Sunday 4 December 2016

South Africa: A journey in Jo'burg

Maboneng magic

Jamie Ball

Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30

Johannesburg city centre - the world's largest city not situated on a river, lake, or coastline.
Johannesburg city centre - the world's largest city not situated on a river, lake, or coastline.
Old cooling towers with street art
Johannesburg
Boutique: the Peech Hotel - thepeech.co.za

Johannesburg is like Africa with the bonnet open, says travel writer Jamie Ball. You'd be mad not to take a look.

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'Sawubona," shouts the man crossing the thoroughfare during Johannesburg's rush hour. "It is Zulu!" he tells me. "It means 'I see you.' We say it to say 'Hello'. When I see you sitting take photograph and everybody walk past you, I say to myself, 'I will tell this man that I see him because I'm so happy... A few years ago nobody come here. Nobody!"

Who could have blamed them? Jo'burg spiralled into massive decline about 20 years ago, as Apartheid came crashing down and white owners of businesses and property opted out of South Africa's newfound Rainbow Republic.

Crime rose almost as fast as interest rates (27pc by 2000), carving out a grungy sinkhole that made Detroit look like Beverley Hills. But then things changed again.

A handful of astute developers, those still left in the game, started buying key properties across the city centre, often one block at a time, hiring urban renewal experts in planning, architecture and art to spawn "pockets of excellence" such as Maboneng, where my Zulu friend now sees me.

Renewal or not, Jo'burg remains a bridesmaid to more celebrated sites like Cape Town, Kruger and the Garden Route. The stereotypes say it's sprawling, dirty and dangerous. That's true in places, but it's also pleasantly hilly, accessible and green, with the most perfect of high-altitude/low-humidity combinations.

Sure, its poverty and unemployment stats can be off-putting, but nowhere have I seen such energy, vibrancy and colour - nowhere since India, at least. It's like Africa with the bonnet open and the engine thrumming. You'd be mad not to have a look.

There are plenty of things for the tourist to do in Jo'Berg (see our 3 Must Do's, below), but having covered the city over many days - from its glass-smattered slums to security-crazed, leafy suburbs - much like in Mumbai or Dehli, it's more rewarding to simply be here, to witness and sample a Sub-Saharan African powerhouse flooded with the continent's cures and cultures, from Nigeria on down.

Held-up against 17th-century, hidebound Cape Town, Jo'burg is like an orphan that never laid its hat down on a river or port, while the gold-dusted Witwatersand Hill range further fractures the city's four million residents. It has little history to speak of, as there was no known built settlement here until the discovery of gold in 1884. From zero, the population ballooned to over 100,000 within a decade, but the disjointed tone of the modern metropolis seems traceable back to a can-do miners' encampment.

No one is even sure how it got its name. Confusion and debate reign as to who the real "Johannes" was, with no shortage of contenders during the 1880s. But Jo'Burg's lack of parentage and pedigree is also its greatest asset, for with few shackles to the past it looks brazenly to the future. From across the continent, people are relocating to this booming city, launching start-ups, spending money, investing in property.

In recent years, developers in some parts of the inner city have seen a 12-15pc return on investment, aided by an "Urban Development Zone" scheme that allows them to claim back up to half of their capital expenditure over a five-year period. The trade-off is an "improvement district levy" borne by the property owners, providing 24-hour security and cleaning inside and outside the building - meaning visitors like me can sit on the side of the street, holding expensive cameras at rush hour as workers stream home.

On the eastern side of Jo'Burg's business district, Maboneng is peopled by hipsters white and black, a hub of culture, business and city living. On a roadside, public workout space, three uniform-clad schoolboys hammer the Bejaysus out of a punch bag, stopping to smile for selfies. A block away, a tightly-clad, curvaceous young woman poses suggestively as a photographer praises her in frames. There's a sense of purpose and presence to the air: people hang out, but they don't loiter. And then there's the superb Sunday market and galleries, design studios and tasteful, edgy retail.

Maboneng hasn't (yet) been gentrified; you don't emerge from a walled estate or sanitised mall to be polaxed by the reality of Africa. The reality of Africa is interwoven into its urban fabric. The district is graced by some of the most dynamic street art I've seen in years - and it is street art, by my book, as opposed to graffiti (funny how street art can be denounced by some as vandalism, while an obnoxious billboard trying to get you to buy something you don't need is perfectly acceptable).

Here, the street art "pieces" are intelligent and playfully provocative, but not crude or hostile to the passer-by. African motifs permeate the strongest works, but without being restricted by them, and rich, flowering colour is everywhere. Setting is all important too - the down-but-not-out inner city setting rubbing up against the sense of menace inherent in large African cities, giving the art a deeper twist and sense of energy and hope.

"I see you," I find myself saying as I photograph one piece after another over the course of a Sunday morning.

"I see you."

What to pack

Jo'Burg's near-perfect climate means you can pack as you would for a summer holiday. Bring warm clothes for cooler evenings, however, and a raincoat as back-up. The city is safer than it has been, but take the same precautions with security that you would in any developing city.

Getting there

Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) flies from Dublin to Johannesburg via Istanbul from €485 return. A quicker, more expensive option is British Airways, via Heathrow, from €531 (ba.com). See joburgtourism.com to better plan your time in Jo’Burg.

Where to stay

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Close to OR Tambo International Airport, President Lodge Guesthouse (presidentlodge.co.za) has rooms from around €60.

For less-affordable luxury, try the boutique Peech Hotel (above, thepeech.co.za), from about €180 per night. Going to press, a Euro buys about 16 South African Rand - a favourable exchange.

3 must-dos...

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Graffiti Walking Tour

Past Experiences (pastexperiences.co.za) offers a range of inner city, archaeological and Soweto tours. The excellent two-hour graffiti walking tour is guided by a leading local artist and focuses on Jo’Berg’s graffiti culture, history, its top artists and the most outstanding pieces in Maboneng.

Apartheid Museum

Located 10km southwest of the CBD, this superb museum (apartheidmuseum.org) leans towards understanding rather than blame. Visitors enter the prison-themed structure through one of two, single-file entrances labelled 'whites' or 'non-whites'.

From that point on, the race question is wholly personal.

Cradle of Humankind

Some 50km north of Jo’Burg, this UNESCO World Heritage site is where all humankind is said to have originated. The magnificent visitor centre (maropeng.co.za) is interactive, inspirational and life-affirming, while the nearby Sterkfontein Caves are home to the world’s oldest palaeontological dig.

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