Business trip: Johannesburg

Just three years after South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, its most populous city is reaping the benefits of increased revenue and changing perceptions.

Johannesburg is finally getting its day in the sun. Just three years after South Africa joined the BRIC countries (changing its moniker to BRICS) and successfully hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the city is reaping the benefits of increased revenue and changing global perceptions. The sporting event alone had nearly a 40 million rand economic impact on the city.

The 2013 Anholt-GfK Roper City Brand Index, an annual survey measuring the national image of countries, recently ranked the South African city 44th in its list of the world's 50 top business cities, moving up one spot from 2012, an indication that Johannesburg’s reputation for being violent and dangerous is fading. Similarly, the third annual MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index, released in June 2013, ranked Johannesburg as the most popular destination in Africa, with a projected 2.54 million international visitors in 2013, up 53.6% from 2009. This substantial increase means it is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. 

Joburg or Jozi (the two names commonly given to the city by locals) is the third largest city by population on the African continent (surpassed by Cairo, Egypt, and Lagos, Nigeria). It was also the home of the late Nelson Mandela for a number of years, who continued to promote the image of the city while spreading a message of hope and peace globally. His recent passing will no doubt fuel increased interest in the city as tourists plan visits to pay their respects.

While Joburg’s distance from other major world centres is often a hurdle for international visitors, passenger traffic passing through the city’s main airport OR Tambo International is expected to reach 24 million annual travellers by 2015, up from 19 million in 2012.

National carrier South African Airways flies to cities throughout Africa and connects the continent to the rest of the world with daily flights to New York, Washington DC, Sao Paulo, Mumbai and Beijing among others. The airline’s recently updated business class lounge provides exceptional views of the runway and a separate arrivals lounge for inbound passengers looking to refresh after a long flight. New flat-bed seating on its long-haul aircraft is an appreciated perk for flights that can often range between 10 and 14 hours as they crisscross between hemispheres.

Overall, nearly 55 international airlines fly to Johannesburg, making it one of the easiest cities to access on the African continent. The airport has been undergoing significant refurbishment to handle the massive Airbus A-380 aircraft flown by airlines such as Air France, British Airways, Emirates and Lufthansa, bringing even more passengers with every flight. 

The Gautrain, Africa's first and only high-speed rail system and a symbol of the city's progress, opened in 2009, connecting the airport with all corners of Joburg, including the popular Sandton business district. With only two stops en route, the 20-minute, 125 rand journey is a better option than the 200 rand, 30km taxi ride that can take up to an hour depending upon traffic.

Hotels

Elegant

About 10km south of Sandton in the historic Westcliff neighbourhood, the Four Seasons is set to open its first South African property, the 117-room Four Seasons Hotel Westcliff, in mid-2014. With room balconies that offer panoramic views of the Johannesburg Zoo, this is as close as some business guests may get to South Africa’s wilder residents, including elephants, giraffes and rhinos.  Plans for the hotel include a day spa, plentiful meeting space with high-tech business features, and a formal restaurant helmed by a yet-unnamed celebrity chef.

The Saxon Hotel, Villas and Spa is a garden-like oasis shrouded in tall trees and flower blossoms set on 10 acres in the Sandhurst neighbourhood, 1km west of Sandton. The hotel, once a private home, hosted the late Nelson Mandela as he completed his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. Today, diners at the hotel's Qunu Grill are treated to an elegant African grill experience under the helm of chef David Higgs as they nosh on plates of curried lamb shoulder, peri-peri chicken and biltong-spiced springbok loin. In June 2013 the restaurant launched a business lunch menu promising a full meal in less than 60 minutes, or the tab is on them.

Edgy
Sandton's latest entrant is The Maslow, a hip, designer offering by the Sun International hotel group that opened at the end of 2012, offering 283 rooms in an urban park setting. Shrouded by dense greenery and palm trees, the hotel wraps around a garden with a cosy swimming pool and popular bar. Within walking distance of major office branches and shops, the hotel is a favourite of young travellers looking for free wireless internet and a trendy environment. Its boutique spa includes treatments by local brand Africology and offers a unique Rasul steam chamber treatment where guests slather mud on themselves to detox from a day of stress. The chic lobby features modern seating with international power outlets discreetly placed at the base of each.

Marriott's interest in South Africa was recently accelerated with the announcement that the brand plans to acquire the business-focused South African chain Protea Hotels in mid-2014, marking Marriott’s first presence in the country. The 197-room Protea Fire & Ice! hotel in the Melrose Arch neighbourhood, 5km south of Sandton, will be a welcome addition to Marriott's portfolio of brands  with its distinctive Hollywood decor featuring large photographs of famous actors and memorabilia from movie sets scattered about the public areas. Its location also puts guests squarely in a neighbourhood filled with restaurants and boutiques that showcase Joburg's creative side.

Expense account
Lacuna, at The Maslow, is an all-day bistro that draws in Sandton's business crowds. The open kitchen showcases the action from the hotel's executive chef Dallas Orr, who came from the well-known Table Bay Hotel in Cape Town. The restaurant and terrace especially heats up after work when corporate bigwigs descend from the office towers to relax with a drink and appetizers in the hotel's garden bar to the sounds of live music. On Sundays, Lacuna hosts a traditional South African braai (barbecue), serving regional favourites such as boerewors (sausage composed of pork, beef and spices) and krummelpap (a crumb porridge eaten with sausage).

The Butcher Shop and Grill on the edge of Nelson Mandela Square, a public courtyard and shopping centre in Sandton, is a favourite of tourists and locals alike. As its name would suggest, the restaurant serves cuts of prime beef, but goes beyond the typical steak with regional fare such as tender ostrich fillet, marinated venison and South African kingklip (cusk eel imported from the coast). Arrive early to snag a table overlooking the square's dancing fountains and the gigantic statue of Madiba himself.

For a more adventurous meal, venture to Moyo in the Melrose Arch neighbourhood. This home-grown restaurant chain prepares a variety of African game and seafood in an energetic and colourful environment. Like Johannesburg itself, the menu is a fusion of regional cultures. Masks, mounted animal heads and photographs line the walls as diners nosh on dishes such as kudu sirloin, springbok carpaccio and ostrich barbecue. While it is a tad touristy, South Africans have grown fond of the restaurant's menu and are quick to take visiting friends and colleagues there.

Off the clock
The new Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, opened in August 2013 in Houghton (near Mandela's home), is an interactive museum and permanent cultural exhibition dedicated to Mandela’s life and teachings of peace; an excellent pairing to a visit to the Apartheid Museum, which is located 15km south of Sandton. On display is the furniture from his post-presidential office and many of his personal belongings and papers. Entry to the museum is free, but visitors must make an appointment in advance as the facility is compact and demand has understandably soared in recent months.

Visitors can also visit the Mandela House Museum in Soweto township (15km south of Sandton and located on perhaps the only street in the world that has been home to two Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, Mandela and Desmond Tutu). Entry to the modest home costs 60 rand and showcases many of Mandela’s personal possessions including his personal library, photos and gifts from foreign heads of state.

Like a local
The new Maboneng (meaning "place of light") district, 15km south of Sandton, is a burgeoning neighbourhood churning out new boutiques, cafes and a slew of residential loft-style apartments. Labelled as an integrated urban neighbourhood, this is the city's next up-and-coming area thanks to its youthful residents and private investment. Live music and outdoor markets are common, especially on the weekends, and galleries and studios are luring in the artsy type.

Don't do this
Some travellers may quickly rush to the conclusion that Johannesburg is unsafe. But there is little need for concern, especially in Sandton, if common sense is adhered to during the day. Avoid wearing flashy jewellery, and it is advisable to hail a taxi from a hotel. During the evening hours, it is best not to walk alone, and most hotels offer free shuttles to nearby shopping malls and Gautrain stations. Try to avoid the less gentrified areas of the inner city downtown at night.