On the western edge of downtown Johannesburg, a neighborhood named Newtown has emerged as the city’s cultural heart. Once a gritty industrial center, Newtown is now a gathering place for South African writers, artists, and musicians.
Begin your exploration at the neighborhood’s hub, Mary Fitzgerald Square, where the community comes together for national holiday celebrations and outdoor performances such as Venda tribal dancing. At Xarra Books, an indie bookstore on the square that’s dedicated to African literature, you can pick up local author Lebo Mashile’s latest collection of poems and drop in on talks by such South African luminaries as anti-apartheid activist Albie Sachs.
Next, walk to the nearby Bus Factory, a cavernous brick building that was once a bus depot and now houses a collection of traditional crafts and contemporary sculpture by local artists. Check out the murals of Jo’burg’s skyline and a “forest” installation built from African walking sticks.
When evening comes, join the crowd at Bassline, a half-block south of the square. This live music venue features a mix of jazz, world, Afro-pop, hip-hop, and kwaito—a township-born music genre that combines hip-hop and house with lyrics sung in a blend of most of South Africa’s 11 official languages.
For all the activity, Newtown is still a small scene where you can mingle with local heroes. One evening I ran into Pops Mohamed, a reserved South African world-fusion musician, at a music conference held on the square. “There’s always something going on here,” he said. In front of us, a gospel choir was just warming up.
This appeared in the March/April 2010 issue.
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Playing Cricket in the Square
Later on weekend afternoons (If there's nothing happening that is) You'll find immigrant workers of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent playing a bit of cricket to help them unwind from the long day working in their stores.
The Newton Precinct is a great creative hub and offers other great ways to unwind, such as great music from all across Africa hosted at the Bassline and science experiments for the kids at the Sci Bono Centre. You can even buy some wares from the make shift market in the area.
The SAB World of Beer offers adults a chance to unwind too, with beers included in your tour of the brewery.
You can also work your way around to Museum Africa or the Market Theatre for a different sort of creativity.
Newtown also offers a great selection of restaurants like Sophiatown, so be sure to stop in at one of those and grab something to eat.