Johannesburg: From no-go to gotta-go

By Vibeke Venema
BBC World Service


Johannesburg has struggled with crime for decades, meaning some places were just too dangerous to go out in at night. Now a younger generation of South African clubbers are reclaiming the city centre.

"Before I die I'd like to leave a dent on the universe."

"Before I die I want to be rich."

"Before I die I want to make a dope album."

These are the dreams of those who come to Maboneng, an area in Johannesburg's Central Business District that, until recently, was known as a no-go area - particularly at night.

The streets have changed a lot in recent years, says Bheki Dube, a skateboarder and entrepreneur who now runs a backpacker hostel in Maboneng. "When we were younger and the sun set, you knew it was time to go home because of the crime," he says. "Now you have kids playing until evening, the streets are lit and there is 24-hour security - there is life.

Image caption,
Bheki Dube, founder of Curiocity Backpackers in Maboneng, remembers the bad old days

"It's cool to see it happening in an urban landscape, especially in a space that was associated with crime and grime."

The gentrification of Maboneng is down to Jonathan Liebmann, whose company Propertuity developed the precinct from nothing.

Having returned to live in the Johannesburg suburbs after travelling the world, he felt something was missing.

"I was feeling empty in that existence. I mean the suburbs are completely gated, there is no walkability, there's no connectivity between people," he says.

"So I started to think about how I could potentially connect with the city and bring the city back."

Image caption,
Liebmann developed the area from scratch

He bought five warehouses and turned them into artists' studios, bars and creative office spaces.

He called it Maboneng, which means "place of light".

Now people from all over the city go there to have a good time. It's cosmopolitan, arty - and safe. It may not be a gated community, but the area does have its own 24-hour security.

"I think what is happening in Maboneng is quite interesting because you have mixed race, mixed income, completely different ages… so you know, it's a very, very diverse community," says Mr Liebmann.

Media caption,
DJ Edu's quest for Africa's best nightclub leads him to a former South African no-go zone

"A space which is inclusive, somewhere people can live and work and play in an urban landscape," agrees Mr Dube.

Another up and coming place in the city centre is called Braamfontein, where there is a popular club called Kitcheners. It has been here for years, but, like the street it's on, it has changed hugely.

Monty Narsoo has been going there since it was a whites-only pub.

"I used to come here and do crosswords, and they would wonder why this man of Indian descent is sitting here," he says.

"It was important to engage even the racists in their own spaces. It was tough, but we were fighting for an un-racial society - it was the small little social spaces that you had to de-racialise. Now I don't have to do that, I can just hang out with great people."

Image caption,
Braamfontein now attracts a diverse crowd

"It's as mixed as you're going to get in South Africa really - it's been amazing to watch," says Andrew Clements, the new owner of Kitcheners.

"Different cultures mixing and getting used to each other, on a social level, nothing to do with where you work - it's cool. I think it is representing the future more than the present through the rest of the country."

The future is bright - but not for everyone.

Dilapidated buildings surround the newly hip areas, ripe for development, but as hipsters replace hawkers, what happens to those who live there?

On Wednesday, violent protests erupted as people were evicted from Jeppestown, the area neighbouring Maboneng, by developers planning to build on the precinct's success.

"What happens is all these places more middle class and kids have new money but it displaces the poor here," says Mr Narsoo.

"And what you have more and more is what some people call stronger governance measures - we can't have loiterers in the streets and so on. So how does urban regeneration actually impact on the poor?"

Photos by Manuel Toledo.

For more on the BBC's A Richer World, go to - or join the discussion on Twitter using the hashtag #BBCRicherWorld

More on this story