Just a decade ago, downtown Johannesburg was arguably the most dangerous cityscape on the planet.
Abandoned office blocks, boarded-up shops and streets tenanted by muggers, rapists and murderers made it a no-go area for respectable citizens and visitors alike.
As a result, the epicentre of South Africa’s commercial capital moved inexorably to the respectable, fashionable and well-policed suburb of Sandton, with its trendy restaurants and sparkling boutiques,
But now the pendulum is swinging slowly back to the city centre. In a remarkable turn-around, downtown Joburg is rapidly being brought back to life.
Youth the key
The key is youth. University expansion has brought a flood of young people into the area, Crime rates have dropped dramatically while long abandoned office blocks have been transformed into affordable student accommodation, multi-storey car parks now hold fashionable farmers’ markets and loft conversions have transformed old warehouses. Bars, eating places, clubs and other venues are springing up and once deserted streets are now thronged with decent people looking not for aggro but an enjoyable, and safe, night out, It’s amazing what a rubbish clear-up, some cosmetic building surgery, a fresh lick of paint and a rejuvenated community has achieved.
Given such an inspiring environment, it’ no surprise that the arts and fashion scenes are thriving throughout Greater Johannesburg and the Gauten region.
Held every September at the Sandton International Conference Centre is Art Fair (+27 011 537 9797; joburgartfair.co.za), the biggest celebration of painting and sculptural creativity in all Africa. It’s not only a wonderful marketplace at which to acquire outstandingly creative works of art but an opportunity to meet and chat with the artists who created them.
Running at the same time, the heavily promoted SA Week Winter Programme gives a catwalk display of the latest creations by such highly talented local fashion designers as Clive Rundle, Tiaan Nagel, Joel Janse van Vuuren, Rchale de Mardt, Gert Johan Coetree and Palse Homme.
Thanks to a growing stock of attractions, Johannesburg is back on the tourist trail. Situated in the leafy residential suburb of Rivonia, the Lilliesleaf homestead was once deep in the countryside, surrounded by farmlands. Fronted by white sympathisers, the estate served as a secret headquarters for the military wing of the then outlawed ANC. Today, visitors can experience first-hand accounts of the events that lad up to the infamous raid of July 17, 1963that enabled the apartheid regime to net many of the leading personalities of the struggle for racial equality, including the great leader Nelson Mandela himself.
Recalling turbulent times
At Constitution Hill (+27 011 381 3100, constitutionhill.org.za) I visited the prison where they and many others were incarcerated, in shocking conditions. This National Heritage Site stands witness to a turbulent century of South Africa’s history, from the times of rebellious Boer farmers, who fought the might of the British Empire, and the young people who took part in the Soweto uprising to the building of the country’s symbolically important Constitutional Court.
The preserved old fort, men’s and women’s prisons and modern additions stand testament to the terrible injustices of a turbulent past and the hopes for a peaceful, more just future.
Ever since Paul Simon went there to record his seminal ‘Gracelands’ album, the massive outlying township of Soweto has opened up to visitors and today you can even take a guided cycling tour through the shantytown while much of the area has been re-developed, with pleasant little flower-bedecked villas replacing the tin roofs and make-shift walls of the past.
A must-see in Soweto is the Mandela house at 8115 Orlando West, a quite modest abode but one that played an important role in modern South African history and is now a fascinating museum run by the Soweto Heritage Trust. Close by is Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s modest home.
Why visit Johannesburg?
Forget the popular dire image. Joburg’s reality is a new dawn befitting a vibrant and cosmopolitan 21st Century metropolis.
Typical of the imaginative new developments in the student-filled Braamfontein section of downtown Joburg, the trendy orange themed Hotel Lamhu (+27 011 242 8600, lamanu.co.za; southpointhospitality.co.za) is part of the extensively refurbished South Point complex. It has 60 contemporary city styled rooms, restaurant and bar.
Indicative of where the hotel’s designers are coming from, the six floors and three meeting rooms are named after interesting graduates of the nearby Wits University.
Roger St. Pierre also overnighted at the bijou Peech Hotel (+27 011 537 9797; thepeech.co.za), set in a leafy suburb 10 minutes ride from downtown. Among other spots, he lunched magnificently at the highly recommended Butcher Shop (+27 011 788 1113) in Mandela Square, Johannesburg’s leading urban shopping mall, and enjoyed a luxury spa treatment at the country club styled Mount Grace Hotel (+27 014 577 5600; mountgrace.co.za) out in the scenic Magaliesberg hills and took a spectacular hot-air balloon ride over The Cradle of Mankind and the Sterkfontein Caves.