To launch Joburg’s inner-city festival coming up in August, the Joburg City Tourism Association threw a three-day party for 60 journalists. I was lucky enough to be on that list and to spend the weekend hanging out at some of the coolest places…. Friday night in Joburg city centre and what could have been a regular few blocks walk between Market and Loveday Streets on a chill Autumn night turned into something extraordinary. On the pavement outside the impressive Edwardian-style entrance to the Rand Club, the city’s grandest landmark, thirty four members of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra were arrayed, flash-mob style – playing classical and popular pieces.
As the music rose, three hawkers made their way down the street, boxes of oranges piled atop their heads, the colour of the fruit flashing against the darkening city sky. A Metro police car cruised to a stop. The few blocks walk was from the swanky apartment block Corner House where champagne and sushi were being passed around on the spot that mining magnate and political activist Tokyo Sexwale looked straight into the camera and said “You are fired” on SA’s version of the reality game show The Apprentice (That was in 2004, before the economic downturn, when those words were still a novelty).
The surprise performance was a prelude to an inner city festival planned for later this year by the Johannesburg City Tourist Association (JCTA). Formed in October last year the Association [see the backstory of the JCTA here] is an alliance of inner city business people – property owners, developers, hoteliers, restaurateurs – and cultural institutions as varied as the South African Ballet Theatre and Constitution Hill, to mention just a few – who share a growing need to market the city to itself (it is supported by all the official tourism and city authorities including Joburg Tourism, Gauteng Tourism and the Joburg Development Agency – JDA). The weekend in the city was an experience designed for 60 local, foreign (from Cape Town) and international journalists and bloggers to showcase what the festival has to offer.
Planned for August 25-31 the week of activities will be sandwiched between the annual Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival held in Newtown and the Spring Arts Alive Festival. Gerald Garner (Joburg tour guide and author of Joburg Places), representing the Association says the market for the first festival in what is hoped will be an annual event are the thousands of office workers who drive in and out of the city each day and mostly do not leave their buildings on a workday, and the residents of the more than 50 000 residential apartments that have been built over the past few years.
Duncan Gibbon, CEO of the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra said the idea for the outdoor performance, a first for the JPO, was to reconnect the orchestra with the city. “The orchestra need not be a dusty old thing. The city is what we had retreated from and what we now need to go back to”.
The idea of a pop-up orchestra fits in nicely with the world-class mish mash that is Joburg’s inner city. At the Fashion Kapitol on Pritchard Street the morning after, the hippest cats were hanging around at Fruitcake vintage store posing, while looking for unique 80’s fashion pieces.
At the Fashion Shack cafe a table of fashionably dressed 20-somethings soaked up some sunshine in the courtyard while eating R20 plates of fresh battered fish with chips before hitting the stores selling everything from voluminous “white” wedding dresses to metres and metres of South Africa’s signature fabric – starched sheshwe in glorious colours. The area that was once the historical fashion manufacturing heart of the city when the local clothing industry was at its height – before Apartheid’s walls tumbled down bringing in a flood of cheap clothing imports – has undergone its own renaissance. In the courtyard traditional storytellers did a morning performance, while students from Afrisew fashion academy prepared to parade their designs on the catwalk to an appreciative city audience.
The weekend was full of contrasts – from graffitti walks to a practice session at the Ballet Theatre, and a Mexican drinks evening on the deck of Braamfontein’s Parktonian Hotel complete with an Irishman dressed as a Mexican taking requests for songs and then responding each time with a rendition of La Bamba and the Macarena. Saturday night dinner was held underground at the city’s most impressively renovated building, Turbine Hall, the shadows of its former dereliction still evident in the photographs adorning Anglogold Ashanti’s corporate dining room of the formerly hijacked building’s residents.
It all seemed to fit the picture of this so-called “world-class African city”, a tagline whose subtext should read “in this city anything goes (and sometimes you miss it).” This is a place of hawkers and talkers, gold-diggers and pure entrepreneurial spirit. It’s also a city that is in recovery from its past, with the quiet night streets a reminder of a downtown that Apartheid’s architect’s designed to bring people in an out of, separated from each other by the million miles between living white and black lives before 1994. Close on twenty years later the city is yearning for the downtown conjured by Petula Clark’s famous lyrics. “The lights are much brighter there …You can forget all your troubles, forget all your cares… and go downtown.” By focusing on one week of the year, the festival’s organisers hope to make those words ring true far beyond it.
It was also a weekend filled with connecting with the bloggers, writers and instagrammers who breathe new life into Joburg with their insights and photos.
Some of my favourite people to follow for all things Joburg: