Why Johannesburg Is Becoming Africa's Hippest City
Adriaan Louw
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Why Johannesburg Is Becoming Africa's Hippest City

Within a converted warehouse in what used to be one of the most dangerous parts of Johannesburg, you can eat gelato made by an Italian who had the machines shipped over from his family's store in Rome. You can taste golden fish from Mozambique cooked in the Congolese style, with rice and plantains, sample corn cakes with four kinds of sauce made by a Zulu bohemian who describes his style of dress as "funky Amish," or try ginger roti made by Rastafarians who, when you ask where they hail from, will tell you they are citizens of the "celestial paradise of the fifth dimension."

Nearby, on a rooftop, you can dance to salsa music. On the street below, you can watch a drunken Frenchman wave his hands like a rhythmically challenged conductor while musicians play marimbas made from wooden pallets. Around the block, as techno from Zimbabwe rattles the speakers of a car parked nearby, you can meet a jeweler from one of the townships who used to get the brass for his rings by melting down discarded kerosene stoves, but now makes pieces out of silver and gold for the affluent shoppers who roam the neighborhood.

That's how it always is on Sundays at Market on Main, in Maboneng, a neighborhood I'm pretty sure is unlike any other in Africa — or the world. Some people may tell you it's like New York City's Williamsburg or Los Feliz in L.A., but in comparison with Maboneng, the forces of change in those places move at the pace of continental plates. Ten years ago, Maboneng didn't exist. I don't mean it wasn't yet trendy. I mean the name hadn't been invented. If you had walked through the area then — and you would not have walked through the area then — you likely would have seen abandoned warehouses that had been "hijacked" by criminals who extorted punishing rents from people living without running water or electricity, five to a room. Almost everyone with money lived and worked out in the suburbs, behind steel barricades and electric fences.

Most tourists to Johannesburg would stay in the suburbs, too. They rarely saw much of the city, except what they happened to glimpse through the windows of the car taking them between their hotel and the airport, which connects the wonders of southern Africa to the rest of the world. Until recently, people didn't come to Johannesburg to visit Johannesburg. They came on their way to the dunes of the Namib, or Botswana's Okavango Delta, or the wine country outside Cape Town. The goal was to get in and out of the city as fast as possible.

Today, skipping the city would be a mistake. Johannesburg is as dynamic and exciting as any place I've been. Apartheid scarred South Africa and cut it off from most of the rest of the world, and corruption and crime do still plague the country. But although South Africa faces serious problems — and its president, Jacob Zuma, is a highly controversial figure — it has become relatively stable, with the continent's largest economy. In certain neighborhoods of Johannesburg today, you can glimpse the possibility of a diverse, peaceful, and creative future. My tour guide couldn't believe how quickly the city was changing. "None of this was here a month ago," he'd say, taking me down a block lined with murals. Then we'd turn a few corners and he'd grin and say, "If you were on this street six months ago, you would have been running."

That is how fast the fires of development are spreading in Johannesburg. One day, a block is Beirut circa 1982. The next, it's TriBeCa 2003.

One of the latest additions to Maboneng is a high-end hotel. I had the good fortune to spend five nights there. Called the Hallmark House, it is 16 stories of coal-black paint and slashing steel beams designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye, who has an apartment in the building. It opened in January. I arrived in July. When I told people — Joburgers — that I was staying in a luxury hotel on Sivewright Avenue between Error and Charles, it blew their minds. They found it unfathomable that someone had opened an upscale hotel on that street.

It was in the Hallmark's gleaming lobby that I met Gerald Garner, who gave me an introduction to the city's dark and fascinating history. Like so many of the people I encountered in Joburg, Garner was a man of many hustles: tour guide, author of two local guidebooks, owner of a tapas bar in a former garage. Together, we set out through Maboneng on foot. The walls passed in a colorful blur of street art. I saw a surreal dreamscape involving a giant diamond balanced on top of a human skull, a towering replica of a famous black-and-white photograph of Nelson Mandela, and a menagerie of African animals — zebras, crocodiles, elephants, rhinos. There was also a roaring tiger, which has nothing to do with Africa but looked fantastic.

Hallmark House in Johannesburg; Nelson Mandela mural in Maboneng district
From left: The bar at Hallmark House; a mural depicting Nelson Mandela in Maboneng. Adriaan Louw

Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa. The nearly 8 million residents in its greater metropolitan area include many immigrants and people of European or Asian ancestry, but most of the population is black. For this reason, people often say that Joburg is a "real African city," as distinct from "European" Cape Town, where a greater percentage of the population is white.

After walking a few more blocks, Garner and I boarded a bus headed for the downtown business district, where a handful of new restaurants and residential developments are attracting members of South Africa's growing middle class. As we got off the bus, Garner explained how the city became notorious for crime and poverty — "Detroit times ten," as he helpfully framed it for my American ears.

In Joburg, as in so many cities with industrial pasts, the downtown core is surrounded by rusted-out factory neighborhoods, which in turn are ringed by wealthy suburbs. In the days of apartheid, Garner explained, laws were passed to keep black people out of the inner city, forcing them to live on the outskirts in squalid, crowded settlements called townships. In the 1950s, the apartheid government passed a law stating that no business in Johannesburg could employ more than six black workers. Outside the city, however, the white captains of industry could avail themselves of as much cheap black labor as they pleased. "And so the factories left Johannesburg," Garner said. "The buildings emptied out. Maboneng is a prime example of a place where that happened."

A visitor could spend days touring places associated with the battle against apartheid, beginning with the superb Apartheid Museum. There's also Constitution Hill, the old fort where political prisoners were held, which now houses the country's Constitutional Court and a gallery displaying works by contemporary South African artists. And Nelson Mandela's old law office inside Chancellor House, the former headquarters of the African National Congress. And Soweto, the largest township in South Africa, which gained international attention in 1976 when police opened fire on a crowd of protesting schoolchildren, killing several and sparking a riot in which hundreds died.

In Johannesburg, you can glimpse the possibility of a diverse, peaceful, and creative future.

There's a duality to life in South Africa right now that makes it an interesting place to get into conversations with strangers. As I wandered around Johannesburg, I kept thinking of something Garner had said: "In some ways we are a traumatized society. But there is a new generation that is trying to reinvent society, and they want to talk about it."

Jonathan Freemantle, a Cape Town–born painter who came to Johannesburg to make art, is someone who wants to talk about it. "In a way, northern Europe is running out of ideas. It's looking backward," he said. "This place is too young for that. There's a creative revival happening that gives the area a profoundly exciting edge." Three years ago, Freemantle was walking past the defunct Cosmopolitan Hotel, a Victorian building in Maboneng with peeling columns and bricked-up windows, when he realized it could be a great place to have a gallery. Luckily, he had a friend with access to large amounts of capital. So they bought the building, renovated it, and invited their favorite local artists to hang their work on the walls. Then they asked some of those artists to move their studios into the former guest rooms. They reopened the hotel bar and planted the garden with hydrangeas and roses. The old building, Freemantle told me when I visited, "was like a dowager who was here in the gold rush, and all her snooty friends got scared and fled for the suburbs, and she stayed in her chair with her Versace dress and her G&T. I said, ‘Let's pour her a fresh drink and find some young chaps to flirt with her.' We wanted to make this a place where the genteel would mix with the reprobates and artists."

Across the street from the Cosmopolitan, I came across a tiny store named Afrosynth Records. I spent two hours there, hoping to find some of the gorgeous marabi jazz that was one of several South African styles Paul Simon borrowed from on his 1986 album Graceland. The owner, DJ Okapi, steered me toward a section devoted to another genre: bubblegum, a kind of synth-happy South African disco that emerged in the 1980s.

Most of the labels that produced bubblegum shut down long ago, and South Africa's isolation under apartheid was one of the reasons the records never reached the rest of the world. As a result, they're very rare, and a kind of cult has grown up around them. As I was leaving the store, a kid with shaggy blond hair caught sight of one of the records I'd pulled off the shelf and asked — begged — me to give it to him. When I said yes, he clasped his hands together and gave me a little bow.

People say Johannesburg owes its existence to an accident. As the story goes, 130 years ago an English prospector was walking through a barren field in the middle of nowhere when he stubbed his toe. Looking down, he saw he'd stumbled onto a kind of rock that is often found near gold deposits. Within a few years, a city had sprung up on the veld — a bustling frontier town of Brits and Australians and failed California 49ers chasing one last chance to make a fortune. Over time, the city reinvented itself again and again, growing first into the biggest and most prosperous city in Africa, then getting razed and rebuilt and surgically segregated by the architects of apartheid, then falling into violent disarray as apartheid collapsed and businesses fled. But it somehow remained a prospector's town — a beacon for people from southern Africa and beyond, who came in hopes of realizing their dreams of a better life.

Cosmopolitan Hotel, Market on Main, and Dig Inn chefs in Johannesburg, South Africa
From left: Public art at the Cosmopolitan, a former hotel that now houses restaurants, artists’ studios, and a gallery; Market on Main, the Sunday food event at Arts on Main, a studio and retail development that helped put Maboneng on the map; chefs Mandla and Viva at Dig Inn, a food stall at Market on Main. Adriaan Louw

One of those people was the barista who poured me a cup of Ethiopian Kana through a complicated glass contraption at Craft Coffee in Newtown, a neighborhood not far from Maboneng that is beginning to become the kind of place where baristas pour Ethiopian Kana through complicated glass contraptions. He told me his name was Lovejoy — that's it, just Lovejoy — and when I asked how he became a barista, he paused and said, "It's quite an interesting story."

In 2009, the economy in his native Zimbabwe got so bad that the government stopped printing money. So he hitchhiked to Cape Town, a three-night journey, and got a job sweeping floors at a high-end roastery called Origin Coffee. "After some time I got an opportunity to stand behind the bar pouring coffee, and that was the biggest break I could ever have," he said. A year later, he entered his first barista competition. Two years after that, he was crowned the all-Africa champion. When Craft opened in Johannesburg, the owners tapped him to manage the shop. I asked if he could tell me something about the coffee I was drinking. He said, "You get a lot of dried fig, citrus fruit. They dry the coffee with the skin on, so you get all those good sugars."

Over those first few days, as I ate marjoram-cured lamb-rib kushiyaki at Urbanologi, a restaurant in what used to be a warehouse for mining equipment, or listened to that effervescent marabi music in the jazz club in the basement of Hallmark House, I kept hearing about a developer named Jonathan Liebmann. People said he had single-handedly willed Maboneng into existence. Articles described him as a "visionary." The more I heard and read, the more curious I became. He seemed to loom over the neighborhood like a colossus.

One day, as I was leaving the hotel, I spotted a guy in his mid 30s waiting for the elevator. He had on the international cool-guy uniform of tight black jeans and leather jacket, and his hair was tied back in a ponytail. It took me a moment to realize I'd seen his picture in some of the articles I'd been reading about Maboneng. "Liebmann?" I called out. I went over and introduced myself, and he invited me to come up with him to the Hallmark's unfinished two-level penthouse, which a team of workers was racing to complete for him and his pregnant wife before the baby arrived.

Liebmann is the founder of Propertuity, the company responsible for the development of almost every building in Maboneng. Ten years ago, when he was only 24, he bought a sooty brick warehouse at the heart of the area and turned it into Arts on Main, a mix of restaurants, galleries, artists' workshops, and retail spaces. He convinced South African art star William Kentridge to move his private studio into the building, a major coup. Rather than depend on the city's notoriously unreliable police department, he hired his own small army of security guards to keep watch over the streets.

Backed by a silent partner, Liebmann then developed Main Street Life, a building with 178 apartments, a small hotel, and a cinema that specializes in South African independent films. Next came Main Change, which has a co-working space for start-ups and freelancers, a rooftop bar, and a popular Asian-fusion restaurant called the Blackanese. Altogether, Propertuity has developed 30 buildings in the Maboneng neighborhood.

If you met Liebmann, you might observe that he suffers from neither an overabundance of modesty nor a lack of ambition. When I asked about his plans for Maboneng, he said, "I created this neighborhood. It's become so inextricably linked to my identity that I can't imagine ever stopping."

I doubt that Joburg ever looks more deserving of its reputation as a city of opportunity than it does from the penthouse of a Propertuity high-rise. Of course, not all Joburgers see the city this way. At a backyard barbecue I met Anaz Mia, one of the founders of a printmaking collective whose work calls attention to issues of racial and economic injustice, and his wife, a constitutional lawyer named Alex Fitzgerald. The three of us hit it off and quickly got into a conversation about gentrification. Mia spent a good hour laying out a detailed critique of the changes afoot in Joburg. "And yet," he said at the end, "I have to admit that there's something magical about being able to walk down the street with Alex without fear of getting robbed."

The collective that Mia belongs to is called Danger Gevaar Ingozi. The day after the barbecue, I stopped by their studio on the outskirts of Maboneng, where the artists showed me their black-and-white lino-cut prints. Linocut printing, a technique in which artists cut into blocks of linoleum with chisels, has a proud history in Johannesburg. Under apartheid, black artists relied on the medium to create the iconic posters and pamphlets of the resistance, and artists at DGI see themselves as heirs to that tradition.

One of their starkest images took its inspiration from Maboneng itself. Two years ago, when developers evicted people from a building in the area, protesters marched through the streets, burning tires and throwing rocks until the police drove them away with rubber bullets. In the rebellious spirit of the apartheid-era printers, the DGI artists took up their chisels in solidarity. The resulting print depicts a group of black protesters being forcibly removed from the hallway of a men's hostel that was being repurposed by developers. It is a testament to both the complexities and the possibilities of Maboneng that you can see a copy of the piece on display in a Maboneng wine bar, upstairs from a truck that sells frozen yogurt and goji-berry iced tea.

On my last night in Joburg, I accompanied Mia and Fitzgerald and some of their friends to an art opening at August House, a loft building a couple blocks from Maboneng. "This is the avant-garde," Mia said as we walked into the space. About a hundred people were standing around, chatting over an electronic dance track and drinking beer. Someone was cooking chicken on an indoor grill. Everyone was wearing something fun — a fluorescent-yellow Adidas jumpsuit stands out in my memory.

Artist Victor Kuster in Johannesburg; South African food at Urbanologi
From left: Painter Victor Kuster in his studio at August House, a warehouse repurposed as an art and production space; baby carrots with kumquat and star anise labneh at Urbanologi. Adriaan Louw

At the far end of the room, I stopped in front of a mixed-media piece depicting a group of men sitting around a boom box, most of them dressed in the style of 1960s Hollywood. One wore boots that resembled spats. Another had on a mauve suit and black gloves, with a cream homburg balanced on his knee. The style of the image was sketchlike yet fully realized, as though the artist had first rendered the scene completely, then erased all the details that didn't matter. I tracked down its creator, Bambo Sibiya, and told him that I loved his work.

Like the men in the painting, Sibiya was dressed impeccably, in a tailored suit of royal blue with a shirt and tie of the same rich color. He told me that he'd based the figures on people like his uncles, who came to Johannesburg in the 1960s to work in the mines. "They used music and fashion as their way of fighting back against the oppression of apartheid," he said. "They used the power of being gentlemen." Several of his other paintings were hanging on the walls. They captured similar scenes, all in the same distinctive style.

Bambo Sibiya — look out for that name. I believe he has a bright future. He's retrieving moments from Johannesburg's dark past and turning them into scenes of vibrant beauty and light. I can't think of anyone who better embodies the spirit of the city.

The Details: What to Do in Today's Johannesburg

Getting There

Fly nonstop to Johannesburg from major U.S. hubs like New York and Atlanta.

Tour Operator

Epic Road: Co-Founder Mark Lakin can arrange bespoke experiences in Johannesburg, in addition to safaris across Africa. +1 646 580 3026; ml@epicroad.com.

Hotel

Hallmark House Architect: David Adjaye designed this sleek luxury hotel, located in the Maboneng Precinct. doubles from $77.

Restaurants, Bars & Cafés

Blackanese Sushi & Wine Bar: Chef Vusi Kunene serves sushi with local flavors like biltong (beef jerky) and strawberry at this intimate space in Maboneng. entrées $7.50–$9.

Craft Coffee: This bright, modern roastery and café in Newtown sources beans from all over the world, then roasts them in-house.

Mad Giant: At this sprawling brewery in an old warehouse, you can choose from among five house-brewed beers and enjoy a bite at Urbanologi, an upscale restaurant sharing the space. entrées $4–$48.

Galleries

Arts on Main: The story of Maboneng began with the redevelopment of this red-brick factory complex, which contains art star William Kentridge's studio and a print workshop that offers tours to the public. On Sundays, the space becomes a hub for the neighborhood's vibrant weekly market, with food stalls on the ground floor and tables lined with clothes and crafts upstairs.

August House: Some of the city's most exciting artists live, work, and show their art at this loft building just outside Maboneng.

Constitution Hill: The former prison complex is now home to South Africa's Constitutional Court and a large collection of African artworks.

The Cosmopolitan: This restored Victorian hotel houses an art gallery, artists' studios, a lush, English-style garden, and a
restaurant that serves refined local dishes.

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