By Alice-Azania Jarvis
Early afternoon in Johannesburg and the Maboneng precinct is buzzing. In the city’s hipster quarter, students lounge outside Pata Pata – a cafe decorated to resemble a Fifties township diner – while shoppers nip in and out of stylish boutiques.
The sunny scene hardly chimes with the old stereotype of Joburg as a crime-ridden urban jungle. But that, I rapidly realise, is well out of date.
Twenty years after the country’s first democratic election, and four years since it triumphantly hosted the football World Cup, South Africa’s most populous city fizzes with energy.
Crime is down, visitor numbers up. British Airways is flying its new, double-capacity Airbus A380 to Joburg. That the other destinations are Hong Kong and Los Angeles says something about the city’s growing reputation as a hotspot.
I’ve long been a fan of ‘Jozi’. My family lived here for two years, when I was aged 11, followed by five in Cape Town. Cape Town was beautiful; Johannesburg its grittier, cooler cousin.
Nelson Mandela was president and the country in its democratic honeymoon when I lived here. This is my first visit in more than a decade and not long after his death – an event which led some to predict the end of South Africa’s democratic project.
Without Madiba there to remind them, so the reasoning goes, South Africans would forget about reconciliation and the country would go the way of Zimbabwe. I’ve always thought this far-fetched. Certainly, there’s been little sign of anarchy thus far.
Neither, travelling around the city, is there any indication the former President’s legacy will be forgotten. He’s everywhere.
Mandela may have spent most of his prison years on Cape Town’s Robben Island. But it was here, in Johannesburg, that he lived his free adult life.
Born the son of a tribal chief on the east coast, he arrived aged 22, joined the ANC and studied law at the city’s University of the Witwatersrand.
In Soweto – the Jo’burg township where he lived from 1946 until his arrest in 1962 – his face adorns flags and wall murals. His old redbrick bungalow is now a museum, crammed with photos, newspaper cuttings and cartoons.
I’m shown around by Amunkelani, a 23-year-old volunteer studying tourism at a nearby college. She says that, if anything, Mandela’s passing brought South Africans together: ‘When someone dies, we remember what they loved.’
Her optimism is echoed by Joe Motsogi, a former anti-Apartheid activist who runs his own tour service, JMT Tours & Safaris.
He tells me of ‘Ubuntu’, an African philosophy of inter-connectedness: what benefits the community benefits us all individually.
It’s an idea embodied by Newtown. The former industrial hub fell into decay in the Nineties, becoming dominated by slums.
No longer. One of several city-centre areas to benefit from public and private investment – Maboneng is another – it’s now a hive of activity, easy to explore on foot. African hairdressers and shops selling ‘muti’ – traditional medicine – sit alongside ramshackle bars.
Again, Mandela is everywhere. I pass the Fox Street office from which he operated his law firm. It also is now a museum. Outside is a giant sculpture of the young Mandela boxing. Given his benevolent reputation, it may come as a surprise to learn he was an avid fan of the sport and a keen schoolboy competitor. But then Johannesburg is full of surprises, including the food – should you get the chance, do try springbok carpaccio.
It’s home to thousands of jacaranda trees, which in bloom form a gorgeous purple haze.
It may not have Cape Town’s beaches, but Joburg can be beautiful. And it offers fantastic opportunities for exploring further afield. I spend a night at the &Beyond Phinda Forest Lodge private game reserve, a six-hour drive east.
Thanks to the staff’s tracking expertise, in two game drives I see cheetah, elephant, lion and black and white rhino.
It’s slick and professional – as is my hotel in the city, the Saxon. My room comes with its own laptop. This is a country geared towards tourists.
At the Saxon, I encounter the spectre of Mandela again. Shortly after his release he spent several months here, in a two-bedroom suite since renamed The Nelson Mandela Presidential Suite.
Of course, Johannesburg still has its problems. When I said it was gritty, I meant it. Crime has fallen over the past decade, thanks to a combination of increased patrols by the police and the installation of a comprehensive CCTV network.
But the figures are still high – there are 43 murders a day in South Africa. Meanwhile, the level of poverty is staggering. Driving on the motorway, you’re struck by the tin shacks that form homes to thousands.
Joe Motsogi compares Jo’burg to a zebra: black and white, dark and light. It’s an apt analogy. It is both first world and developing; global but distinctly African.
Above all, it is unique. And I can’t think of a better reason to visit than that. – Daily Mail
British Airways (0844 493 0758, ba.com) offers three nights at the 5-star Saxon Hotel from £1,289 per person, based on travel in September. Includes return flights from London Heathrow. The &Beyond Phinda Forest Lodge (0027 11 809 4300, andbeyond.com) costs from £300pp per night.