Walk This Way
A stroll around Johannesburg reveals a city truly transformed in a few short years
Freshly brewed coffee, a bench outside from where you can watch life pass by, boutique hotels for city breaks, art galleries, new businesses, a new generation of young urbanites reclaiming their heritage. It’s a familiar story around the world, but few would have bet that Johannesburg would be included on the list.
Not many places have been through a cycle of boom and bust quite like the South African city. Founded only 130 years ago, powered by the discovery of gold in the area in 1886, within a decade it was home to 80,000 people and within 40 years, 300,000.
The mining companies built palaces to their wealth, with the opulent interior of the Rand Club (randclub.co.za) a testament to their sense of entitlement to this affluence, and also their intention to celebrate their exploitation of it. But then came decline.
First, the manufacturing businesses left, victims of racial laws preventing them from employing more than a handful of black workers. By the early 1990s, the center of Johannesburg was in decline.
When I last visited before the 2010 FIFA World Cup, there were signs of a renaissance. A short walk around part of the city center was possible, but dangers still remained.
One lasting memory is being told how it was perfectly safe to walk down one street, but inadvisable to walk down another, clearly in sight, only 100 yards away. It was an interesting tour, and there was much to admire, but the majority of my time was spent in and around the business and residential suburbs of Sandton, Rosebank and Rivonia.
Returning in 2013, the difference is palpable. A walking tour of the city center can take all day now without fear of straying into the“wrong” areas, helped by better signposting and security.
Independent businesses are flourishing, the Gautrain linking the city and airport
is efficient and safe, opening up several areas in the center. New hotels have appeared too, and the streets are much safer.
Much of the credit for this turnaround lies with the Joburg City Tourism Association, a gathering of more than 50 businesses in the Inner City that are promoting the area as a place to live, work and visit. It’s also down to the people of Johannesburg themselves, who have realized the gem in their midst, especially after intelligent spending on infrastructure as a result of the World Cup.
If you have business in the center then chances are you’ve gradually woken up to its attractions – such as the Arts on Main area of galleries and performance spaces in a former industrial belt, now rechristened Maboneng (“Place of Light,” mabonengprecinct.com), and the magnificent City Hall.
If you’ve always visited the suburbs, however, it’s probably still a terra incognita. Speak to those living and working outside the inner city and they will freely, even cheerfully, admit they haven’t been into Joburg for years – behavior learned when they were younger.
They are missing out. Take a walk there today and the architecture of the city reflects the very different historical periods the city has been through – from youthful swagger, to confident statements of prosperity, to insular and defensive aggression.
See the ugly Brutalist architecture of the 1950s-1970s, with fort-like buildings above parking garages – the latter were necessary because white workers would never have used public transport to access the city and wanted protection while they were there.
Today, you can find poetic and sad neglect next to enthusiastic regeneration. As a character in Booker Prize-winning Hilary Mantel’s novel, A Change of Climate, observes:“Beneath the pavements… were diamonds and gold.”
And though the mines are today largely worked out, leaving giant mounds of spoil
Those who stick to the suburbs are missing out
Above right: Braamfontein
Above: Monument to Miners Left: City Hall