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.