaka-Nkosi, who trained under Spike Lee while in New York in the mid eighties, the candor of Joburgers on the topic of race is refreshing. "It's the most integrated South African city, yet people talk freely about where they come from, their culture, their history," she says.
Her friend Jenny Andrew, the white contributing fashion editor at YMag—the popular street-culture magazine, owned by YFM radio—believes that South African President Thabo Mbeki's vision of an African renaissance is actually happening, on a smaller scale, in Joburg. "You can feel the energy," she says. "Only in Joburg could I shoot a fashion story for our 10 Years of Democracy issue, which presents South Africa's 11 official language groups, in a prison where an icon of the 20th century was incarcerated—and have the image come across as a symbol of reconciliation!"
For all its remarkable progress, Joburg continues to face enormous problems. Migrants from rural South Africa and the rest of the continent stream into it all the time, setting up shantytowns on the outskirts of the city. There might be a growing black middle class but it isn't accessible to these people. While crime is declining, Johannesburg can still be a dangerous place. The week I flew into town, a member of the Irish touring company of Lord of the Dance was shot dead while walking back to his hotel after dark in Braamfontein, on the edge of the inner city. And the AIDS epidemic, which threatens to wipe out an entire generation of South Africans, is always in the news.
Where Johannesburg is fortunate is that its artists, brought up in tumultuous political times, have a powerful sense of social responsibility. Unlike their American hip-hop counterparts, kwaito stars do not glamorize violence, thug life, or the abuse of women. They come from ghettos more dangerous than South Central, yet they sing about banning guns and respecting women. One kwaito megastar, Zola, fronts his own television series, Zola 7, in which he uses his influence to improve people's lives; on one episode, for example, he takes an overworked AIDS counselor on a holiday. Designers like Ephraim, meanwhile, not only source local materials, he and fellow fashion gurus such as white Afrikaner Black Coffee have even relocated their studios to the old blighted garment district downtown, slowly rejuvenating what is now being called the Fashion District.
I want to see this regeneration for myself, and the day after meeting Ephraim, I drive there on my own, cruising over a gleaming symbol of urban renewal: the Nelson Mandela Bridge, opened last year. The journey downtown used to make me nervous—the bridge spans the very railroad tracks where I took cover during that taxi-war gun battle in 1992. Now I feel none of the old jumpiness. I even feel safe enough to park my car on a street just over the bridge, crowded with market stalls and blaring township taxis, and to walk around.
I wander to Newtown, the arts district. For years the famous Market Theatre and Kippies jazz bar were all there was to visit down here. Today it's a thriving cultural precinct, once-derelict red-brick Victorian warehouses and factories turned into science museums, nightclubs, a crafts center, and cafés. The Market Theatre did poor business during the urban blight of the nineties, but it now attracts stage fans from the suburbs and theatergoers from the townships and has an upscale Pan-African restaurant, Moyo, in its foyer, charging resolutely first-world prices for its couscous and cocktails.
I walk east, down grid-blocked streets to the crowded, grittier part of town untouched by gentrification, yet I feel safe here, too. The concrete canyons are reminders of Johannesburg's Golden Age, the 1930's, when South African architects visited the great Art Deco buildings of America and came back to create mini-replicas. Astor Mansions on Jeppe Streeteven has twin plaster spires modeled on the Chrysler Building. These piles are in terrible disrepair, but international restoration groups and local urban planners hope to designate them architectural landmarks and fix the façades. I walk down Commissioner Street, once the Park Avenue of Joburg, where outside the beautiful 1904 Edwardian Cornerhouse building, former headquarters of the monied white mining magnates, I am stunned to see a doorman in top hat, tails, and white gloves, looking like a transplant from Manhattan. He tells me that the Cornerhouse is home to the offices of Urban Ocean, a group of young developers who have bought nine buildings downtown and are turning them into loft apartments. The Cornerhouse will become the inner city's first boutique hotel, set to open well in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The biggest soccer event on earth is coming to South Africa and the finals will be in Johannesburg, further evidence of the city's arrival.
By now, I am filled with such enthusiasm for Joburg that it comes as quite a shock when I return to where I parked my car and discover it has disappeared. Gone! Stolen! My heart sinks, I feel crushed, and I curse myself for not being more careful, for trusting Joburg too soon, for not parking in a secured space in Newtown. Then a young black kid in a red floppy hat and T-shirt runs up to me. "Hey, sorry my brother," he says. "The police towed your car away. This is a no-parking zone." Police?Towing cars in the inner city?The law is back in Joburg and the City of Gold is gleaming again.
WHERE TO STAY
DOUBLES FROM $342
67 JAN SMUTS AVE., WESTCLIFF; 27-11/646-2400; www.westcliffhotel.orient-express.com
Ten Bompas Hotel
A suburban boutique hotel set in lush gardens close to Rosebank, with each of its 10 rooms styled by different local designers.
DOUBLES FROM $361
10 BOMPAS RD., DUNKELD WEST; 27-11/325-2442; www.tenbompas.com
Melrose Arch Hotel
Joburg's first design hotel, complete with a bar out back that has tables set in a shallow swimming pool.
DOUBLES FROM $290
1 MELROSE SQUARE, MELROSE ARCH; 27-11/214-6666; www.africanpridehotels.com
A Room with a View and a Hundred Angels
A stunning Tuscan-style B&B serving enormous breakfasts in a Provençal dining room. It's just a short walk from the hot spots of Melville.
DOUBLES FROM $107
1 TOLIP ST., MELVILLE; 27-11/482-5435
WHERE TO EAT
Next to Moyo in the Market Theatre; you'll find Cape Malay and North African dishes plus bizarre delicacies such as mopani worms and crocodile steak.
DINNER FOR TWO $37
MARKET THEATRE, BREE AND WOLHUTER STS., NEWTOWN; 27-11/838-6960
An industrial-style hipster hangout in the Zone, where a staff clad in orange jumpsuits serve Italian bistro-style bites.
DINNER FOR TWO $12
SHOP FF20A, THE ZONE, OXFORD RD., ROSEBANK; 27-11/447-0300
The Singing Fig
Meticulous French Provençal and New World cuisine. Try roast chicken breast encased in ostrich carpaccio, paired with award-winning South African estate wines.
DINNER FOR TWO $45
44 THE AVENUE, NORWOOD; 27-11/728-2434
Celebrity chef Dario De Angeli crafts exquisite specialties such as sushi of foie gras and roast duck on brandied dried fruits.
DINNER FOR TWO $48
26 GLENEAGLES RD., GREENSIDE 27-11/486-1645
Joburg's hottest club, in a former warehouse in Newtown, is packed with a stylish multi-racial crowd dancing to kwaito, house, and European beats.
OPEN ONLY EVENT NIGHTS
39 PIM ST., NEWTOWN; 27-11/834-9187
44 STANLEY AVE., MILPARK; 27-11/482-2038
Six Restaurant & Cocktail Bar
SEVENTH ST. BETWEEN SECOND AND THIRD AVES., MELVILLE; 27-11/482-8306; www.six.co.za
Inventive cocktails and French dishes are served in this plush restaurant-lounge owned by a South African, a Cameroonian, and a Côte d'Ivoire émigré.
53 A & B GRANT AVE., NORWOOD; 27-11/728-9262
Capital Music Café
Rosebank's newest velvet-rope club, popular with the kwaito and fashion crowd.
TYRWHITT AND KEYES AVES., ROSEBANK; 27-11/880-0033
WHERE TO SHOP
Bargain-priced vintage clothing and jewelry in the suburb of Melville.
SHOP 1C, SEVENTH ST., MELVILLE; 27-11/726-7905
The Zone @ Rosebank
177 OXFORD RD., ROSEBANK; 27-11/788-1130; www.thezoneatrosebank.co.za
Amatuli Fine Art
of sub-Saharan art, crafts, and artifacts sourced from Mali
to Ethiopia by inveterate Africa traveler Mark Valentine.
170 CORLETT DR., BRAMLEY; 27-11/440-5065