Feeling old, uninspired or just plain tired? Forget about a few days at the spa. A trip to Jozi is just what you need.
From the Midlands, Johannesburg looks terrifying. The gated estates with gigantic houses, the endless traffic, and piles of broken concrete are most unappealing. Head to the inner city however and the energy and colour is mesmerising. I only had a tiny taste this week, but it was memorable. The stylish bus service, Rea Vaya, with interesting art decorating the stations, cuts quickly through the traffic neatly ensconced in it’s own lane. Sadly, I didn’t ride the bus, but next time I will.
I stayed with my pal Margie in her home on the edge of Houghton (posh) and Yeoville (dodgy). Luckily for me, Margie thrives on the buzz of the inner city and has rented a space in Maboneng for her business We Create. She as able to give me an insider’s tour of the Place of Light.
The regeneration project is utterly inspiring. The vision so hopeful. Dreary buildings are transformed with murals, planters filled with grass and trees line the pavements, there is no litter, there are cafes tucked into alley ways and apartments with tall windows overlook the action. Around every corner there is something new to delight. The battered brickwork of old warehouses is juxtaposed with up to the minute colour combinations that revive tired buildings. There are heaps of trees and even an innovative primary school.
The names of the shops and cafes are all so clever and cool, but it still has a neighbourhood feel. Women working in the printing and clothing factories sit on the street side benches with their lunch, people stop to chat on the pavement and no one seems in a rush. Actually, I was really struck by the friendliness in Jo’burg altogether. Even the beggars, junk sellers and pamphlet distributors at the traffic lights are friendly and chatty!
Plenty of artists have studios here. There is a food market on the weekend in an underground parking area. Coffee rules and there are masses of restaurants, oozing urban style – Argentinian, Mexican, African. We chose Ethiopian for supper and shared a platter of interestingly spiced veggies served on injeera – a spongy, fermented, pancake like bread. Before that we popped up on top of a building to The Living Room, decorated with hammocks, plants and astonishing views over the rooftops.
The use of innovative materials is everywhere – crates as chairs, pallets as tables. The Bioscope has re-purposed old car seats for cinema seating. In Melville, I explored a shopping centre created entirely from shipping containers and filled with local designers and their creations. I was particularly impressed with the fresh green juice at ImPressed. Dogs come to work with the shopkeepers and there is a playground for the kids – it might look edgy, but it is very real. At a bar on 7th Street, I drank local craft beer – Soweto Gold – and watched hipsters, tattooed girls and a man in fairy wings wander by in the early evening.
The light is worth a special mention. After beautiful blue sky days, the evenings linger for ages. Perfect for perambulations and meals in tiny courtyards and hidden passages.
I loved the mix of old and new everywhere – occasional Edwardian architecture alongside the edgy industrial style. Many, many shops sold vintage clothing while others were filled with funky Shwe Shwe frocks. At Makosi, who have been traders in Shwe Shwe and wax print fabrics for generations, the owners told us about the nicknames their customers give the various patterns – like Cabbages, CD and Chinese Eye. Intriguing.
Braamfontein is an older urban regeneration project and has a more settled feel. Here, colourful metal sculptures line the clean streets.
There are masses of students around (it is close to the University). It appears that many students live in a development called South Point which bursts with vibrancy and colour. Paint is such a simple device to turn ordinary buildings into magic ones.
I went to Braamfontein particularly for the NeighbourGoods Market. It was a lot of fun. Although there were no bunches of beetroot for sale, there was heaps of food to eat right there – so more of a social gathering than a grocery shopping experience.
An utterly charming young man sold me artisan bread he had baked just that morning (what time did he get up?), an enthusiastic Italian couple had me taste every one of their array of handmade cheeses and a funky pair of ice cream makers were able to tell me where the cows that produce the milk for their ice cream lived.
I settled on a Mediterranean feast of artichoke salad, baba ganoush, falafel, pumpkin fritters and roasted courgettes which I took up onto the roof to eat. More views, more colour, more murals, and memories of The Struggle.
In the city there is an interesting mix of raggedly people dragging carts, collecting recyclable materials for a living, and stylish bins for waste. While pavement traders are barred from the streets of Braamfontein and Maboneng, there are other places that are absolutely crammed and pretty mucky too. I spotted a little stream, that has so long been channelized between buildings and bombarded with human filth that it has forgotten it’s origins in the Highveld savannah.
My experience was overwhelmingly young, vibrant, filled with infectious enthusiasm and entrepreneurial verve. Small succulent moments adding up to something rather special. Much to my amusement, a trendy 20-something shop keeper waxed lyrical about our gorgeous grey hair, longing for the day her dark braids would be streaked with silver.
Swimming in the St Johns College pool one evening, a group of boys descended and one teenager remarked to his friends on seeing me, “It’s a girl”. Perhaps the youthful energy of Jozi had rubbed off on me a bit?! Who would have thought that the big city could be so inspiring and refreshing?