We arrived in Maboneng by shuttle, driving past industrial warehouses re-appropriated as gospel churches (the congregation conversing beside half-faded signs for panel beaters and mechanical repairs), narrowly avoiding children using the two-lane underpass as a soccer stadium and admiring the effortless cool of young Joburgers layered in vintage garms.
This wasn’t the Johannesburg I’d read about in books or seen on television. That Johannesburg came accompanied by frightened faces, cruel smiles and the rat-a-tat-tat soundtrack of semi-automatic pistols used for purse snatching, carjacking and kidnapping. I’d heard about an apartment block so lawless a 10-storey rubbish pile grew in the courtyard, hiding bodies tossed into the abyss of human detritus under the cover of darkness.
Instead I’d spent my first night in Jozi at The Pot Luck Club listening to live jazz, smoking cigars and eating sliders so good I smiled between each bite. Johannesburg has suffered more than most, but from the post-apartheid ashes an exciting, increasingly liveable city has emerged. I haven’t been able to get the image of Maboneng’s 40-metre (131-foot) mural of Mandela bathed in sub-Saharan winter sun from my mind since.
I met Bheki Dube the next morning outside Curiocity Backpackers, the design hostel on Fox Street that he founded four years ago. Bheki, a “born, bred and buttered” Joburger, grew up skating and photographing Maboneng when the neighbourhood was still notorious. “There wasn’t any economy here when I was a kid,” says the poster boy for its regeneration. “Just abandoned buildings and non-functional warehouses.”
“No one would chill here 10 years ago,” he tells me between mouthfuls at Argentinian restaurant CHE. We’re having lunch in the former warehouse, enjoying tender ribs and prime steak, our conversation punctuated by the crackling flames of the grill, softly sizzling behind the well-stocked rustic bar. Outside the window, couples stride languidly down Fox Street, Joburgers stop to snap fingers and share stories.
Bheki was one of the first commercial tenants in the area and part of the Global Shapers Community responsible for Maboneng’s transformation. He is friends with Jonathan Liebmann, a South African entrepreneur putting Maboneng on the map with the work of his land development company, Propertuity. It’s a project the scale of which can only be compared to Shoreditch, SoHo, Downtown Los Angeles and, more recently, Woodstock, Cape Town.
“The buildings were well priced, well designed and mainly empty, which meant a blank canvas,” Liebmann tells me. Maboneng’s transformation began eight years ago when Propertuity turned a block of abandoned warehouses into Arts on Main, leasing spaces to acclaimed South African artist William Kentridge and art entrepreneur David Krut.
Today there are over 600 commercial tenants including galleries, restaurants, even an independent cinema. “We will continue to focus on public spaces like outdoor gyms, small parks, upgraded paving, landscaping, public art and a large scale urban farm over the next two years,” says Liebmann.
Wanting to experience more of Maboneng, I join P.A.S.T Experiences founder Jo Buitendach for a street-art tour of the area. We talk about Johannesburg’s big Ethiopian community and the emergence of subcultures like graffiti and skateboarding. Across the street an elderly rasta chugs on his jagged spliff in time with Lucky Dube (South Africa’s famous reggae musician murdered in a carjacking not far from Maboneng).
South Africa’s capital was ravaged by apartheid in the 20th century, the wounds of which have never really healed. Visible scars, like the bullet holes as fresh as the day they were fired and hastily assembled memorials to those who died too young. Like Soweto (South West Township), Maboneng (which translates from Sotho as ‘place of lights’) is somewhere people come to communicate with the past through artistic expression.
On one section of street you can see the rough work of young artists alongside multi-story murals made by more experienced hands. “Graffiti has found a space in Maboneng, especially on the pillars under the highway and in the surrounding Jeppestown area,” says Jo.
We walk past Drivelines Studios, a new residential and retail space made from up-scaled shipping containers, and on through the sculpture garden at The Cosmopolitan, overlooked by an enormous mural of 17th-century Dutch colonialist Jan van Riebeeck by street artists Gaia and Freddy Sam. “The eastern edge of the city is covered in art, in many different forms,” says Jo. “But the graffiti subculture in Joburg’s city centre is strong, gritty and amazing.”
That night I stayed at Hallmark House hotel, the black behemoth designed by Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye. It’s big, softly lit and luxurious, and sticks out from the skyline like a lump of coal against metal and glass, drawing our gaze as we watch the sunset from rooftop bar, The Living Room. “Seeing this transformation says a lot about where Johannesburg has come from and what it is becoming,” Bheki tells me over sundowners.
“The people that moved here 10 years ago were pioneering creative types,” says Liebmann. “Most of these residents remain but we’ve added young professionals and hopefully a new profile of families, given all the schools opening in the area.”
It’s a neighbourhood in the middle of rapid transformation, an African spring in the heart of Johannesburg. Who knows how long Maboneng will be able to keep its authenticity but, for the time being, both residents and visitors are enjoying a new chapter in Joburg’s story.