Walk This Way

A stroll around Jo­han­nes­burg re­veals a city truly trans­formed in a few short years

Business Traveler (USA) - - INSIDE - By Tom Ot­ley

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.

En­thu­si­as­tic Re­gen­er­a­tion

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

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