City of contrasts

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 August, 2011, 12:00am


Johannesburg is known more for its tumultuous political past, crime rate and status as one of the biggest business centres in Africa than as an epicentre for art and culture, but that is slowly changing.

The city, also known as Egoli, Jo'burg or lovingly by young locals as Jozi, is experiencing a renaissance in its inner city, an area that is becoming increasingly hip and attracting droves of tourists and locals alike. Various parts of the city centre, once rife with crime, have been redeveloped to preserve their historic character and provide venues for the arts and design.

The Newtown area is a major hub for culture, with a new suspension bridge, the Nelson Mandela Bridge, built over the railway lines creating a convenient access point to this section of the city.

The charming Market Theatre at 56 Margaret Mcingana Street, built in the 1900s and once a thriving Indian produce market, was saved from bulldozers by a group of art activists and the precinct is now central to Johannesburg's cultural heritage.

Newtown also has Museum Africa, which tracks the history of South Africa from the Stone Age to the present; Bassline, a live music venue that hosts the latest international and local acts; and craft shops, apartments, galleries, restaurants and dance schools.

Just north of the city centre the government has developed the Constitutional Court of South Africa on the border of Braamfontein and Hillbrow, a name once synonymous with drugs, prostitution and violence.

The site used to be a prison, built in 1893, which kept political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli and Mahatma Gandhi, among many others. The building now houses an excellent art collection and encourages the public to visit.

East of the city centre in the Maboneng Precinct lies Arts on Main, a development in a 1900s bonded warehouse that has an outdoor cinema, exhibition space, restaurant, live music venue and art supplies and book shop. It also houses private artist studios, including one for William Kentridge, one of South Africa's most respected artists.

Down the road is Main Street Life, a 1970s industrial building that has been transformed into a mixed-use complex with studios, retail shops, a rooftop events venue and an art hotel. The hotel, 12 Decades, is a self-catering venue that traces the history of Johannesburg over 120 years with rooms conceptualised by some of South Africa's most celebrated artists and designers.

The city's parks have also been rehabilitated, and a large section of Main Street, which runs from Gandhi Square and the Carlton Centre down to the Law Courts, has been pedestrianised and landscaped. The gardens, new public spaces and the prevalence of art venues have given Johannesburg city centre a distinct, creative identity. Other venues of interest include the unforgettable Apartheid Museum, the Johannesburg Art Gallery, and Gold Reef City, a theme park that is a reconstruction of how the city appeared during the gold rush of the late 19th century.

A guided tour of Soweto township is another fascinating glimpse into the many facets that make up the vibrant, complex character that defines Johannesburg today.