For many visitors, Johannesburg is seen as purely a business destination or stopover point. Most guidebooks advise a history-themed day trip to take in a combination of Gold Reef City, the Apartheid Museum and the former township of Soweto, or suggest a drive outside of the city to the Cradle of Humankind or the Krugesdorp Nature Reserve. Recommendations for evening entertainment are mostly confined to wining and dining options in the restaurants and bars of the city’s self-contained northern suburbs.
URBAN REGENERATION: In recent years, more eclectic options have arisen for weekends and evenings on the town. While 10 years ago, visitors and locals alike would have shied away from the perceived dangers of the inner city, more people are now seeking entertainment outside the suburbs. In many central neighbourhoods, boutique hotels, trendy cafes, art galleries, food markets and jazz bars are popping up to create an urban vibe and aesthetic –new aspects that are slowly but surely coming into place, giving Johannesburg a reputation for being one of the world’s most exciting cities.
A CITY IN TRANSITION: The changing face and trajectory of Johannesburg’s downtown in many ways reflects the transformation of South Africa as a whole. The city’s transition from economic success into urban decay and then subsequent regeneration is in many ways a history lesson on the effects of apartheid-driven inequality. The changes in Johannesburg represent the country’s continued efforts towards resolving these issues to move forward as a young and maturing democracy.
Johannesburg, nicknamed the “city of gold”, originated as a mining town. During the 1930s its inner city prospered from the associated mineral wealth created. The decadence continued into the 1960s, and for the following two decades Johannesburg’s Central Business District was at the cusp of urban design – not just for Africa, but globally. Many of the country’s mining houses and large banks occupied skyscrapers considered landmarks in modern architectural achievements at the time.
In the 1980s and 1990s, as the economy fell into decline and faced significant uncertainty due to stricter enforcement of international sanctions, there was an exodus of foreign corporations out of the country. Additionally, domestic companies began migrating outside of the city in search of cheaper and more cost-efficient office infrastructure in the surrounding suburbs. As would be expected, retailers and the inner city’s residents followed suit.
The country’s segregationist Group Areas Act, which previously forbade blacks and coloureds from living in the city proper, was scrapped officially in 1991, prompting downtown landlords who were left without tenants to turn to a new market of black workers seeking cheap accommodation closer to their place of employment. As the demographics of the area changed, so too did the attention given by the white-governed municipalities towards its maintenance and upkeep. In turn, the area’s infrastructure suffered massive disrepair and neglect. Many buildings, including two of downtown Johannesburg’s most iconic hotels, were closed. And many institutions, including the stock exchange, moved their headquarters to the suburbs.
By the turn of the century, large numbers of immigrants from war-torn and impoverished African countries fled to South Africa seeking escape and some form of economic opportunity. These immigrants began occupying many of the more poorly managed and discarded buildings. This resulted in a downtown area that many wealthier individuals considered unsafe, run down and “off-limits”.
CHANGING FORTUNES: At the turn of the century, with South Africa now under the democratically elected ANC government, the Johannesburg Development Agency was established with the task of stimulating economic development and regeneration for the inner city. A decade on, the results are starting to bear fruit evidenced in lower crime rates, greater public transportation options, the zoning of green and public spaces, and investments – both grassroots and corporate – in new and refurbished residential, office, leisure and retail space. In a less quantifiable effect, there is today a feeling among the area’s residents and visitors alike of a renaissance taking shape, with the inner city’s rejuvenation a sense of pride and shared experience for all races and classes of the new South Africa.
GETTING THERE: Public transport options for accessing and moving around within the downtown area remain somewhat of a challenge for the uninitiated, though this should improve once the Gautrain begins to operate out of the centrally located Park Station in the coming months. The Gautrain is the newly opened mass rapid transit railway linking Pretoria to Johannesburg’s international airport, with stops in core commercial areas and suburbs of Johannesburg, such as Rosebank and Sandton.
Once Park Station becomes operational, it is anticipated to provide a huge uplift to the downtown area. Commuters who lacked reliable public transportation in the past will now have the option of reaching their offices without having to deal with the hassle of traffic and parking issues.
WHAT TO DO: Full of hawkers and informal retailers, street food and pedestrian traffic, Johannesburg’s downtown area provides an urban feel and aesthetic that is a strong contrast to the wealthy northern suburbs. Organised in a straightforward grid and dominated by office blocks, the downtown core is relatively easy to navigate. As in other major cities that have experienced periods of renewal, different pockets of Johannesburg’s downtown have evolved at different paces and it is still advised to stay clear of certain sections and seek the advice of locals before venturing to particular parts of the city, especially at night and if unaccompanied.
THE BRAAMFONTEIN MANAGEMENT DISTRICT: undefined Thanks to a raft of government incentives and a cross-spectrum of impassioned developers, creative nodes are sprouting all over the inner city. The bulk of cultural activity is focused in three districts: the Braamfontein Management District; Newtown; and the Mabobeng Precinct.
Located adjacent to the University of the Witwatersrand, Braamfontein has taken on a youthful vibe due to a group of entrepreneurial property developers who have converted a number of neglected office blocks into student residences. The arrival of students has brought not only a new energy, but greater spending power to the area, leading naturally to the arrival of numerous cafes and bars.
One developer, Adam Levy, has purchased several buildings in the surroundings for conversion into luxury apartments and boutique retail outlets, as well as office and studio space targeting creative industries. One of the buildings plays host each Saturday to a food market that has gathered momentum to become a weekend fixture for the city’s urban hipsters. Nearby, the recently renovated Alexander Theatre and restaurants and bars in and around the Lamunu Hotel ensure that the socialising continues well after the sunset.
NEWTOWN: Occupying a portion of the western section of downtown, Newtown is home to many historic landmarks, including the Market Theatre, Museum Africa, Turbine Hall and Mary Fitzgerald Square. Originally known as Brickfields, it became the first area in Johannesburg to be given industrial status. Architectural remnants of former trade markets, power stations, workshops and factories gives the district a distinct post-industrial feel that lends itself well to creative venues such as theatres, art studios, craft exhibitions, night clubs and jazz cafes.
Situated next to Forsburg, a major centre of Indian and Pakistani South African culture, as well as Johannesburg’s Chinatown, the area also offers a strong and diverse shopping and dining experience. Accessibility to Newton has markedly improved with the construction and 2003 opening of the iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge, and there have been major efforts to improve safety through stronger policing and the installation of closed-circuit television systems and brighter street lighting.
MABOBENG PRECINCT: Named for the Sotho word meaning “place of light” and located in the eastern section of the Central Business District, Mabobeng emerged through “The Arts on Main”, an initiative by a group of artists and community developers to convert a series of warehouses into art studios and gallery space with the aim of becoming the city’s artistic heart. Subsequently, a boutique hotel, theatre and an art-house cinema have opened, as have retail and office spaces focused – as is to be expected – on attracting creative and artistic tenants.
Arts on Main plays host to a fashion, food and design market on Thursday nights and Sunday afternoons. Mabobeng has also become a prime spot for catching up-and-coming DJs and live musical acts.
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