The hipster Johannesburg

Johannesburg may be Africa’s most visited city but it’s also got a bad reputation. Now a largescale renewal project is changing that – and making it cool!

Written by Michael Turtle

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle. A journalist for more than 20 years, he's been travelling the world since 2011.

Michael Turtle is the founder of Time Travel Turtle and has been travelling full time for a decade.


Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa

Under a large purple painting of Nelson Mandela on the side of a building, a crowd gathers around some street musicians.

Black, coloured, white. The crowd represents the ‘Rainbow Nation’ that the man watching from above had dreamed of.

Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa

The crowd of people has spilled out from the Neighbourgoods Market here in the Braamfontein area in downtown Johannesburg. It’s a busy part of the city on a Saturday but there’s clearly a certain type of person who comes here.

They’re young, they’re well dressed, they are… to put it simply… cool.

Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa

But, what’s most interesting in a country that is still coming to terms with the long period of Apartheid, they are not of a single race.

This is the new generation of South Africans who are unified by their culture – in this case the funky hipster way of life – not by the colour of their skin.

The Neighbourgoods Market is held every Saturday in a multi-storey carpark complex that is filled with vehicles during the week.

The collection of stalls has vintage clothing, handmade jewellery, homewares – all the usual crafts you might expect. There are also dozens of food stalls selling dishes from around the world – paella, burritos, curries, and so on.

On the top level is an open air area with tables and a bar serving beers and cocktails. It’s more than a shopping experience. This is a social event that goes for hours.

Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa
Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa
Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa

As the markets start to wind down in the afternoon, many of the people here move to the nearby bars in Braamfontein where there’s live music and more clothes stalls and art displays. Others move to the cool new cafes and shops in the area.

As someone who spends a lot of time in London these days, it feels to me just like Shoreditch – and I actually have to remind myself a few times that I’m in South Africa and not East London.

Braamfontein, Johannesburg, South Africa

This is certainly not the Johannesburg that I had heard so much about before coming. Where is the crime, the poverty, the slums?

Arts on Main, Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa

I get a taste of those things the next day on my way to an area of Johannesburg called Maboneng. Like Braamfontein, this is another part of the city that has seen intense gentrification in recent years and has become another pocket of hipster culture.

The blocks around it, though, are yet to be touched. Homeless people sit in doorways, a fire burns in a metal drum, barbed wire surrounds the entrances to a derelict building, abandoned cars sit in the gutter, bodies lie under trees in a barren park.

After a few minutes of driving through this, we arrive at Maboneng and it’s almost as though I’ve been teleported to another city. The contrast within just a few blocks is incredible.

Just like the day before, I’m surrounded by young cool Johannesburg locals drinking their artisan coffees. I’ve gone from flat tyres to flat whites in the blink of an eye.

Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa

The Maboneng district has everything you might expect in the world of the hipster – cafes, bars in warehouses, al fresco restaurants, clothing stores.

In the few concentrated streets that make up the area, I find a man selling his secondhand guitar, a tuk tuk giving people rides, artwork on the walls, backpacks for sale hanging on a door, speakers in a car blasting music.

And, just like at the Neighbourgoods Market, people of every skin colour are mingling together. More Rainbow Nation.

Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa

The focus here in Maboneng on a Sunday is Arts on Main – the complex of buildings at the centre of all the activity.

Over two levels and across several buildings, small art galleries display their work for sale.

There’s the store of photography by former street kids, the paintings by local artists, even some performance art in one room (although I assume you can’t buy that – it would be a bit weird taking a few actors home with you).

Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa

A large open courtyard has tables full of diners having lunch, a rooftop terrace has a bar which turns into a salsa club later in the day, and a hall has dozens of food stalls – many of the same ones as the day before, I notice.

So what is happening in Johannesburg?

I accept that these are just small clusters of cool in a very large and complicated city. It certainly seems like there is a change in the air, though, and Johannesburg is trying to shrug off its reputation as merely a transit point for visitors to South Africa.

Maboneng, Johannesburg, South Africa

Perhaps we can get an explanation of the shift from the art that is emerging in the city.

Not just the official galleries like the ones at Arts on Main, but the ones on the street. All around Maboneng are artistic graffiti works on the wall – but they’re just the beginning.

Downtown Johannesburg, South Africa

In the downtown suburb of Ferreirasdorp, with the large imposing Magistrate’s Court building in front of me, I look at a 5 metre tall statue of Nelson Mandela posing as a boxer.

It’s sending a different message to the purple painting of him in Braamfontein – which I took as a reflection of the post-Apartheid era. This statue is based on a 1952 photograph of the great man when he still had (and needed) his fighting spirit.

Downtown Johannesburg, South Africa

A local artist, Bongani Mathebula, is taking me on a tour of downtown Johannesburg and he explains that this is just one of many works that are part of an effort to turn the city into an outside gallery.

And, more than that, the focus on art is just one element of an even bigger mission to restore Johannesburg to its glory days.

Downtown Johannesburg, South Africa

As we walk, I look around at the enormous buildings – many with an Art Deco feel – that are the bases of some of the world’s largest mining companies.

There was so much potential for wealth here and yet it ended up in the hands of just a few. For a city that was created purely because gold was found in the earth here, there are not many golden years to be proud of.

Downtown Johannesburg, South Africa

But Bongani assures me this is changing. What I’ve seen in some of the cool neighbourhoods is real. He calls it the ‘urban wave’, although this doesn’t seem to be an official term.

In short, the aim from city planners is to refurbish the derelict buildings in the centre of town and bring back residents and businesses.

In the 1980s, as foreign investment was pulled out of South Africa, the inner city suffered and never recovered organically. Black and coloured people had already been relegated to townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg and the white population had moved to the safer suburbs.

Downtown Johannesburg, South Africa

So now the long and complex renewal begins and the people are already starting to come back. Johannesburg is the most visited city in Africa but still has one of the worst reputations from a tourism perspective.

The markets will be a part of reversing this, and so will the art. The new buildings will bring life to the centre and that will gradually spread out.

The biggest driver of change, though? I think it will be those crowds gathered around the street musicians in Braamfontein.

It will be the young generation with all the races intertwined, who don’t remember the divisions of the past and see a future beyond the poverty and crime of their early years.

They will make their city great again.

Time Travel Turtle was a guest of South African Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.

7 thoughts on “The hipster Johannesburg”

  1. Wow, I’ve always dreamed of going to South Africa, but I’d always been focused on Cape Town. This post really has put Johannesburg higher on the list!

  2. So, I was in Braamfontein today. I didn’t find one ‘hip’ café there and a guy who showed me the 9mm he was packing told me he didn’t understand what I was looking for there and that I’d better leave if I wanted to keep my watch, sunglasses and shoes…

    • I’ve lived in Braamfontein for four years and I can say there are many “hip cafés” and I’ve never had anyone pull a gun on me.


Leave a comment