“Emerging from the shadows of apartheid, a new generation of South Africans is rising up, creating a city defined by freedom of expression.”
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.
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.