Stepping in to the swirl of colour, spirit and motion that is the Maboneng Precinct is like arriving at an oasis in the middle of the desert. Johannesburg is, of course, no desert when it comes to beautiful and intriguing things to see and do, but the vibrancy of Maboneng could almost make one feel like you’ve stepped out of the real world and into one that is bigger, brighter and more fantastical.
Many people are critical of what’s sprung up in Maboneng, calling it gentrification and exclusionary development. But when you are drawn into its beautiful, colourful, crazy bubble (and yes, it really is a bubble), you can’t help but be agree it is a dream-world. Its spirit of partying, pleasure and sunny relaxation is infectious. There are artists and musicians and photographers roaming the street, fashion designers nonchalantly selling their wares from trendy concept stores lining the streets, the smell of artisanal fusion food wafting through the air mixed with simple traditional braai meat and pap. Most of all, what makes it special are the hordes of revellers of all shapes and sizes strolling the area dressed in quirky hats and chic dungarees.
Not even 8 years ago, Maboneng was entirely indistinguishable from the rest of the inner city that surrounds it. A former industrial area, warehouses lay abandoned or illegally inhabited, homeless people blocked the doorways of what few urban spazas and cheap clothing stores existed, and overall a sense of abandonment hung over the area. In 2000 the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, symbol of the financial industry that drives this massive metropolis of almost 12 million people, moved from the heart of the CBD to its new home in the wealthy northern suburb of Sandton. It was the final straw in the sad collapse of Joburg’s Central Business District (CBD), which had long been left to crumble and rot by the wealthy moving north and the government’s attentions moving south.
In 2008 a small company of young and ambitious developers came in with a dream to completely transform this pocket of the decaying city, to create a haven of creativity and expression out of the rubble of a previous era. They called their dream “Maboneng” – “place of light” in Sotho.
Miraculously, a place of light truly has been created. And it continues to expand, growing from only a few blocks at its creation to now a large chunk of the downtown area. The best way to experience this bubble of excitement is to take a Sunday morning stroll along the district’s main artery, Fox Street, from West to East. First you’ll come across Arts on Main, heaven for the creative types, with an artisan food market every Sunday and permanent craft stores showcasing the best that Joburg’s locals have to offer. Walk past the street merchants selling beautiful jewellery, vintage clothing and African curios and take a right into Kruger Street and you’ll find my favourite little spot for lunch and a drink before continuing your exploration. It’s called House of Baobab African Cuisine and it’s a got the best lamb tagine I’ve ever tasted (and trust me I’ve eaten a lot of lamb in my life). House of Baobab serves a delicious mix of authentic Pan-African food, from jolof rice to chicken yassa, chapatis and curries and everything in between, as well as a full drinks menu. All this is served by the friendliest staff and in an atmosphere of luxurious African décor. All in all, an experience I highly recommend.
One of the most significant achievements of Maboneng is that it really is one of the few places in Johannesburg where you see genuine integration between people from all walks of life. It is definitely a hipster’s paradise and over-represents the middle class, but its founding spirit is one of inclusion, of diversity, of uniqueness and weirdness and creativity. This continues to shine through in all its vendors. The developers are adamant that almost no one was displaced in the process, saying they chose buildings that were abandoned and made an effort to relocate any people that may have gotten caught up in the rush. I am certainly not in a position to judge how true this is. But even so there is a clear and undeniable spirit of inclusion in the air in Maboneng. Affordable housing has been stubbornly wedged next to luxury apartment buildings with million dollar penthouses. Student housing has proven very popular. Artists are given priority to have space to both work and exhibit. Existing residents were given opportunities to work in the budding businesses in the area and to legalise their living conditions in some of the new apartment blocks.
Development is a tricky concept, and in the context of the African city, particularly one so deeply destroyed by apartheid like Johannesburg, it is even more so. You could be forgiven for thinking Maboneng is a miracle that’s too good to be true. But then again, maybe bringing out the beauty and creativity of Africans is not as hard as it seems, all it takes is a dream and a touch of ambition?
I’ll let you go see and find out for yourself ☺
To get to Maboneng from the Northern suburbs you can drive south on the M1 and take exit 10a towards Durban, then take the Maritzburg Street exit and follow it on to Fox Street. To drive from Soweto take the N17 and then take the same exit as above. To use public transport, you can take the Gautrain to Park station, then either Uber or take a taxi to Maboneng (or take a 30 minute walk if you feel like exploring). The Rea Vaya bus system also goes nearby; the C1 bus route will take you to Jeppe Police Station stop and you can then walk to Maboneng.
House of Baobab African Cuisine is located on Kruger Street in the Inner City of Johannesburg. It is open from noon to 22:00 and has a buffet breakfast on weekends for ZAR 110 pp. An average meal is about ZAR 60 pp.