Experience Maboneng, Johannesburg’s Place of Light

| © David Buzzard / Alamy Stock Photo
Cathy Kelly

A regenerated urban zone in downtown Johannesburg, Maboneng will entice you with its funky creativity and unexpected beauty. With vibrant and colourful streets, the precinct is a creative hub that will lighten your heart, highlighting a side of Johannesburg that is often overlooked.

As you sit at one of the sidewalk cafés in Maboneng, sipping a tasty latte while watching the passing parade of creatives and street-smart artists, it’s hard to believe that just ten years ago, the area was considered a no-go zone.

The beauty of Maboneng

Maboneng, meaning “place of light” in Sesotho (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages), consists of easily accessible city blocks in and around Fox Street. It was once home to grimy abandoned warehouses, cracked windowpanes and empty crisp packets blowing down the deserted streets. This eastern side of Johannesburg’s Central Business District had been abandoned by big businesses in favour of sleek new developments, safe streets and good coffee shops in Sandton, a growing business hub north of the city. But what was once a crumbling area is now a thriving hub of creativity, industry and good coffee. To get a feel of the area, spend a good few hours to fully absorb the vibrancy and sense of possibility. As Joburg local Lauren-Joy Rosenbach says, “It looks like the South Africa I imagined after ’94 [when South Africa became a democracy], but better.”

There’s no doubt that Maboneng is a unique place in the city. With its mix of fine-dining restaurants, art galleries and entertainment venues, the district flows with creativity. According to Bradley Kirshenbaum, co-founder of Market on Main, a popular food and design market that has been running every Sunday since its inception in 2011, Maboneng is a place like no other. “Maboneng shows a slice of Joburg life that you won’t see in any of the main tourist places. It’s diverse, fun, urban and gritty. It shows the strange contrasts that exist in Joburg. If you spend a Sunday in Maboneng, you’re going to experience the true Joburg – a side that you won’t experience in Sandton.”

The history of Maboneng

Maboneng’s transformation began in 2009 when a property development company bought up a cluster of the buildings and turned the space into Arts on Main, a creative hub. The change sparked an interest among locals and visitors alike. However, as the property development company was liquidated ten years later, 18 properties were auctioned off. But despite the changes, Maboneng continues to thrive and attract visitors, mostly due to the passionate designers and business owners who have been there since the start and continue to invest in the precinct.

Things to do in Maboneng

Wind your way down Fox Street, past a group of jamming street musicians, browse the pavement stalls of handcrafted beadwork and reasonably priced local souvenirs and stock up on mementos. When you’re done, head into Arts on Main, a collection of eateries, galleries and designer shops around a shaded courtyard filled with olive trees. After you’ve immersed in art, pop into David Krut Bookstore on the ground level. The small and intimate bookshop-cum-gallery lets you browse art books from a wide selection of local authors, as well as beautiful prints. Make sure you visit between Tuesday and Sunday when the area’s many galleries and shops are open.

To find one-of-a-kind apparel, head to I Was Shot in Joburg, a design studio and shop that plays on the verb ‘shot’ (by a camera as opposed to a gun). What started as a project by Bernard Viljoen to teach photographic skills to street kids has morphed into a funky studio filled with tongue-in-cheek designer products, from T-shirts to homeware.

At weekends, the pavements in Maboneng are thronged with a colourful array of people, from hipsters and urban creatives to middle-aged suburbanites and funky fashionistas. To get the ultimate experience, visit on a Sunday when the Market on Main is open. A leading urban food and design market, you’ll find quirky goods, sometimes handmade by the artist, organic fresh produce and craft beer. When hunger strikes, choose between the international cuisines available, such as Ethiopian, Chinese and Spanish.

The market was started by Kirshenbaum (owner and designer of Love Jozi, a clothing and product range using Johannesburg as its inspiration) and Jacques van der Watt (owner of Black Coffee fashion house). “At that time in Jozi, there were only the old-school flea markets around. We wanted to offer a new style of hip, gourmet, urban market,” says Kirshenbaum. Many of the local restaurant owners in the area started as stallholders at the market, which served as a business incubator for these novice entrepreneurs.

Another must-see spot is the Centre for the Less Good Idea, owned by William Kentridge, a world-renowned South African artist who is also the majority owner of Arts on Main. This space focusses on creating and supporting experimental and collaborative arts projects and is the place to view cutting-edge performances. Kirshenbaum adds, “It has become a very strong attraction and just shows what a huge difference Kentridge has made to the art space in Joburg.”

If you’re looking to try traditional African food, a visit to Pata Pata is a must. Named after a Miriam Makeba song, the bustling restaurant serves tasty food in a lively venue that plays live music. Stop by for a juicy burger or steak or try their mala mogodu, a South African dish. If you’re in the mood to listen to some local beats, browse the vinyl at Afrosynth, a record store with its own record label, that sells jazz and kwaito (South African hip-hop) music.

After a long day of exploring Maboneng, end your visit at the Living Room, a rooftop deck with some of the best views in Johannesburg. Enjoy a slug of cold Castle – South Africa’s national beer – as the setting sun lights up your face. Just like the buildings in this district, you’ll find yourself revitalised and rejuvenated when you leave Maboneng, the place of light.

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