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The New South Africa

Neighbourgoods Market

Photo by Rikki Hibbert

Dining outside at The Neighbourgoods Market on a sunny day in Johannesburg.

To see why South Africa prides itself as the “Rainbow Nation,” head some Saturday morning to Johannesburg’s Neighbourgoods Market. Every week, a motley confluence of 5,000 people drifts through a parking garage in the Braamfontein neighborhood to browse among stalls laden with fresh oysters, homemade ginger beer, biltong, Balkan burgers and paella at what is likely the city’s biggest block party. Blacks, whites, Indians and those of mixed race: The eclectic crowd from all across the city resembles, well . . . a rainbow, a microcosm of contemporary South Africa. “It’s the most multicultural venue on this continent, no question,” says Adam Levy, the real estate developer who spearheaded the rejuvenation of the historic Braamfontein district.

On its 20th birthday, South Africa is coming of age, a promising young adult that’s already accomplished far beyond its years. The country was primped and polished for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, rebooted with shiny new stadiums, revamped airports and a stream of swanky hotels and restaurants in anticipation of the ensuing global invasion. But as football fervor died down and the masses ebbed away, a wave of street-smart entrepreneurs took over the reins, resurrecting entire districts and infusing Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban with new creative energy. These forward-thinking visionaries are reclaiming wide swaths of their beloved cities from urban decay, integrating them racially and replacing archaic social norms in the process. “This has taken on the phenomenal dimension of transforming a cultural mindset,” says Levy. “People say it’s difficult to revitalize a neighborhood, but it’s a million times more difficult to revitalize a culture. We’re doing both simultaneously.”


Father Coffee photo by Rikki Hibbert.        

Driving through downtown Johannesburg—or Joburg, or Jozi, as many are wont to call it—might confirm your worst fears about the city: Some parts are choked with dilapidated façades scarred by graffiti and grim streets edged in trash. But amid this decrepitude, some savvy real estate impresarios have seen opportunity. Today, Braamfontein’s Juta Street is a hipster haven lined with sleek wood-paneled coffee shop Father Coffee; men’s store STACHE, which opened in November carrying streetwear labels KOMONO and Swede & Crowe; and CO-OP, featuring minimalist furniture by Dokter and Misses.

But this isn’t just another gentrification story. “If you understand the topography of our city, there was an inner-city area worth hundreds of millions of dollars that literally got abandoned,” says Levy. “There was an existing infrastructure you could reengage, resuscitating a heart that’s gone bad, but still has working parts.”

The Maboneng Precinct is another organ seemingly revived from decay. Maboneng means “place of light” in Sotho, and it rises from its surroundings on the eastern reaches of the city like a beacon. Lamenting that people and businesses alike had fled the city for the suburbs, entrepreneur Jonathan Liebmann had a vision of a community of artsy Joburgers interacting in an urban setting. In a way, Liebmann said let there be light, and there was Maboneng: the gallery complex Arts on Main, edgy fashion emporiums Ozlo and Loin Cloth and Ashes, the indie theater Bioscope and the funky, museum-like 12 Decades Johannesburg Art Hotel. The main draw of the week is the Sunday Market on Main, a festive multi-level affair with hundreds of chic locals shopping for homegrown fashion, art, accessories and food, with lively bands supplying an upbeat soundtrack. Though everything in this four-block span is effectively the consequence of entrepreneurial conjuring, the end result somehow manages to appear uncontrived. Maboneng’s magic lies in how organic it really feels.

In October, the groundbreaking Museum of African Design, the first of its kind on the continent, opened its doors in the neighborhood. “One goal is getting South Africans interested in museums, and the second goal is to engage with the rest of the continent,” says Aaron Kohn, the museum’s director, an American who studied African Studies at Columbia before moving to Joburg. “I’ve traveled pretty extensively across the continent, and I feel like Johannesburg is where a lot of things get decided, and a lot of things happen. It’s sort of like the New York of Africa.”


Cape Town photo by Adriaan Louw.        

Joburg is not exactly a pretty city—its charms lie in its people, its quirks and its urban tenacity. But while its denizens are busy touting its inner beauty, Capetonians are lolling on ivory beaches in the shadow of majestic Table Mountain. Indeed, Cape Town is a stunning place, blessed by Mother Nature with some of the most alluring shorelines and rugged peaks found anywhere on Earth. But it’s hardly a city that relies solely on its good looks to get by. Between the mountain and the ocean are some of the most innovative minds in South Africa, a fact that was not lost upon the committee that designated it World Design Capital 2014.

There’s an unmistakable buzz in Cape Town this year, and much of it is centered around the somewhat seedy Woodstock neighborhood. Despite living in a city anointed with natural splendor galore, a diverse congregation of Capetonians sets out on a pilgrimage each Saturday to an unlikely destination: a once-abandoned warehouse in a gritty tract on the outskirts of town. Here, at The Neighbourgoods Market, local purveyors of artisanal cheeses, handmade leather bags and buttery steak pies hawk their wares in a weekly rite. Consecrated by artisans, hipsters and laypeople simply looking for a tasty treat, this nondescript stretch of the city has in recent years become Cape Town’s design district, home to artists’ workshops such as Side Street Studios, modernist furniture store Pedersen + Lennard and fashion designer Charlie. H’s homey showroom displaying her signature printed fabrics. Some of the city’s best eateries also occupy dining rooms along this stretch, chief among them chef Luke Dale-Roberts’ Test Kitchen—regularly crowned South Africa’s top restaurant—and its more casual sister restaurant, The Pot Luck Club, which crests a silo high above the Old Biscuit Mill with 360-degree views of the mountain, the ocean and the city unfurled below.

Woodstock, and indeed Cape Town, wasn’t always so vibrant. When American Justin Rhodes arrived in 2003, “Cape Town was quite seedy,” he recalls. “Everything from food to art to design was very, very small.” So along with his partner, Cameron Munro, Rhodes opened Whatiftheworld, a contemporary art gallery with a presence at prestigious international art fairs such as Frieze New York. Soon after, the couple began Neighbourgoods, and Woodstock’s rapid transformation began. “It reminded me of Williamsburg [Brooklyn],” he says. “I was drawn to the grittiness of it: big old buildings, mechanics next to art studios.”

Skinny laMinx photo by Adriaan Louw.        

This creative Zeitgeist is flooding the rest of the city as well. Over at V&A Waterfront, one of the most-visited sites on the continent—with more than 24 million annual visitors—construction has begun on the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, set in a historic grain silo. The ambitious project will house Africa’s biggest collection of contemporary art, and it promises to be on par with the likes of the Guggenheim Bilbao: a must-see destination on the art-devotee’s global checklist. “There’s a real renaissance of the visual arts in Cape Town right now,” says Mark Coetzee, the museum’s executive director and chief curator, who returned to his hometown from stints in Miami and Palm Springs to helm the project. “The museum has an important role to play in becoming a meeting point, a mixing place, for cultural dialogue.” The starchitect commissioned to create the museum will be announced at the end of this month at the annual Design Indaba conference, which has in previous years lured the likes of Patricia Urquiola, Martha Stewart, Paul Smith and René Redzepi to muse on design trends. Until the museum is unveiled in 2016, a pavilion next to the Cape Grace hotel will house rotating exhibits from the collection. Not far from there lies Mondiall, a hotly anticipated brasserie opened by celebrated Relais & Châteaux grand chef Peter Tempelhoff in December. Lest the globally inspired menu—buffalo wings, Austrian pastries, Asian-style steak tartare, Peruvian ceviche—prove momentarily confounding, the sweeping views of Table Mountain framed by the floor-to-ceiling windows will help orient you right away.

Over in the city center, which was mostly abandoned postbusiness hours until not too long ago, a surge of restaurants, boutiques and galleries has been filling up the once-quiet streets. Illustrator and designer Heather Moore sells whimsically patterned plates, cushions and aprons at Skinny laMinx on Bree Street; up the road, Cape Town-based Swedish designer Alexandra Höjer recently opened her second store, where she sells her collection of men’s and women’s wear in the industrial-chic setting—unfinished walls, chrome accents—of a former warehouse. Also on Bree, designer Chloe Townsend, whose Missibaba brand of leather accessories had its origins at a stall at the Neighbourgoods Market, collaborated with jewelry designer Kirsten Goss (who counts Sarah Jessica Parker among her fans) to open a joint boutique. And at the quirky I Love My Laundry, you can order dim sum and browse for art and wine—all while your laundry is being done in the back. Never before has a Laundromat been quite so chic. This creative mishmash of ideas is quintessential to Cape Town’s entrepreneurial identity.


Glenwood Bakery sandwich photo by Xavier Vahed.


Long overshadowed by fast-paced (read: bossy big brother) Johannesburg and gorgeous (read: spoiled little sister) Cape Town, oft-neglected “Durbs” could have easily developed a severe middle child complex. But this coastal city remains quietly self-assured, knowing it offers many of the same perks as its siblings—stunning beaches, a diverse mix of cultures, popular weekly markets and fabulous ethnic foods—but with some added bonuses: the warm Indian Ocean waters are actually swimmable, unlike in Cape Town, and being the home of one of the world’s largest Indian communities outside of India makes it ground zero for South Africa’s finest curries. It’s also less touristy and more laid-back. Welcome to the real Africa: lush, tropical and authentic.

You’ll still find nods to the city’s colonial heritage in gracious mansions lining undulating hills and in the iconic The Oyster Box Hotel on posh Umhlanga Beach, where you half expect to be greeted with a curtsy at the entrance and have maids fanning you as you take high tea. But there’s a decidedly modern side to the city as well. Head to the Glenwood District, where the polished-concrete floors and stark white walls of the airy KZNSA showcase contemporary art from southern African artists such as Andrew McGibbon and Makiwa Motumba. Some say South Africa’s coffee culture originated in Durban, and Glenwood has seen a spate of new coffee shops and cafés catering to the locals’ caffeine fixes: Glenwood Bakery, parc, The Corner Cafe and The Factory Café are all area favorites.

Durbanites are creative, and local artists are garnering international acclaim. Graphic design maven Skullboy, for example, now shows at New York City’s Baang + Burne gallery. The Upstairs bar, gallery and event space and annual events such as Interpret Durban rally artists across mediums ranging from short film to photography to celebrate the best of Durban’s talents.

But what might be Durban’s finest hour takes place at an unexpected location on the first Saturday of every month. The magnificent, swooping Moses Mabhida Stadium, built for the 2010 World Cup for a staggering $450 million, now plays host to the monthly I Heart Market. When Anna Savage began the event five years ago with just 12 stalls, “there weren’t any shops where you could go and buy local clothes, accessories, jewelry or home décor,” she recalls. Seeing the wealth of homegrown talent—such as Nadia van der Mescht, whose unique corsages fashioned from measuring tapes were an instant hit—Savage sought to create a curated platform for handmade, locally designed crafts. Today, there are more than 150 stalls at the market, selling everything from leather wallets and Apple accessories by Savior Brand Co to silver infinity rings by Dee Designs.

“It’s made a big difference in terms of Durban’s landscape,” says Savage. “There wasn’t a place you could go to that was interesting and cool, a daytime event that’s not a club or bar.” These days, the market attracts people of all ages, cultures and walks of life. “What is it that makes you want to go back to a restaurant, something that makes you feel comfortable, like you’re in your kind of space? The market does that for a whole lot of people in a lot of different ways.”

Markets seem to be doing a lot for people across the country these days, anchoring districts and integrating communities that might not typically find occasion to intermingle. With these ventures, entrepreneurs such as Liebmann, Levy, Rhodes, Munro and Savage are at the forefront of a new era of possibilities for the burgeoning nation.

“This is the future of our country,” Levy says. “For a very long time South Africans have suffered from an inferiority complex. We were pariahs, isolated from the world. But now we’re starting to get to a point where young 20-somethings believe that we’re as good as anyone else in the world—if not better. We’ve created the ultimate utopian future for South Africa.” //

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