Spencer’s parents and sister are visiting, so we are trying to show them as much of Joburg as we possibly can in a few days. In doing so, we discovered just how eclectic and diverse this place is. It was, as my Father-in-law described it, an urban adventure.
We started our day with a brunch at the swanky Four Seasons Westcliff Hotel. The restaurant is set on the edge of the Westcliff Ridge, and our table on the deck afforded awesome views over the green northern suburbs.
Our brunch was extravagant, excessive and oh-so-delicious. A huge “starter bar” overflowed with salads, fruits, pastries, cheeses. We could order an egg dish, and then the whole table was served a platter of grilled meats and hot sides. I barely had room for the petit desserts.
From brunch we headed to another side of the city. which in many ways is another world from the posh gated paradise of the Westcliff. We set off on a tour of the urban neighborhood of Hillbrow, led by the Inner City Adventures. The tour began in an apartment at the top of the Ponte Tower, a landmark of the Jozi skyline and a symbol of the city’s renewal.
At 54 stories, Ponte Tower is the tallest residential building in the Southern Hemisphere. It is a circular tower with an empty core. It was built in 1976, and at the time was the hottest address for the city’s artsy “in”-crowd. The surrounding neighborhood of Hillbrow was a thriving, cosmopolitan and diverse community.
This kind of inclusivity did not sit will with the ruling Apartheid government. Their solution was to completely cut off all services to the area. Without electricity, water, or trash services, residents moved out. Drugs, prostitution, and slum lords moved in. The building became “hijacked,” in which gangs continue to rent out the property to anyone desperate enough to live in such conditions. The tower essentially became a high-rise slum. Over 7,000 people lived in a building designed for around 3,500. There were no working elevators, no services at all. Trash was thrown down the inner core, eventually filling up 14 stories high.
In the lead up to the 2010 World Cup, the investors decided it was time to clean up Hillbrow. The squatting residents of Ponte Tower were removed, the trash dug out, and the apartments remodeled. The building is now safer and cleaner, and a prominent symbol of South Africa’s renewal.
Hillbrow was lively and bustling on a Sunday afternoon. Everywhere people headed to and fro in their Sunday best, street-vendors hawked their wares, and mothers ran errands with sleepy babies strapped to their backs.
The tour took us past a brothel, another “hijacked” building, through a busy market, and finished up with a big meal of fried chicken and pap at a local tavern.
The area is still not exactly safe (I almost got hit by an erratic driver, and our guide admitted he’d been pick-pocketed twice on tours.) But it is also not a crime-ridden slum. It felt like any other urban area in a big city – crowded, hectic, full of life and community.
We finished the day with a visit the trendy neighborhood of Maboneng. If Westcliff Hotel was a remnant of South Africa’s segregated past, and Hillbrow an experience of Johannesburg as it is for most resident’s today, Maboneng is a glimpse of the city’s future. Investment and development has turned the once decayed area from a “no-go” zone into a hip and vibrant urban center. Art galleries, restaurants, shops and street vendors have moved into the area. The real centerpiece of Maboneng is old warehouse which has been turned into Arts on Main, a market open every Sunday overflowing with delicious food and crafts.
In just one day we explored (and tasted) three very different, but equally fascinating slices of Johannesburg life. Now we just need more visitors to make the trip, as an excuse for more urban safaris!
But first, we are off on a real safari – tomorrow we fly to Zimbabwe!