The Dose of Cool That Saved Johannesburg
The hostel reputed to be Mandela’s apartheid-era hideout is now the center of a network of cultural entrepreneurs who have helped revive the South African city.
“There’s something really special about being molded in the brimstone and fire that is Johannesburg,” says slam poet Lebohang Masango.
“If you’re in South Africa and you want to actualize some kind of dream, this is the place you come to.”
The 24-year-old, who goes by the name Nova, tells me this standing above The Hideout, the bar at Curiocity Backpackers on the east side of the city—the same place, rumor has it, Nelson Mandela took refuge during apartheid. (Saturday, July 18, is “Mandela Day” in South Africa, when the great statesman who died, age 95, in 2013, is remembered and celebrated.)
And now Mandela’s apartheid hideout is a hipster hostel.
On this brisk Saturday night, young, carefree locals are playing pool, making out on the couch, or crowded around a bonfire with travelers from as far away as Norway.
Remnants of Ring of Fire are left behind on a table with an empty bottle of Savanna Dry.
“To many people Johannesburg is a space of crime and grime. And that’s it,” says Bheki Dube, Curiocity’s charismatic owner.
“Yes, in the ’90s Jo’burg went through a major urban decline, but look at the cooler side. It’s a space with great heritage and history. It’s now a space of transition, a space that’s going through major urban regeneration.”
Johannesburg was recently ranked the most popular place in Africa for young people aged 15 to 29 by the 2015 YouthfulCities Index, which considers factors like creativity, employment, safety and entrepreneurship.
Bheki opened Curiocity in 2013 less than a mile from where he grew up. He was only 21.
Now there are nearly 200 new businesses in the area, known as The Maboneng Precinct, owned by entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s. But while young business owners are an emerging force here, South Africa struggles with youth unemployment.
The World Economic Forum estimated more than 50 percent of South African youth aged 15 to 24 are unemployed, making it the third-highest youth unemployment rate in the world.
“We brought ourselves here. Nobody had to come and find us,” says Major, 25, on how he and his two friends, who opened Home Grwn skate shop next to Curiocity, made it in Maboneng.
“Now there’s opportunities, but you have to seek them. They’re not just handed over to you.”
That go-getter attitude is what’s fueling the creative scene in Jozi, as the locals affectionately call it.
“When you speak of creatives in Johannesburg, and creatives in South Africa, you reference them to places like this,” says Nova. “This is where people are thinking of new ways to move about in the city and new ways to articulate themselves.”
Twenty-one years have passed since apartheid ended in South Africa—a relatively short period of time. Freedom of expression, freedom to create, and freedom to build is a new way of life.
“A lot of us come from spaces where our grandfathers used to work for white people. They never had ownership of anything,” says Nelson Makamo, one of the city’s most promising young artists, whose powerful depictions of South African youth adorn Maboneng’s industrial landscape.
“They don’t believe in working for [the] man. So, most of them started doing this [entrepreneurship] thing.”
But it is not only twentysomethings spearheading this rejuvenation.
Maria McCloy sells her eponymous line of African print accessories at Maboneng’s popular Sunday market, Market on Main, which attracts large crowds from the suburbs and gated communities into the city.
“What does young actually mean? I’m not a young person, because I’m 40,” says McCloy.
“But my label, in terms of African print shoes and clutches, is quite a new thing. And we’re all embracing the opportunities and the inspiration of Jo’burg. It’s very much a ‘make it happen’ city, and we’re all doing it.”
When she launched her independent media company, Black Rage Productions, at the end of apartheid at 19, she was very much alone. Now the creative scene has mushroomed.
“If you go to Maboneng and Braamfontein [another creative enclave], whether in a shop or at the market set up, you see young people expressing their South Africanness in so many interesting ways,” she says.
But not everyone is on board with the gentrification of the inner city, like Maboneng, where the divide between the haves and the have-nots is hard to ignore.
Protests erupted this year after the evictions of low-income families in nearby Jeppestown, leaving many locals to question who really benefits from private developments. Propertuity, the property developer of The Maboneng Precinct, maintains it had nothing to do with the displacement.
“I have friends who even refuse to entertain the notion of this place existing. They refuse to come here. Refuse to participate in the market. If it’s happening here, they’re not coming,” says Nova.
“That’s hard for me to negotiate myself,” she says. “Because while I come here, I can access black businesses, I can support people like the owner of this joint [Curiocity Backpackers].”
The city’s cultural scene is undeniably vibrant. There’s the pop-up day party started by six girlfriends called The Wknd Social that travels to a new urban space in downtown Johannesburg every month, where cool kids party into the evening in colorful prints, bold braids and a proud sense of self—ready for their Instagram closeup.
Or the crew who started the Fixin Diaries bike shop in Soweto, that leads mobs of fashionable (and health-conscious) cyclists on social rides through the Johannesburg’s suburbs and townships.
“Johannesburg is pretty new, fresh—everything is not necessarily done. It’s small, so it’s intimate,” says Rendani Muhkeli of the Soweto photography trio, I See A Different You, who is working on a collaboration with Nelson Makamo. “So, we get to know the greatest of the great in our generation. And they’re just a small grasp away.”
Now the rest of the world is watching, especially on Instagram, where the South African community is rapidly growing.
Maitele Wawe, who brought the Johannesburg vibe to the capital, Pretoria, when he created the uber-eclectic monthly art, fashion and food market, The Social Market (spotted on The Cut), said: “I got an email from Amsterdam the other day and this guy said, ‘We really, really love what you’re doing.’
“Even like in Kenya, Botswana—all neighboring countries—there’s a lot of people that like what we’re doing. But more, it’s because how we portray it, how we show it [on social media] to say, ‘Well, this is the vibe that we have.’”
Attitudes about the city, the country, and more importantly, its people, are changing, with social media driving the changes.
“We are living in a digital age where you take a picture and you post it online and a lot of people can see it,” says Vuyo of I See A Different You, a Tumblr of pictures of Africa, which, he says, people view and say, “Yo, I didn’t think Africa was like this.”
“We’ve met people from everywhere who come to South Africa and say, ‘Guys, we are here just because of your photography,’” says Fhatuwani of I See A Different You.
South Africa’s post-apartheid generation agree there is no better time to be doers and implementers than now.
“I can afford to be foolish,” says Muhkeli. “I can afford to have a voice that’s different to everyone else’s voice without caring how much that can affect me. I can afford to make mistakes and redo things again—or learn from them. Creativity, generally, to us as the youth is important because we are the voice of the country. We are the spine of the country.”
Back at The Hideout, Bheki is sitting below the 1966 issue of the ANC’s anti-apartheid publication, Fighting Talk, with words from Nelson Mandela, printed at Curiocity’s very same premises—aware of the past with his sights set on the future.
“I think it’s very important that each generation should find its own mission and fulfill it,” he says, quoting another black political radical, Frantz Fanon. “And that’s what’s happening right now. We’re finding our own mission and fulfilling it.”
Videos shot by Garfield Larmond.