An American traveler’s first 48 hours in Jozi, South Africa
Note to self: Next time, avoid visiting Johannesburg during the Christmas/New Year’s season if you’re looking for the usual summertime bustle. The city, I’ve been told, goes near empty at this time as Jozi dwellers flock to idyllic coastal towns such as Cape Town and Durban for their holiday. Duly noted.
It’s a shame that rumors — outdated ones, especially — have such power to damage reputations. I didn’t need to experience Joburg to understand it’s one of the world’s most misunderstood destinations. First-time tourists to South Africa flock to Cape Town en masse, as it’s more beautiful and world-renowned. But many are still stuck on hearsay back from 1998 that JoBurg is a run-down, crime-ridden city that should be a no-go zone for travelers. Not many are aware of (and others don’t care to share) the tremendous progress that’s happened over time…so when I constantly heard from friends with direct experience living/traveling in today’s Johannesburg that it is indeed “safe to swim”, I happily took the plunge.
The Downtown Sights
On top of the Carlton Centre, Africa’s tallest building!
I walked and tour-bussed through its main CBD (or downtown) on my first afternoon. Afterwards my friend, a frequenter in Johannesburg, asked me if the city (the “inner city” Jozi, as I didn’t get the chance to see the world’s largest manmade “forested” side of the city) was what I expected. To be honest, it was: not classically pretty, busy and a bit distressed in many areas, but with an energy worth exploring. I knew it would be no Paris; while it’s more gritty concrete jungle than charming city-center, exciting sights appeared once I looked in the right direction. Directly above the grungy, partitioned ground floors of retail space are several aged art deco buildings hinting at Johannesburg’s glorious past, aesthetically-speaking. I learned Johannesburg has one of the largest collection of art deco buildings of any city in the world, third after Miami and New York. The buildings here, however, need much TLC, but the city has begun reclaiming the many derelict spaces in hopes of making the CBD a viable, flourishing area once again.
On the Red Bus Tour crossing the Mandela Bridge
Party/Music Scene (One of the Main Reasons I Visited!)
As a bonafide Deep House music lover, I’ve been told that House is huge in South Africa, but I had to be there to see it. My God…South Africa is House music. You’ll hear it everywhere, much more than Rap. The first songs on the radio on my cab ride from the airport to my accommodation were Deep House tracks. What I found frustrating to find in the States is ubiquitous in Johannesburg. Musically, I am home.
And this unyielding crime people speak of…I must have missed it. I wasn’t robbed, held at gunpoint or felt threatened at any time. Not only was I in the CBD, but also in “the hood” (late at night!), in a massive township called Alexandra that evening. Perhaps my semi-local friend and I are more intrepid travelers than others, but I didn’t shudder at the thought of taking a taxi and getting dropped off at a very un-touristy spot of town to party. The venue, called Stoep 15, was a trip in itself — a so-called “abandoned mansion” now turned into a club spot in an unlikely locale. Abandoned is correct; the front and east wing of the space is completely open-faced, and there’s incomplete stair construction that would lead to the second floor (though you can’t access it safely). There are no doors to enter. It’s just you, the buzzing crowd spilling onto the residential block, sultry Deep House music and an unfiltered view of the neighborhood and distant, twinkling hills. If this were to exist in any Western city a la London or New York, it would be a tremendous string of sanctions, complaints and lawsuits waiting to happen…but the coolest places in the world, I believe, tend to be the most unregulated.
As an American, I was astounded to witness all that was around me in the township. We’re in the ghetto and every single person in the packed, sprawling complex is black, young and many most likely local. They have to be playing hip-hop and R&B, right?? I instead saw hundreds of girls and guys, straight and flamboyantly gay side-by-side, in harmony vibing to the beats of chilled South African Deep House music. I just couldn’t imagine going to a party full of black 20-year-olds in the slums of Brooklyn bouncing to Black Motion and Kojo Akusa, or masculine heterosexuals in the same space as bag-and-heels boys with absolutely no tension. Unfathomable. But this is how it is in South Africa, a country where progressive rights were made constitutional back in the 90’s…issues that these so-called “greater” countries have only begun addressing.
Leaping through the Maboneng District
The area that excited me most in my first 48 hours was Maboneng, the fast-developing industrial-chic neighborhood where I stayed, nestled next to the CBD. I walked around to see blocks of black African-owned boutiques & multicultural cafes, vibrant murals and street art, fun passerby fashions and a trendy spirit that reminded me of Shoreditch (in London) and Williamsburg (in NYC). I learned from locals that this artsy vibe and edge in its people permeates Johannesburg, making it superior to Cape Town for the creative crowd. I’m now aware you don’t go to Jozi intending to find charm and beauty…you go for the buzz. And the amazing people.
And buzzing it certainly is. It was lovely to experience a city currently “on-the-rise”, to witness the rigorous transformation of a place with a terribly trying past. Johannesburg is a lively city that I, like many who have visited, will excitedly anticipate all the upward change that will occur in the next five years. And if what I experienced at time of my visit was “empty” Johannesburg, I’ll be clamoring for another plane ticket to re-visit and jump into its fullness very soon.
Have you been to Johannesburg? Live there? Would love to know what you think about the city too! Sound off below 😉