Johannesburg: On The Rebound

Apr 1, 2007
2007 / April 2007

During the past decade, Johannesburg has risen from the ashes of its post-apartheid crime wave to become Africa’s shining example of economic renewal, smart urban planning, and vibrant social progress.

Johannesburg (also called “Jo’burg”), once a symbol of South Africa’s apartheid government, has made such strides in economic stability, racial integration, and urban revitalization that the city is now attracting positive global attention. According to the International Monetary Fund, South Africa has consistently raised its average gross national product each year since 2001. Much of South Africa’s newfound prosperity stems from increased sales in the retail sector, manufacturing and service industries.

Following the easing of the apartheid aws in 1990, the first post-apartheid election of 1994 resulted in an increased majority for the African National Congress and the beginning of President Thabo Mbeki’s government. The following years were difficult ones for South Africa and Johannesburg suffered a large increase in crime. There was also a massive shift of downtown businesses to the northern, mostly white suburbs, creating a vacuum in Johannesburg’s Central Business District.

Today, Johannesburg is a very different city. Sure, there are still areas where crime is a problem. With just over 3 million people within the city limits, and 5 million more in its 11 distinct neighboring regions, there are bound to be areas where redevelopment and business incentives have not yet flourished. But take a stroll around the city’s CBD or drive the highway up to Sandton and it becomes apparent just how energetic, vibrant and progressive Johannesburg has become.

In 2003, the city council allotted almost $160 million for 170 projects, such as new housing and office construction, road development and sewage improvements. Four years later, many of these projects have been completed, while towering cranes and new building foundations attest to the ongoing work. In addition, the Urban Development Zone tax incentive provides individuals and businesses tax allowances for renovations or new construction projects within the inner city. Of the approximately 600 U.S. companies doing business in South Africa, about 80 percent of them are now located in the Johannesburg area. City Deep Transport Logistics, Africa’s largest inland container depot (and fifth largest in the world), is located downtown, and the national rail provider, Spoornet, has also relocated to the CBD. Government programs have made the CBD more secure and attractive to tourists and business visitors, and employment in the financial services (First National and Barclays banks), telecommunications (Telkom, Vodacom, Mobile Telephone Network), and technology (IBM, PQ Holdings, Dimension Data) sectors are filling up downtown office towers.

Even Soweto, the sprawling former black township that became well-known for its poor housing, lack of services, and anti-apartheid demonstrations, has become symbolic of the new Johannesburg, with gleaming new shopping malls, modern apartment buildings, banks and cinemas, and new business opportunities for many of the community’s almost 1 million residents.

Johannesburg will host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and everyone here understands how important it is for the city to be ready. Plans include creating a lively and safe “spine” through the CBD, with pedestrianonly streets, shops that never close, and beefed-up security. Gandhi Square, which used to be desolate after 5 p.m., is now filled with office workers and visitors who frequent its restaurants, coffee bars and pubs. The once-deserted Small Street Mall is now a bustling, vibrant retail shopping area, and a city initiative to demolish decrepit downtown buildings, known as the Bad Buildings Program, has already led to the development of new food stalls, and warehouse-to-residential-loft conversions, a key ingredient in reaching the “24-hour city” goal.

Sandton, the formerly white-only suburban district north of the CBD, has grown more diverse since the end of apartheid. What used to be a semirural residential area with private schools, American-style shopping malls, and large homes surrounded by walls and metal front gates shielding swimming pools and tennis courts, is now a thriving mixed-race residential and financial nexus, a town often called “Africa’s richest square mile.”

The presence of investment banks, financial consultants, commercial real estate firms, and other businesses, along with the Sandton Convention Centre, have enabled Sandton to overtake downtown Johannesburg as South Africa’s No. 1 business destination. Sandton City, one of the largest shopping centers in Africa, attracts thousands of residents and visitors, and several five-star hotels have opened to accommodate the surge in business travel to the area.



Located in the exclusive Melrose Arch development project, a secure and gated community north of Johannesburg, the 117-room Melrose Hotel is charming and sophisticated; a sleek, art-filled paradise home to the high-end, fusion restaurant,March. Guestrooms are outfitted with designer furniture and complimentary Internet access. On South Africa’s notoriously hot December and January days, the Pool Bar at the Melrose becomes an ad hoc meeting venue. $$$$
1 Melrose Square
tel 27 11 679 2994, fax 27 11 511 6122

Located only 10 minutes by car from Sandton or Johannesburg’s CBD, The Westcliff is situated on a hillside offering great views, landscaped gardens and the ambiance of a tropical resort property. Two heated swimming pools, tennis courts, a nearby golf course, and a fully equipped health club keep the business guest, and his or her family, quite busy during down time. The seven-acre estate comprises several meeting facilities, including the Jacaranda Hill Conference Center. $$$$
67 Jan Smuts Ave.
tel 27 11 481 6000, fax 27 11 481 6010


For long-term business stays, or for guests who like large rooms, this all-suite property may have the largest 294 rooms in the city. Located close to downtown Johannesburg, the Parktonian offers a fully equipped business center, meeting and conference rooms, and easy access to downtown as well as to Sandton. $$
120 De Korte St.
tel 27 11 403 5740, fax 27 11 403 2401



Perhaps because of its reputation as having one of the best wine cellars in Johannesburg, Browns has been voted the city’s “Best Business Lunch Venue” by local restaurant critics. Located in Rivonia, close to Johannesburg’s CBD, the restaurant specializes in African game and seafood. With advance reservations you can be seated in the 50-person wine cellar. There is also a cheese room with dozens of varieties. A popular menu item is shelled Mozambique prawns sautéed with Falklands calamari and South Australian half shell mussels, finished in a coconut cream and Rajah spice sauce. $$
21 Wessels Road
tel 27 11 803 7533, fax 27 11 803 7605


Chef Frederic Leloup is attracting diners to this five-star restaurant in South Africa … and they do not leave disappointed. Fresh ingredients, organic produce from local farmers, a separate pastry kitchen, and Chef Leloup’s French heritage and culinary training have propelled this dining venue to the top of South Africa’s “Best French Restaurant” list. Entrée specialties include pan-fried giant tiger prawns with lemongrass, and beef entrecôte medallion with spinach beignet, potatoes lolly and truffle sauce. $$
122 Pretoria Ave.
tel 27 11 883 7013, fax 27 11 883 7018


At Wandies, a tavern-style restaurant in the Soweto neighborhood of Dube, Chef Wandi Ndaba lays out a buffet of traditional local food, including mogodu (tripe), and morogu (wild spinach and herbs), as well as chakalaka, a local hot salad made of tomatoes, baked beans, onions and chilies. Western dishes (mutton, beef, chicken and salads) are also on the menu. $
618 Makhalamele St.
Dube, Soweto
tel 27 11 982 2796


Johannesburg’s art and cultural scene has shifted dramatically since South Africa’s political sea-change in the early 1990s. Black-owned and managed art and photography galleries, music clubs,museums, and dance companies are thriving in the new Johannesburg. While some of these venues may be politically oriented, most are quite apolitical, and could have been transplanted from London, Sydney or New York. MuseuMAfricA (121 Bree St., Newtown, tel 27 11 833 5624) opened in 1994 and is housed in the old Market Building, part of the Newtown Cultural Precinct. Historic events from South Africa’s past 50 years are displayed in photographs and artifacts, with accompanying soundtrack by internationally known singers, and Johannesburg natives, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela. The Blues Room (Village Walk, Sandton, tel 27 11 784 5527, has great jazz and blues with an excellent sound system, and attracts local and international musicians. Katzy’s at the Grillhouse (The Firs Mall, Oxford Road, Rosebank, tel 27 11 880 3945, is a trendy music and drinking bar, serving a variety of whiskeys and cognac and cigars.

Johannesburg is filled with performing arts theaters, and there are great dramatic and dance groups performing almost every night. Check out any of these locations for tickets and show schedules: Wits Theatre (Braamfontein, tel 27 11 717 1376), Main Theatre (Newtown, tel 27 11 832 1641), Civic Theatre Complex (Braamfontein, tel 27 11 877 6800), Liberty Theatre (Sandton, tel 27 11 883 8606), and the Windyblow Theatre (Hillbrow, tel 27 11 720 7009).


O.R. Tambo International Airport (JNB), formerly Johannesburg International, is located less than an hour from Johannesburg or Sandton. Major expansion projects for terminals and runways are ongoing in anticipation of the 2010 World Cup. The Gautrain Mass Rapid Transit line will eventually link the airport to Sandton. At present, the fastest and most comfortable way to get to the city from the airport is by private car transfer.


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