Johannesburg: South Africa’s own Detroit is Climbing Out Into The Sunshine
Johannesburg was a gold rush city. Established in 1886, following the discovery of gold on a small farmstead in the area, Johannesburg rapidly swelled in size as prospectors swarmed through chasing their gilded dreams, eventually expanding to become the largest city in South Africa. Yet today, the overwhelming picture most outsiders have of Johannesburg couldn’t be further from its land of milk and honey beginnings.
Instead of precious metals and prosperity, when one thinks of Johannesburg now, one thinks of the slums of Soweto; the cruelties of apartheid which saw figures like Gandhi and Nelson Mandela locked up and subjected to years of torture; and the relentless crime and desperation seen in news footage and documentaries and even the sci-fi films ‘District 9’ and ‘Chappie’ made by native Johannesburg filmmaker, Neil Blomkamp.
And indeed, following the end of apartheid, Johannesburg became a dangerous place; instability and white flight created a vacuum in which crime flourished and ‘Jozi’ and ‘Joburg’, the affectionate childlike nicknames given to Johannesburg, seemed cruelly ill-suited to a city that was apparently dying; visitors heading to the safer environs of the suburbs and sister city Cape Town rather than spend time in a city that, at times, resembled a warzone rather than a prosperous metropolis.
Yet against all odds, Johannesburg is rising phoenix-like from the ashes, slowly but surely becoming a vibrant, economic powerhouse again. Artists are setting up galleries and big business is moving back in. Shops, restaurants and markets are flourishing and expensive cars cruise down streets that, a decade ago, were no-go areas for, well, anyone with an expensive car. Tourism is booming, and international travellers no longer only use the city as a layover en route to hunting the herds of wildebeest out on the great savannahs.
Reasons for this reversal of fortune are many – increased investment (especially during the South African World Cup), civic improvements, the growing corporate presence (Johannesburg is the financial centre of South Africa), and strong crime prevention all play a role. Sensing Joburg’s increasing vitality are the Four Seasons, who have recently opened their new hotel, the Westcliff, in an upmarket area of the city known as the Parks. It’s their first hotel in South Africa, evidence of a perceptive eye that has noticed that things here are on the up and up.
The Westcliff is situated a half-hour drive from OR Tambo International Airport, a journey that gave me my first-ever glimpse of Johannesburg in person and a chance to find out if there really were riots on the streets or derelict slums everywhere I looked or killer shack-dwelling aliens rampaging about a la ‘District 9’. There were not. The skyline, as seen from the motorway, resembled an old school American city, a Memphis or a Charlotte. Houses nestled into the sides of the city hills looked as if they could have been plucked from the slopes of Los Angeles. Indeed, the only unpleasant things I saw en route to the hotel were dozens of billboards displaying Jeremy Clarkson’s gurning mug, the former Top Gear man a major star in South Africa too – gentrification sometimes exacts a terrible price.
On the positive side of gentrification, however is the Westcliff itself, which is really rather special. Cut into a hillside, it overlooks the Johannesburg Zoo, and one can see giraffes and elephants from the terrace above (and hear the lions roar in the early dawn if you leave your balcony doors open). Golf carts ferry you up and down the steep slopes that wind around the neo-classical buildings and a spectacular glass elevator ascends from the ground to the dining room terrace.
There are 117 rooms in total, including 12 suites, and all are elegant and expectedly spacious (my room was bigger than my flat), decked out in modern African patterns mixed with contemporary European chic. All rooms have either a balcony or a terrace, and my particular terrace gave me a prime view over the zoo and the adjoining park. There’s an outdoor lap pool and a luxurious spa – the signature massage is so thorough that I felt at least 10 years worth of knots were kneaded out of my shoulders. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable and the hotel has the feeling of a luxury resort rather than a regular hotel.
The crown jewels of the Westcliff, however, are the two restaurants, Flames and View. Both are overseen by German chef Dirk Gieselmann, formerly of the three Michelin-starred Auberge de l’Ill in France, and they offer two very different dining experiences.
Situated on the outdoor terrace, Flames is the more casual of the two restaurants and it serves a South African form of barbecue called braai (taken from the Afrikaans word for “to grill”). Lunch at Flames was an endless parade of grilled meats and seafood, from Karoo lamb chops to West Coast oysters to exotic cuts like springbok carpaccio, all washed down with beers culled from South Africa’s burgeoning micro-brewery scene. It would be extremely easy to while away an afternoon drunk on Devil’s Peak Golden Ale and fat on skewers of ostrich meat, whilst monkeys and tigers monkey and tiger about in the zoo below.
View on the other hand, is the Westcliff’s fine dining experience, awash with expensive crystal glasses and amuse bouches of sea bass oyster tartar with watercress and caviar and ocean spume (best ocean spume I’ve had in years). View serves rich, complex modern European cuisine, again with an African edge (wellington is made with springbok rather than beef for example, while a starter of carrots in different textures comes with roasted Mozambique prawns and coriander pesto). The wine list is impressive, and desserts like dark chocolate pastilla with caramelised mango and Tahitan vanilla ice cream are obscene in their decadence. View is not a restaurant for the abstemious or the casual diner, but for an occasional visit, it’s a rare treat indeed.
Interestingly, on the night I dined, I would hazard a guest that 75% of the diners were locals rather than tourists and there’s clearly money in the city. Nonetheless, the key question is why did the Four Seasons chose Johannesburg for their first South African location, rather that the more obvious choices of Cape Town or Pretoria? A tour of the city provides many of the answers.
Two opposing neighbourhoods show the extremes that afflict Joburg. The affluent Sandton area, with its gleaming skyscrapers, business hotels and expensive shopping malls, is indicative of the white flight that left the center of the city to rack and ruin. Meanwhile, the previously abandoned downtown area of Johannesburg physically resembles Detroit with its grand old crumbling buildings and dusty car parks, and it teems with street life from roadside hustlers to preachers proselytising about the coming of the Lord. It’s somewhere in between these two opposing, literally black and white iterations of the city, that the new Johannesburg is springing up, and it can be mostly found in formerly abandoned warehouses and repurposed industrial spaces.
During my visit, I heard numerous people compare the revitalised Joburg with Berlin after the fall of the Berlin wall. The comparison rings true. The Neighbourgoods Market, a food and drink fair held in a warehouse space every Saturday in Braamfontein feels as if it could have been plucked from the streets of Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain or even Williamsburg. Like a Borough Market for hipsters, dozens of stall owners flog everything from artisanal cupcakes to gourmet fried chicken sandwiches to a young, hip and most importantly integrated crowd. The streets surrounding Neighbourgoods are similarly packed with high-end trainer stores and independent fashion boutiques, all expensive and imbued with an aching cool, similar to the vibe Brooklyn had before the moneymen moved in.
44 Stanley is another revitalised industrial space, packed with high-end furniture stores, bars, restaurants and the Fairtrade coffee company Bean There. 4th Avenue in Parkhurst offers a more sedate shopping and eating experience, coming off like an African cousin of a main street in small town America. Maboneng, meanwhile, has a touch of Dalston to it, an area which just a few years ago was a muggers paradise but today sports a dense selection of contemporary street art, galleries, a weekly market similar to Neighbourgoods and a swathe of swanky newly built apartments for wealthy urban pioneers. Again, the place throngs with a sophisticated, well-dressed and integrated crowd, but stray too far from the main thoroughfares and the streets look decidedly sketchy, whilst an open sewer that runs through the area shows that there’s still work to be done here.
Ultimately, however, the changes in Johannesburg are impressive and it thrums with the electricity that revitalisation brings, an electricity that the Four Seasons have clearly felt. It may have seemed in the dark days of the 1990s that Joburg would never recover from its economic and criminal woes but a visit to Constitution Hill shows that the city has been through worse and recovered before – now the bright and beautiful seat of the Constitutional Seat of South Africa, Constitution Hill was formerly the Old Fort Prison complex where Mandela and Gandhi were held. Just as Johannesburg has tried to heal its psychic scars by repurposing a building devoted to brutality into something committed to higher ideals, so the rest of Jozi is transforming itself, beautifying itself after years of neglect and finally having is day in the sun.
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