Oysters on the mean streets of Johannesburg

A model on Nelson Mandela Bridge during Africa Fashion Week, Feb 2011 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Johannesburg's buzzing Neighbourgoods Market overlooks the Nelson Mandela Bridge, which hosted last year's Africa Fashion Week

Imagine you are driving your car into central Johannesburg.

It is a Saturday morning and the wind-blown streets are half empty. You have three children in the car, one playing on a small games console.

As you pull over, close to the railway station, looking for somewhere to park, a man appears at the car window and demands money.

How many of you, reading that last sentence - particularly those outside South Africa - are thinking this is going to be a story about mugging?

I ask for two reasons - first because I seem to have encountered more than the usual number of opinionated foreigners in the past few months, all terrified by the thought of even stepping foot in such an obviously murderous city - one Englishman refused to be best man at his friend's wedding here, convinced that the invitation would lead to certain death.

And secondly because that was me in the car, last Saturday, heading for brunch and a spot of shopping at the newly opened Neighbourgoods Market in Johannesburg's Braamfontein district.

The man asking for money was a uniformed city-parking attendant, who gave me a smile and a printed receipt.

Never mind the triumphant, incident-free 2010 World Cup, and the rising tourism figures for South Africa - the big, gritty city of Johannesburg still seems to have a monstrous image problem.

"We love Cape Town," said a talkative British Airways steward to me last month. "But Joburg scares us."

Cosmopolitan cocktails

Image caption Visitors to the Neighbourgoods Market will see a softer side of Johannesburg

And there is a wider point to make here. Last week the US ambassador, Donald Gibbs, bemoaned the jitteriness of outsiders at the inaugural Africa Strategic Growth Forum.

"In America one bad headline from Africa can set back five years of good work in promoting the continent," he said.

"I find there's a big gap between investors who are already operating in the African market who are very positive and those who've never invested in Africa who are quite negative and scared."

But back to Joburg. I promise I am not in the pay of city's Development Agency, nor am I ignorant of the serious and enduring crime levels here.

But I do feel that Johannesburg's reputation is slouching someway behind the fast changing reality.

And the Neighbourgoods Market - now six months old - is part of that change.

There were oysters on ice - served by a couple who could not keep their hands off each other - fresh cheeses, home-made pies, cocktails and long communal tables packed with middle class South Africans, all housed inside a converted multi-storey car park overlooking the Nelson Mandela bridge.

By the early afternoon the terrace bar was an eclectic mix of twenty-somethings. Sporty white men in shorts sat next to elegantly coiffed black women students.

Cocktails and giggles followed along with a glimpse of the "rainbow nation" that is still flourishing in parts of South Africa, when it is not being buried beneath a mountain of bad headlines and divisive political rhetoric.

Unlike a few other "yuppy" oases in more grimy corners of Johannesburg, the market in Braamfontein seems a natural extension of the energy on the streets outside, where new art museums compete for attention beside coffee shops and glass fronted restaurants.

I bought a beef pie and a bottle of delicious South African mead.

If I am in town, I will be going back next weekend.

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