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Joburg's New Spin

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.


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