Jo'burg gets its groove back

Sam Vincent witnesses a slow transformation of the inner city, led by property developers and university students.

Johannesburg has more nicknames than you can shake a vuvuzela at. There's the convenient (Jo'burg), the casual (Jozi) and the cool (J-town); there's the Anglo (Joeys), the Zulu (eGoli, meaning "place of gold") and the Afrikaans (Burg). Yet for many visitors, they all spell the same thing: danger.

South Africa's biggest city isn't exactly what one would describe as a tourist drawcard. With the exception of former president Nelson Mandela's old street in Soweto, the only area many visitors explore is the airport as they wait for a connecting flight to Cape Town or Kruger National Park.

That's a shame because Johannesburg is arguably Africa's most dynamic city. A boom town that emerged in the 1880s from the richest gold rush the world had seen, Johannesburg is still a magnet for those seeking fame and fortune. Whether it be bankers, filmmakers or musicians, Johannesburg has room for them all.

As one proud local puts it: "Tourists tend to think of Jo'burg as a city of nightmares but for millions of Africans it's a city of dreams." This isn't to say Johannesburg doesn't have problems. Apartheid has left economic, racial and emotional scars that will take generations to heal; everyone here knows someone who has become a statistic of violent crime; and the country's politicians are only just starting to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

But some perspective is needed: this is the new South Africa, not the new Somalia. Millions of dollars have been spent in the past decade improving security and policing, upgrading closed-circuit television cameras and creating social programs aimed at keeping children out of crime.

Slowly but surely it's working: the 2010 FIFA World Cup went off without a hitch, murder and carjacking statistics are stable, and residents are re-engaging with parts of their city long thought too dangerous. Resisting the urge to throw a flak jacket in my suitcase - and leaving Soweto for another trip - I've come to Johannesburg to look beyond the "big bad city" stereotype.

The inner city, where the stereotype is strongest, seems a good place to start. "Two years ago I wouldn't be taking you here," Josef Talotta says as we walk through the fast-gentrifying neighbourhood of Braamfontein. "But now things are getting better."

Talotta is the head of precinct development for South Point, a property development firm at the forefront of urban renewal here. When South Africa's notorious Apartheid Pass Laws were overturned in the mid-1990s, central Johannesburg was flooded with black job-seekers from outlying townships.

Already crippled by decades of sanctions by the international community, white-dominated city-centre companies faced skyrocketing street crime rates when some job seekers didn't find jobs. Businesses moved to Johannesburg's affluent, high-security suburb of Sandton.

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The result: downtown ceased being a central business district. Talotta reckons the inner city "bottomed out" in 2001 when abandoned skyscrapers became squatter homes for migrants. Three years later, South Point bought its first property for "theft" prices. It now owns 28. With the University of the Witwatersrand, the country's biggest, just down the road, Talotta and his team are using students to transform inner-city Braamfontein. The company provides affordable and secure accommodation for more than 4000 students and their presence has drawn fun bars and shops to the area.

Talotta takes me to Sbar, a bar started by South Point where those notoriously noisy vuvuzelas from the 2010 World Cup have been converted into light fittings and are used to illuminate tables made of recycled soft-drink cans.

In neighbouring Juta Street, the district's youthful enthusiasm has prompted creative types to set up studios in previously abandoned buildings. The fruits of their labour can be seen at Seventy Juta Street, a hub of shops, studios and galleries.

"What gives me incredible confidence in the regeneration of this district is that the kids here are the first university students in their family; it's not in their interest to stuff it up," Talotta says.

Students aren't the only ones changing perceptions about Johannesburg. During the World Cup, several thousand visiting Mexican soccer fans turned heads by venturing into suburbs considered off limits because of high crime levels. "They [the Mexicans] were telling us what a safe, clean city we had," tour guide Tania Olsson says. "Their attitude was a wake-up call for many Jo'burgers."

Olsson hopes to dispel stereotypes that have long prevented tourists and locals spending time in central Johannesburg.

Johannesburg is not a beautiful city but the incredible wealth generated here, coupled with the boom-town nature of its origins, has created an architecturally rich and varied city.

Olsson works for Past Experiences, leading history-themed walking tours. She takes me to inner-city Ellis Park (site of the rugby stadium of the same name) for its gentrified workers' cottages and to Marshalltown, a finance and business area that's also home to "firewalkers" - matriarchs who sell roasted peanuts and maize meal from braziers, transported across town on their heads.

Here Olsson points out the Rand Club, founded for the white elite by the 19th-century South African prime minister and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes and housed in a stately Victorian-era building.

"People forget the wealth generated here," Olsson says, catching me admiring Rhodes's old haunt, dwarfed by modern skyscrapers. "In the early 20th century, this city was extremely connected with the rest of the world. The 'randlords' weren't just powerful in Jo'burg or South Africa - they were powerful everywhere."

That connection to the world began to fade when, in 1948, apartheid was adopted as law by the minority white government. It is difficult for outsiders to imagine what life was like in segregated South Africa but a visit to Johannesburg's Apartheid Museum helps. Visitors should devote at least three hours to exploring this place. It begins with a big statement: entry is via narrow, wire-mesh tunnels once visitors are arbitrarily classified as either white or non-white. Inside are giant photos of the state's infamous ID cards, each one depicting a sombre face and the "racial classification" used by government to determine everything from freedom of movement to whom a South African was allowed to marry.

Opening into a series of rooms, the museum chronicles the origins, development, height and end of apartheid using photos, archival footage, newspaper clippings and installations. It is successful in conveying the banality of apartheid (one clipping tells of how the National Bird Watchers Society was forced to expel its sole non-white member) and its profound evil (131 nooses hang from the ceiling of one room, each one representing the execution of a political opponent of the apartheid regime).

Ultimately, though, the most remarkable aspect of the museum is its inclusiveness; history might be written by victors but all parts of South African society are included here.

On my last day in Johannesburg, I have lunch with Gerald Garner, the author of Spaces & Places Johannesburg, a new guidebook aimed as much at Jo'burgers wishing to rediscover their city as visitors. The venue is in Newtown, Johannesburg's chief arts precinct. Performers once expressed their opposition to apartheid here on the stage of the Market Theatre and in Kippies Jazz Club, named after legendary local saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, now immortalised, sax in hand, in a statue outside his eponymous bar.

Over a hearty ostrich casserole at Gramadoelas Restaurant, Garner, an Afrikaner originally from Pretoria, explains why Johannesburg is his favourite city. "It's the New York of Africa," he says. "It's big, it's brash, it's fluid; communities from all over the continent are constantly coming here and adding to what is already an incredibly exciting mix of cultures."

Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of Singapore Airlines and South African Tourism

FAST FACTS

Getting there Singapore Airlines has a fare to Johannesburg from Sydney and Melbourne for about $1810, low-season, return including tax. Fly to Singapore (8hr), then to Johannesburg (10hr 50min); see singaporeair.com.au.

Staying there In Braamfontein, Hotel Lamunu is a funky boutique stay ("lamunu" means orange in Sotho). Staff wear cute orange shoes that match the hue of the light fittings, shower-side soap bags and the building's exterior. Double rooms cost from 650 rand ($80) a night; 90 De Korte Street; see www.lamunu.co.za.

Touring there Past Experiences runs walking tours in Johannesburg, emphasising sites that illuminate the city's history; phone +27 11 678 3905, see pastexperiences.co.za.

While there

Sbar, 187 Smit Street; southpointhospitality.co.za/sbar.php.

Seventy Juta Street, 70 Juta Street; phone +27 11 403 0413, see 70juta.tumblr.com.

Apartheid Museum, corner Gold Reef Road and Northern Parkway. Open Tues-Sun 9am-5pm; entry 55 rand;

phone +27 11 309 4700, see www.apartheidmuseum.org.

Gramadoelas Restaurant, Bree Street; phone +27 11 838 6960, see gramadoelas.co.za.

More information See joburgtourism.com.

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