Johannesburg Is a Global City on the Rise

A glimpse at the future of this important South African metropolis, according to the creatives who are shaping it.

Johannesburg Is a Global City on the Rise

Photos by Per-Anders Pettersson

Most travelers come to South Africa come for Cape Town and Kruger National Park, and if they stop in Johannesburg at all, it’s for a brief overnight. At first glance, it’s easy to see why. Joburg is an inland city founded to harvest gold from the once-abundant veins around and below the city, and it’s still ringed by tracts of old mines. It has a reputation for danger, and it is sprawling and tough to navigate.

But Johannesburg is also, undoubtedly, the most important city in the country for South Africans. It is not only the economic capital but the cultural, intellectual, and artistic capital as well. It is the place most representative of South Africa as a whole, as it draws huge numbers of people from throughout the country. Many city residents speak six or eight languages over the course of a day.

Johannesburg is transforming itself quickly. The central business district, once a no-go zone for anyone who could afford to avoid it, is springing back to life, pulsing with an energy from artists, designers, and entrepreneurs that you won’t find anywhere else in the country.

Despite the many difficulties South Africa faces—including corruption and vast disparities of wealth and power—the city has a momentum that you can feel, especially in neighborhoods like Braamfontein and Maboneng. And it has the potential to become a truly cosmopolitan world city. That’s what makes it such an exciting time to visit. Johannesburg is where South Africa’s future will be decided. The fundamental question is: Can a city where so many people live in extremes of suburban luxury or township squalor create spaces where different races, classes, and nationalities can play together, work together, and live together?

John Kani
Actor, director, playwright

I meet John Kani, one of South Africa’s most respected playwrights and actors, at the Apartheid Museum on the south side of the city. Kani, originally from the coastal area near Port Elizabeth, has lived in Joburg on and off for many years, punctuating his time spent here with many acting stints abroad. In 1975, he won a Tony Award for acting in a show of two plays that he co-authored with Winston Ntshona and Athol Fugard, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead and The Island. He also lived through and participated in the struggle against apartheid. His brother was killed during a protest, and Kani survived assassination attempts himself.

For Kani, the time before apartheid ended was an era of moral clarity. “We knew exactly whom to hate,” he says. “We loved freedom. But we didn’t know anything about democracy. And then, all of a sudden, we had to build a democracy. Everything changed, almost overnight.”

It wasn’t just the political system that changed when apartheid fell. Daily life in Johannesburg was also instantaneously transformed.

“During most of the apartheid era, black people couldn’t live in Johannesburg’s downtown. They lived in townships on the periphery,” Kani says. “This city worked perfectly for a population of 500,000 whites. Then we woke up one morning with 8 million residents who could move, work, and live anywhere they wanted.”


Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson

Kani’s explanation illuminates much of what makes life in Johannesburg today so frustrating and so compelling. On the streets of downtown, when you see the once-grand facades of old department stores now fallen into ruin, you can almost understand some residents’ nostalgia for a different era. But a public sculpture of leaping impala provides a better symbol of the city’s post-apartheid trajectory. Years ago, as the downtown fell apart in the aftermath of the old system’s demise, the sculpture was ransacked for scrap and then moved into storage. Now it has been restored and put out in public again, the centerpiece of a bustling green space where roving merchants carry their wares on their arms and street-side stylists meticulously braid hair while thousands pass by. The sculpture is part of a real city now—not just a city for a tiny portion of the population. Given all this place has seen—the raucous founding years after the gold rush, the struggle of the apartheid era, and the tumultuous ride ever since—where does Kani hope Johannesburg will go? For him, the critical challenge is to raise children who can forget—children who don’t carry the baggage that he does. “I hope that my children never learn to hate the way that we had to,” he says. “That way we’ll have a generation of South Africans who are free from that past and can build a future together.”

Jonathan Liebmann
Entrepreneur, property developer

Jonathan Liebmann grew up in the leafy suburbs in the northern part of Johannesburg. The city’s 10 million trees make it the largest man-made forest in the world. Although the trees stand in open public lands, most people in the suburbs live behind walls, protected by ominous signs that promise rapid armed response from private security companies. Liebmann traveled extensively in his youth, and the experience taught him that he wanted more than a walled-in existence. He wanted an actual city where he could live, walk around, and know his neighbors. He missed the vibrant urban communities he’d witnessed in places like London and New York.

He decided, at age 24, that he couldn’t wait any longer for those kinds of communities to evolve in Johannesburg. He would have to build a neighborhood himself. And so he bought up old industrial buildings in a sparsely populated area and began converting the structures. He started with Arts on Main, a gallery and studio space. One of his first tenants was South Africa’s most famous artist, William Kentridge. Liebmann then developed loft apartments, a hotel, and an art-house cinema. He called the area Maboneng, which means “place of light” in the Sotho language.

It is a distinctly peripheral part of the city. But Liebmann sees this as a plus. “Being on the edge of the city allows this project to take on a character of its own,” he says as we walk through the district. “I didn’t want to displace anyone who actually lives here or change a neighborhood that already existed. And I prefer to convert industrial buildings because the spaces are more interesting: higher ceilings, bigger windows, plans that let me build loft apartments and wide open offices.”

Despite the many difficulties South Africa faces—including corruption and vast disparities of wealth and power—the city has a momentum that you can feel.

When I first stayed in Maboneng, the idea that this place would draw people from all over the city seemed a pipe dream. There were only a few restaurants and stores, and they all closed up early. The streets were often deserted, and it was hard to get transport out.

When I returned, the area had changed completely. There were new shops, restaurants, and cafés crowded with people. There was an Ethiopian eatery run by a chef from Addis Ababa and a barbecue joint helmed by a Joburg township chef. Madonna’s yogi had led a seminar at Arts on Main. Film director Michel Gondry had held a workshop here. Adidas had sponsored a street-style festival, and Fox Street, the main drag, was thronged with skaters, artists, and designers.

Liebmann says the prices of the buildings encircling his development have doubled since the project began. But he’s still buying them up at a furious pace. His next challenge will be to weave his new, hipsterish neighborhood together with the communities that surround it. “I’m building affordable housing at the edge of Maboneng,” he says, “so the people who work here will be able to live here and be a part of the community.” A year ago I might have been skeptical about Liebmann’s idealism, but after seeing what he has done, I want to return next year to see how this city of light has grown.

Fiona Rankin-Smith
Special projects curator

Walking through the Wits Art Museum with one of its curators, Fiona Rankin-Smith, I realize Joburg’s importance for South African cultural life. First, there’s Rankin-Smith’s personal story. She started her career near the Durban suburbs where she was born. “I was an art teacher there,” she says. “And I felt like I was slowly dying because it was so boring.” So she moved to Johannesburg.

Then there’s the museum itself. Part of the University of the Witwatersrand, the museum reopened in 2012 in a new building in the Braamfontein neighborhood. Its 9,000 pieces constitute one of the world’s most important collections of African art, and which now have a proper home in an open, light-filled space with world-class conservation standards. The museum makes a statement for South Africans: Their culture matters.


Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson

For Rankin-Smith, one of the critical missions of her museum is to try to understand the collision of the traditional and the modern found in so much of South Africa’s art. “We have this huge collection of traditional art, which they used to call naïve art years ago,” she says. “But there’s nothing naïve about it. These people were cognizant of the modern world around them and incorporated it into their work.” To assemble the museum’s collection of contemporary South African art, Rankin-Smith hasn’t hit just the fancy galleries of Cape Town and the Joburg suburbs. She visited a mountaintop to convince Jackson Hlungwani, a priest and sculptor from a remote village, to let her exhibit some of his enormous wooden sculptures at Wits. Now Hlungwani’s rough, powerful, distorted figures rise up from a bed of rocks on the museum’s floor.

Rankin-Smith shows me one of her favorite parts of the collection, the art of Tito Zungu, a farmer from KwaZulu-Natal province who drew fanciful and modern airplanes and futuristic-looking structures on envelopes. “This is an incredible kind of migrant art,” Rankin-Smith explains. “These are envelopes that he drew for himself and others in which people working away from home would send letters to their families and friends, who would receive these beautiful things in the mail.”

Under apartheid, the likes of Tito Zungu and Jackson Hlungwani never made it into a Johannesburg museum. But now they have a place, just as Rankin-Smith does, in the city where the country comes together to make sense of its past and build a future.

David Tlale
Fashion designer

David Tlale greets me from his golden throne, behind a huge desk. He faces a large glass window looking into the space where workers are producing his latest clothing line. My first thought is that Tlale will be a diva designer. But then he lifts himself off the throne and offers me a drink, and we sit down to chat about his work. Tlale is the most acclaimed young fashion designer in South Africa. He has won numerous awards and honors here, and he has shown his work in Paris and New York.

After dropping out of accounting school and then graduating from fashion school, Tlale started his career with a tiny sewing machine in his mother’s backyard a couple of hours east of Johannesburg. Eventually, after winning a contest sponsored by Elle magazine, he moved to a distant Johannesburg suburb. But he knew he would eventually come to the city. “You make your name in Johannesburg,” Tlale says. “Everything and everyone meets in this city. It’s where I can see the country’s styles: You’ve got the Rosebank bohemians, the Sandton residents who wear only expensive brands, and the people who hang out in Melrose Arch and want comfort and fashion.”

Tlale’s most memorable show took place during Johannesburg Fashion Week, when he commandeered the Nelson Mandela Bridge and marched 92 models down an improvised catwalk as his tribute to Mandela’s 92nd birthday. “I had no Plan B when it rained,” Tlale said. “I kept delaying until midnight, and then, finally, the rain stopped. There were still 3,000 people there to watch the show.” I look at photographs of his models silhouetted on the bridge, which connects Braamfontein to Newtown. “It was really this moment where fashion owned the city,” he says. For those of us who lived through the era when every news report on Johannesburg seemed to be accompanied by images of riots and burning tires, the idea that fashion could own the city, even for a night, seems remarkable.

A few weeks after we talked, David Tlale moved his studio into the Maboneng precinct, Jonathan Liebmann’s development. The new museum where Fiona Rankin-Smith presents South Africa’s vibrant visual culture anchors the Braamfontein area of central Joburg. The main venue for John Kani’s work is now the Market Theater in the Newtown section just south of Braamfontein. Clearly, for the country’s cultural elite, central Johannesburg is exerting a singular pull. The question is whether places like Braamfontein and Maboneng can start to transform the city as a whole.

Can these pockets of hipness become more than islands amid chaos, sharing their energy with a diverse range of fellow city dwellers? The fate of Johannesburg remains an open question. For travelers, a visit offers the unique opportunity to see a city in the throes of a vital struggle: How to make a place so long divided and unequal into a place where everyone can survive and prosper.

>>Next: What’s It Like to Travel to South Africa Right Now?

I write about the worlds of Brooklyn firemen, Yemeni jihadis, Chinese internet vigilantes, Malagasy river guides, and Barcelona private eyes—anyone whose story moves me. A year before 9/11, I began producing a television documentary and reporting a book about a group of elite rescue firemen in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn. The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse, published by Henry Holt, follows ten years in the life of their company, from the high of knocking down a wall of flames to the low of losing a brother.
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