Nothing beats a local introduction to a misunderstood place, and for that, I owe everything to Meruschka.
I am no stranger to South African cities. Last year I spent six weeks exploring South Africa’s schizophrenic East Coast-West Coast divide, delving equally into Cape Town and Durban for this year’s National Geographic documentary, “The World in Two Cities.”
And yet, there is another South African city that trumps them all: Johannesburg, Joburg, or Jozi, the great African megalopolis of some 7 million people.The nature of modern travel is such that you can visit a place a dozen times and never really know it. For millions of travelers, Johannesburg’s O. Tambo International Airport becomes a parallel surrogate to the real Johannesburg, while South Africa’s largest city remains a massive mystery, a cluster of highways and compounds and neighborhood names that evoke long and troubled histories.
But that was then, and this is now. To say that Johannesburg is changing, or has changed, is entirely moot. To say that it’s dynamic and is experiencing a 21st century rebirth is more accurate, and the epicenter of that change is Maboneng.
Though I’ve never met her in person until now, my friend Meruschka took me to Johannesburg’s Maboneng Precinct and showed off her city with pride. Once derelict and home to squatters, illegal immigrants and criminals, the new Maboneng is bright, clean and safe. It’s also incredibly hip and happening.
“It’s become quite a neighborhood,” explained Bheki Dube, manager of the local youth hostel, Curiocity,“It used to just be factories.” But nowadays, Maboneng is making art, and lots of it. The number of artists’ spaces, galleries, and studios shows a remarkable shift away from Johannesburg’s old reputation of street crime and urban malaise. Now there are coffee shops and sushi restaurants, little design boutiques and architecture firms, with musicians walking the street, guitar in hand. This is not the Johannesburg we talk about back home.
“I’m a child of the city, I grew up in the city and love it,” adds Bheki, “Everything is nearby.” The idea of proximity is practically revolutionary in a city like Johannesburg, once defined by monumental commutes between townships and the city center. But in Maboneng, younger people have begun moving into the city and turning some of the city’s older and more interesting buildings into incredible apartments and lofts.
The result is about ten city blocks of inner-city Joburg that offer a very different urban African experience than anywhere else on the continent. To compare Maboneng with Brooklyn or Berlin is to fail to comprehend this country’s unique history, but to witness the rapid transition of this one city’s geographic reality is still rather amazing.
This small photo gallery is just a snapshot of the few hours I spent exploring one of the coolest neighborhoods on the planet, and I imagine, like all of South Africa, by the time I make it back, it will have changed even more dramatically.