South Africa’s Place of Light

We unloaded our packs from the airport taxi in Johannesburg. Music filled the air as the afternoon sun bathed the streets. Loud chatter emanated from outdoor cafés lining the sidewalk and lounges on the roofs. There stood a six-storey building constructed entirely out of green freight containers, striking in its minimalism. People posed beneath a sparkling sign that dangled across one street. It read, “Maboneng,” meaning “place of light” in Sotho, one of South Africa’s 11 official languages. Everything was buzzing.

Johannesburg - “Jozi” or “Joburg”, as the locals say - has emerged over the last decade as an international urban hub. It’s earned the title as Africa’s most visited city for international travelers in 2016.

Despite statistics, Johannesburg’s reputation is that of a stopover - its major airport acts as a gateway to the rest of Southern Africa. It’s often compared to its sister city, Cape Town, which boasts a coastal beauty that Jozi can’t provide.

I arrived in Johannesburg after a month in Zambia, thinking that I’d have a quick stopover before heading home. The friends I was travelling with would head south through the country’s mountainous landscape to the coastline. I felt like I was missing out on what people travelled to South Africa to see.

Yet, it was so simple to merely consider “must sees” of South Africa that I’d read online. It wasn’t until I’d experienced the city that realized my own assumptions.

Johannesburg is a cultural centre with with eclectic markets, eccentric nightlife, and a personality like no other. Frankly, it’s the coolest place I’ve ever been.

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Warehouse spaces and other buildings have been repurposed as residences. (Photo by Sydney Bartos.)

What's more, Johannesburg is considered a more recent addition to the index of global cities. Spanning a few blocks around the city’s main hub on Fox Street, Maboneng is an affluent enclave. While some neighbourhoods have experienced gentrification, others house low-income residents who have been displaced to the city outskirts. As Maboneng gleams with modern architecture and hipster coffee joints, areas just outside remain rugged and excluded from the development.

Maboneng precinct was once a no-go area, as businesses moved to northern  Johannesburg in the years following the abolition of Apartheid. Today, it’s the epicentre of the city’s creative community. Ambitious local entrepreneurs transformed Maboneng’s abandoned warehouses into thriving market spaces and residential buildings, bringing in  a new age for the area.

Our hostel used to house the Pacific Press, which published material for the African National Congress, and is said to have even been a place of refuge for Nelson Mandela, who would go on to be South Africa’s first black president. Johannesburg was one of the centres in the anti-Apartheid fight. It's crucial to recognize the history that impacted black South Africans, especially as it emerges as an international tourist hub.

Maboneng represents what writer Malcolm Rees called “2.0 development,” a counter project to the Apartheid’s attempt to segregate the population. It’s home to thriving black culture, and as the bars filled up by midday, a mixed community thrives together in the vibrant space.

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Every Sunday, tourists flock Arts on Main, a weekly food and arts market. (Photo by Sydney Bartos.)

Our first evening at the hostel bar, 20 minutes after introductions and small talk with a few Jozi locals, a group of at least ten of us were piled into one of our new friend’s red jeep. We all headed to a bar in another area of the city, and danced until the early-morning hours.

(Thinking back now, it probably wasn’t the smartest idea to get into a stranger’s car, but that’s thing, in Joburg, everyone you meet feels like an old friend)

The next day, we wandered the precinct. Music ensembles played and vendors lined the streets. It wasn’t uncommon to stop and chat to a vendor for a little while. After a few minutes browsing through a rack of vintage coats, my friend had already made a contact to reach out to once they got to Cape Town. I was so struck by the genuine friendliness that every local carried. It came with such nonchalance. If you browsed through a store in Toronto, you carry on, you do your own thing - for the most part you don’t want to be bothered. Here, interactions come so naturally. Of course you befriend the store keepers within several minutes of being somewhere, and get into stranger’s cars.

Perhaps being a tourist, you have a certain allure of being from somewhere distant and different, but I don’t think it was just that. In Joburg, everyone just seemed to go out of their way to create authentic connections with people they come across.

The next night, we somehow ended up at an invite-only warehouse party in Braamfontein, west of Maboneng. The party-goers were the coolest-looking crowd I have ever seen, dressed in elaborate fashion get-ups featuring baggy leather pants and faux fur. Canadian tourists were definitely not on the guest list, but our new friends had an elaborate scheme to get us all the sought-after yellow wristbands. After regrouping outside, and convincing a different bouncer each time, one by one we all got a wristband. We were in.

Our night ended at Shaker’s Bar back in Maboneng at 3 a.m. I learned quickly that people in Jozi live a work hard, play harder lifestyle. We had been to Shaker’s earlier that day, and it was just as lively then as it was in the early hours. It had gone from a place to grab an afternoon beer and hang to a crammed-to-capacity bar. Does Jozi ever sleep?

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An abandoned warehouse now used to host concerts and parties. (Photo by Sydney Bartos)

The night when I was crammed in that red jeep, we had left the streets of Maboneng behind and had turned onto the highway that winded through the outskirts of the downtown core. All it was, was an arrangement of buildings. From the outside, it looked like any city.

Looking at something from the outside, you don’t see its quirks. You see what the world has told you to see, and then your conclusion is drawn from travel guides, or what you see on the news channels. I learned not to let outside judgement determine where I travel or how I think of a place. Everywhere should be met with an open mind.  

Wondering Johannesburg’s streets, absorbing the energy, learning the history, and getting to know the quirks, you saw it from the inside. That’s where you want to be.