Built on mining and avarice, Joburg is a gritty, me-first kind of place. It’s also the friendliest, most creative city on the planet
Words and photos Tess Paterson
It’s late spring in the city of gold. True to its contradictory nature, Joburg has announced the season in a mash-up of charred veld, fading wisteria and braai smoke. In the greening man-made forest, plane trees discard their pollen, a potent brew with all the dust and the bone dry air.
Surrounded by pylons and yellow grass, Joburg is a vast, expanding sprawl. The Sandton skyline has grown like Lego, burnished and beckoning in the lowering sun. Rosebank, the new midtown, is booming too, as corporate HQs and high-rise apartments stake their claim among the last Art Deco gems. Across the city, 1,2 million people commute by taxis each day, speeding past huge billboards for DripSA, for Adidas X Thebe Magugu.
A die-hard Joburg fan once told me, ‘I never go further north than Bryanston, or further south than Killarney Mall.’ It was meant in humour and it’s interesting, not just because Joburgers have long lived in bubbles, but because all the real grit and turbulence and history is inherently southerly. Miss that, and you miss out. As Joburg artist Clive van den Berg puts it, ‘the further north you go, the less you’re connected to the reason for the city.’
I’ve always loved the view of Joburg from the double-decker freeway. The suddenness of Newtown, a flash of 11 Diagonal Street, the frenetic CBD, the distant shifting mine dumps. And then the routes away – the M2 East, or the right turn to Soweto, to Bloem. All the places people came from, who made the city possible at all. That quality of ‘elsewhere’ has always been at Joburg’s heart. An echo of migration that’s made it one of the greatest creative hubs in the world.
17 years ago, Wandile Zondo and Galebowe Mahlatsi founded Thesis Lifestyle. Their tagline is ‘Define Yourself,’ and today the Sowetan streetwear brand has a steadfast following, especially among young sports enthusiasts. It began as a mix of retail, music jams and events, and has always had a philosophy of outreach at heart. “What we’ve done well is to be relevant to the youth,” says Wandile. “For instance, we were there when the Jozi run crews were just starting out. As a brand we made running cool.”
“In Joburg, most people come from somewhere else”
And how did Joburg, just 30km away, impact the brand? “Joburg and Soweto have always had a strong influence on each other. It’s hard not to look at our past; Soweto shaped the history of Joburg, it was created to fear Joburg. We operate the other way, we reversed it by building a brand in Soweto.”
The label is rooted in township life, and the team uses the medium of clothing to tell that story. “In Joburg, most people come from somewhere else. Thesis touches people’s hearts. It’s urban, but it’s about culture and home.”
Interior designer Nkuli Nhleko is behind the beautiful interiors of The Bank, Rosebank’s reimagined hotel and work space. “South Africans are a naturally creative bunch,” she says, “but more so, a lot of creativity comes from having something to say. Whether you look at art, fashion or photography, there’s a resurgence of what it means to be South African right now. It’s about showcasing who we are and where we’re heading. It’s about the world having access to us.”
Over at Victoria Yards, I catch up with fashion designer Palesa Mokubung, creative powerhouse behind the Mantsho brand. We meet in her bright studio during stage four load shedding, cappuccinos supplied by generator power. Palesa is an exuberant tour de force. Her designs so confident, sophisticated and sassy that you want to head home, dismantle your entire wardrobe and start over.
“Joburg is full of opportunities,” she says. “Yes, it is the place of gold, but you’ve got to dig for it. Joburg requires focus, drive and a good support system. With those things, you can carve out a corner, create a space for yourself or your business.”
Mantsho’s following extends across our borders, and it’s just launched an international online shopping platform. But would Palesa encourage people to spend time in Jozi as tourists? “It depends on your agenda. When I travel it’s always a mix of work and leisure. I love to find textiles, search for books, buy something for my house. Oh and shoes, and good food!” She suggests that travelers to Joburg make a list of top experiences, reach out, and with a plan and an Uber, make it happen.
Tiaan Nagel’s eponymous womenswear brand combines contemporary luxury and exquisite construction. Like Palesa, he comes from the Vaal Triangle, and explains that to a degree, Joburg represented a form of escape. “To me it was both aspirational and inspirational; all those things associated with small town syndrome. People come here to find a better world. It’s a hustle city, and it’s hard – you have to figure it out. But when you go the extra mile it rewards you.”
“Experiencing Joburg is intense, it demands that you partake”
Tiaan and I discuss Cape Town, and the ongoing rivalry between the Mother City’s bucolic good looks, and Jozi’s edgy persona. “In Joburg you have to find that beauty for yourself, it’s not presented to you. Experiencing Joburg is intense, it demands that you parktake. Joburgers invite friends over, we show up. We understand that the reality of operating here is mirrored by fragility. In that sense it’s a very truthful city.”
At Melrose Arch, Oscar Ncube is at his Chiefs of Angels store. A quietly confident entrepreneur, Oscar moved here from Zim in 2009, and has a pragmatically commercial view on fashion. “I knew there would be a receptive market in Joburg,” he says. “Joburg forces people to deal with each other. And the clash of ideas and cultures allows for a completely fresh outlook.”
Oscar’s aesthetic is rooted in the timeless staples of Rock ‘n Roll, but he’s made it his own – clothing that is elegantly unfinished, occasionally upcycled and tinged with rebellion. Much like our city, really. “In Joburg I’ve found a client base that is open to newness. It’s allowed me to be me, and that wasn’t as possible back home.”
“In Joburg people unflinchingly want things that are unique and original,” comments industrial designer Joe Paine. From his chairs inspired by giant paper clips, to elegant candle holders and steel lamps that ‘give you ambience whether you like it or not,’ Joe’s designs reflect Joburg’s modern, functional aesthetic. “When I think about a design it’s always rooted in practical availability. As the main industrial centre in SA, Joburg makes it all possible.”
Perhaps nothing sums up Joburg’s originality like Thabisa Mjo’s Tutu 2.0 pendant. Traditional techniques (and the luxury of the hand made) meet in a tech-driven, contemporary design. In Doornfontein’s Hallmark House, there’s a bright red Tutu above a Barbie-pink Houtlander bench. That’s a heart-singing thing. And both products are made right here.
Ah, Jozi. As I write this, stage six load shedding takes hold. Despite all the best hope and resilience (and years of active citizenry) a lot of the city is beaten down and broken. People are in dire need. How do you reconcile all that is exceptional, with a parallel reality of neglect? With its creative richness, Joburg deserves to be a leading tourist city in its own right, a well-run mega brand.
A glimmer of hope, (we’ll take it) is that international travel to SA is gradually gaining ground, though still far off pre-Covid numbers. And a reimagined, job-strong Joburg could ignite some serious FOMO.
“If you miss out on Joburg, you miss looking at its soul”
Sarah Barret of Joburg 360 is a specialist tour guide and one of the city’s greatest advocates. Her clients are international tourists spending two to three weeks in SA. Sarah looks after the time they spend in Joburg, and outings range from The Cradle of Humankind and Soweto, to Ponte City, Constitution Hill and the inner CBD.
“I do think Joburg loses a lot of tourists to the rest of SA,” she says. “People are fearful of what they’ve heard, and it can be challenging to dispel those myths. Of course visitors should head to the winelands or on a safari, all tourism is crucial. But if you miss Joburg, you miss out on the sharp, multi-layered history of South Africa. You miss looking at its soul.”
For Sarah, the real gold is when guests say they wished they had longer here, that the Joburg experience was so much more than they’d expected. “And once you see things through a visitor’s eyes, you notice things we take for granted: the incredible arts scene, the number of recyclers, the urban forest, the warm welcome.”
After an entire lifetime in Joburg, the T-shirt slogan sums it up best: This city makes me lose my head. Just when you think you can’t handle the rollercoaster, you’ll hear the warmth in a Joburg greeting, or see a perfectly beaded life-size sheep. Or catch the warble of a Burchell’s coucal promising rain. “Nothing beats a Joburg summer,” says Joe Paine. “It’s partly why we’re all here. It’s a dichotomy – the trees, the ruthless concrete, the people, all the stuff that’s soft, harsh, interesting.”
Postscript: To plan a day or a week in Joburg, you’ll find excellent info and honest views here: Johannesburg in your pocket; 2Summers; The Scribs & Nibs. Thank you to guide Phillip Malepa for the awesome tuk-tuk tour through Soweto.