Last updated: 10:36 AM ET, Fri May 06 2016

Dispatch: Funky Joburg

Destination & Tourism | David Cogswell | May 05, 2016

Dispatch: Funky Joburg

Photo by David Cogswell

Johannesburg gets a bad rap.

South Africa’s capital city does not get the credit it deserves for being an exciting international city. When it comes to South Africa, Cape Town has a firm hold on center stage, and it’s hard for any city to compete with Cape Town, not just in South Africa, but in the whole world.

Johannesburg has much to commend it, and should not be overlooked. Some say Johannesburg provides a more African experience than Cape Town, which is clearly established as an international city.

Since the change in South Africa in 1994, Johannesburg has had an influx of Africans from the rest of the continent who have come to the city looking for opportunity in the new free South Africa. They have come from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Malawi and other African countries and set up little communities within the city, retaining some of their subcultures from home, and enriching the culture of the city.

Joburg is a wild phenomenon. The metropolis of 6 million grew to be the business capital of Southern Africa in only a century. It was founded as a mining camp in the late 19th Century. Its mushrooming growth was fueled by the mineral wealth of the Witwatersrand, the site of some of the richest gold mines in the world. Like other gold rush cities, Joburg today still embodies the feeling of its wild, lusty, violent past.

Although Nelson Mandela is often associated with Cape Town because of some of the principal moments of his life, most of the most important historical points of Mandela’s life happened in Johannesburg.

READ MORE: Cape Town vs. Joburg: The Rivalry By The Numbers

When I arrived with my group in Johannesburg on Sunday morning, we set out to experience some of those special things about Joburg ourselves.

We were met just beyond customs at O.R. Tambo International Airport by our Johannesburg guide, Joe Motsogi, who drove us to Sandton, one of Johannesburg’s ritziest districts. We had reservations at the Michelangelo Hotel at the edge of Nelson Mandela Square. It’s Joburg’s largest plaza and is often seen in articles and brochures about Johannesburg with pictures of its giant statue of Nelson Mandela, about two stories tall.

The plaza is surrounded by restaurants, outdoor cafes, hotels and shops, and conjoined with a huge mall jam-packed with several levels of stores, providing just about anything you might need. I found that my iPhone charger would not work in South Africa because the phone won’t work in 220 volt electrical systems without a bona fide Apple cord. I found an Apple Store in the mall and I also found a Samsung store where I was able to get a memory card for my camera.

The Michelangelo Hotel is one of the few commercial enterprises that could appropriate the name of Michelangelo without offense. The hotel is elegant, gloriously spacious and tastefully opulent with a huge atrium framed with neoclassical arches and pillars, and with statues and fountains. My room had its own pillar, bringing the neoclassical architectural theme inside.

After some time to rest, we took our first excursion in Joburg, to the Maboneng Precinct, an area that has become known for the Maboneng Revitalization Project, an ongoing renewal that includes a burgeoning arts scene.

First on the agenda for the weary travelers was lunch, which we took at an industrial chic cafe called Pata Pata, named for the song recorded by Miriam Makeba that is probably the most famous song to come out of South Africa. The restaurant had a varied menu and a casual atmosphere. It was our first taste of the social life of Joburg, with its rich diversity of people, a diversity that seems to create energy from the cross-pollinization of different cultures mixed together.

After lunch we went to Arts on Main, a local scene that has grown up around a large industrial building that has been converted into a space for vendors of food, crafts and merchandise. It was packed with people, moving crowds enjoying the food and merchandise and the company of many Joburgians who had chosen Arts on Main as the place to spend Sunday afternoon.

One of the attractions, ironically for us as tourists, was that the people populating the area were primarily locals. It has not apparently been widely discovered yet by tourists.

After walking around, eating food and taking in the vibe at Arts on Main, we headed to a place called The Living Room for a sundowner. We got to the rooftop restaurant when the sun was just about to touch the Joburg skyscrapers, and apparently many others had the same idea at the same time.

The place was filled shoulder to shoulder, and moving around was not easy. But the vibe was great. It was noisy and raucous and full of a great diversity of people, typical of South Africa, and they all seemed to be enjoying themselves and each other.

READ MORE: A Guide to Road Tripping South Africa

We were there long enough for the sun to move down and touch the skyscrapers on the horizon and then disappear behind them. After the sundowner, we walked a little ways and made one more stop within the Maboneng district. We went into the Museum of African Design and into a dark space called Jazz Freedom Fighter.

The place holds little jazz festivals every Sunday and has an delicious underground vibe that tends to evoke the memory of the old shebeens, the outlaw bars that grew up in the days when the apartheid government made it illegal for Black Africans to drink alcohol.

At the entranceway of the club was a quotation by Princeton's Professor Cornel West that showed where the club got its name and defined what a "Jazz Freedom Fighter" is.

"To be a jazz freedom fighter is to attempt to galvanize and energize world-weary people into forms of organization with accountable leadership that promote critical exchange and broad reflection. The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of  uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism.  As with a soloist in a jazz quartet,quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain andd increase the creative tension with the group -- a tension that leads to higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project." -- Cornel West.

Since we had flown all night Saturday and were jetlagged and tired, we made an early night of it. We were turned loose from the tour to have dinner wherever we wanted. I joined a few others for dinner at the hotel bar on the R level of the Michelangelo.

That night I took early retirement, went back to my room and sunk rapidly into oblivion.

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