Johannesburg’s new inner-city cool

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Two decades after apartheid ended, Johannesburg is emerging as South Africa’s creative capital. British-born local journalist Louise Whitworth finds the source of the city’s inspiration in its revitalised downtown.


Johannesburg, Joburg, Jozi – this city which goes by many names is a magnet for the young, creative, and ambitious. While the scars left by apartheid slowly heal, a new generation of ‘born-free’ South Africans are steadily revitalising its downtown districts.

Sitting on the rooftop of the hip Saturday-morning Neighbourgoods Market on a bustling downtown street corner, it’s hard to imagine that just 20 years ago this area was preparing for its place in yet another story about the decline of the ‘City of Gold’. Back then students and academics still rushed through the streets on their way to the bookshop or the neighbouring Wits University campus, but fewer visitors were sticking around for dinner. In the late 1990s, for many Braamfontein seemed too close to the rapidly emptying central business district for comfort. Fast-forward to 2015 and the newspapers are telling a different story. The captains of industry are returning to the city centre, the streets are being reclaimed, and ‘cool’ rather than ‘crime’ is the word most commonly associated with regenerated Braamfontein, the city’s new hipster heartland.

These days the streets of the student district are lined with artisan coffee shops, art galleries, and fashion boutiques. Bearded hipsters cruise around on retro fixie bikes, colourful umbrellas hang over the alleyways, and tourists and suburbanites jostle for space in the queues for the gourmet food trucks, keen to soak up the creative energy and multicultural vibe which is coursing through these urban streets.

At one of the Neighbourgoods Market stalls, young entrepreneur Salepo Lubisi is selling his own brand of Johannesburg souvenir T-shirts. The simple and distinctive design is intended to “easily fit into any wardrobe” and as far as the day’s trading goes, it is just as popular with locals as with the tourists Salepo originally had in mind. Locally branded items are steadily gaining cult status, as Joburgers embrace the city’s new reputation for cool. There’s Love Jozi, whose tote bags, mugs, and key racks reference the distinctive skyline, and the cheeky Iwasshot in Joburg, a photography studio staffed by former street kids whose unusual downtown images are the ideal postcard representation of what this rapidly changing town looks and feels like today.

Across town in the Maboneng Precinct, Sunday is market day. Maboneng, whose name means ‘place of light’, is the brainchild of property developer Jonathan Liebmann. In 2008, the young entrepreneur bought up swathes of derelict warehouses on the eastern fringe of the inner-city and set about their transformation. First the artists came, led by trail-blazing A-listers such as William Kentridge, then the weekly Market on Main opened, and now this fashionable regenerated neighbourhood spreads across several city blocks populated by designers, students, and young professionals who have bought into the chic urban loft apartment lifestyle.

Every corner in Maboneng is occupied by someone doing something new, and a fusion of traditional African aesthetics and modern urban tastes is a defining feature. Vusi Kunene’s Afro-Asian sushi joint The Blackanese shares a street with the township-chic Sha’p! Braai stand; and at the nearby Storytellers of Fashionkynd boutique, skirts come in the bright patterns of West African fabrics while elegant capes are made from distinctive Kenyan Masai tartan. The stylish women who walk these streets match their elaborate African headscarves to their ballet pumps, while the gents opt for the 1950s trilbies and brogues of their grandparents’ generation.

Creative young entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of this growing new district. One such ambitious Maboneng resident is Bheki Dube. Not yet 25 years old, he already runs a network of tourist services in the area that includes the MainStreetWalks tour company specialising in the inner-city’s street art, history, and cultural scene, and a successful boutique backpackers’ hostel, Curiocity. Bheki’s brand of urban tourism is about “encouraging visitors to rediscover the inner-city”, and when he says this he doesn’t just mean international tourists – South Africans are keen to see what’s on offer too.

The thrill of the new is not only confined to the inner-city’s regenerated areas, however; Joburg’s leafy older suburbs, sandwiched between the glittering Sandton business district and the historic downtown, are also changing shape. Melville earned its reputation as the city’s ‘bohemian suburb’ back in the turbulent 1980s when it was the favoured residence for an alternative Afrikaaner community of intellectuals, writers, and artists. Its quaint main street is still lined with secondhand bookshops, cafés, and quirky restaurants, while around the corner the new 27 Boxes boutique shopping centre has recently opened. Built using shipping containers, it offers affordable retail space for more than 80 small businesses and creative start-ups selling everything from Belgian waffles and homemade ice cream to jewellery, handcrafted ceramics, custom-made leather sandals, and exquisite screen-printed textiles.

A few kilometres away, sleepy Linden’s main claim to fame was always its peach orchards and close-knit former farming community. The Whippet, a trendy neighbourhood coffee shop launched here in 2012, took this local heritage as its inspiration – juices are served in vintage peach-jam jars and ingredients are sourced from nearby family-run businesses and gardens. The Whippet’s ambition is to “re-introduce South Africans to the story of their neighbourhoods through coffee, awesome food, art, and design”, and the enterprise has already inspired similar new businesses in the area promoting café culture and a ‘local is lekker’ ethos (lekker is an Afrikaans word meaning ‘tasty’ or ‘cool’).

Back in Braamfontein beyond the crowds of the Neighbourgoods Market, this inner-city district continues to set trends that ripple out across the city. On a sunny Saturday morning students strut from the classrooms of the Richard Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship into the home-grown Motherland Coffee Company chain after lectures, and a few blocks over at the Joburg Theatre posters are going up for Gauteng Opera and Joburg Ballet’s new joint productionI am an African. Meanwhile the bright-red open-top City Sightseeing bus is ferrying tourists up to Constitution Hill, a former prison and colonial fort that now houses a museum, Constitutional Court, and exhibition space. On the way its passengers are busy snapping photos of the freshly painted murals of pink elephants, African queens, and a purple-and-gold Nelson Mandela. There may not be a beautiful mountain or a palm-fringed beach to admire, but this city has a colourful and creative energy that is addictive.


Art Gallery Row

Johannesburg has an exciting contemporary arts scene, and many of Africa’s most successful artists have studios in the city. To catch the latest exhibitions explore the so-called ‘art gallery row’ on Jan Smuts Avenue in Parkwood. New exhibitions are usually launched on Thursday evenings, and you don’t need to be invited to attend an opening event. Many galleries also host ‘artist talkabouts’ on weekends where artists guide visitors through the creative process behind their latest works. Leading spaces to keep your eye on include: Circa Gallery (pictured), Everard Read Gallery, David Krut Projects, Goodman Gallery, and Lizamore & Associates.



My Johannesburg

The Orbit

The Orbit is widely regarded as the city’s leading jazz club. Rising stars and established jazz icons regularly grace the stage, and don’t be surprised to find local legends emerging from the audience to join the musicians for a final jam. Book in advance for a table so you can enjoy a meal with your music.
81 De Korte St, Braamfontein, +27 11 339 6645


Past experiences tours

Led by local street-art expert Jo Buitendach, this walking-tour company specialises in weekend inner-city graffiti tours. The tour has a knack for getting under the skin of the city’s lesser-known historic neighbourhoods – and for convincing anyone who may feel sceptical about the merits of street art.
+27 11 678 3905


44 Stanley

44 Stanley is a former industrial complex that has been transformed into a series of pretty interlinked courtyards shaded by olive trees. Drop into Bean There, one of South Africa’s first fairtrade roasters, for outstanding coffee; enjoy a sumptuous brunch on the terrace of Salvationcafe; or shop for gifts at Lulu Baily’s cute gift store Lucky Fish. 
44 Stanley Ave, Milpark


Family activities

Moyo Zoo Lake

The broad menu at this colourful African restaurant boasts a range of daring exotic offerings such as crocodile pie and mopani worms, as well as Moroccan couscous, South African stews, and grilled dishes and salads that should suit any fussy eaters. Very much a family-orientated restaurant, face-painting and live African music are also part of the fun. Zoo Lake, Parkview. Open 8:30am–10pm.

The Johannesburg Botanical Gardens

Stroll along the water and feed the ducks, join in one of the impromptu cricket games, or stop by the pretty rose gardens to watch local wedding parties having their photos taken in front of the fountains. With its wide green lawns, this spacious park is perfect for weekend family picnics. Oliphants Rd, Emmarentia. Open 6am–6pm.

The Sheds @ 1Fox

An atmospheric weekend market in a carefully converted downtown heritage building. There is an excellent range of food vendors as well as a number of stalls selling gifts and unique children’s clothing, plenty of space for kids to run around outside, plus play areas indoors if the weather takes a turn. 1 Main Street, Ferreirasdorp, City Centre. Open Sat and Sun 10am–5pm.



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