Why We’re Jazzed About Inner-City Johannesburg

In our travels, KC and I often avoid big cities. After skirting around Johannesburg, southern Africa’s biggest city, for more than a year, we decided to check it out before we left Africa. Most tourists flock to the high-end malls of Sandton, a suburb on the city’s north side, but for several years we’ve been hearing about Jozi’s inner-city renaissance, so we spent our final week by exploring two neighborhoods in the heart of the city: Mayfair West and Maboneng Precinct.

Jozi map

Johannesburg has always been a Wild West kind of town with a bit of a lawless and devilish reputation. It sprang up when, in 1886, gold was discovered in the area, and the result was much like any other chaotic Gold Rush center, with the new town of Johannesburg housing “white miners from other continents, African tribesmen recruited to perform unskilled mine work, African women beer brewers who cooked for and sold beer to the black migrant workers, a very large number of European prostitutes, gangsters, impoverished Afrikaaners, tradesmen, and Zulu ‘AmaWasha’ – Zulu men who surprisingly dominated laundry work.” [1]

Nyassa gold miners at Mayfair railway station, 1952

Nyassa gold miners at Mayfair railway station, 1952

The neighborhoods we visited can’t be explored without understanding the climate in which they began. Johannesburg’s history of segregation began long before apartheid became the official policy in 1948: “Almost from the outset, when the town was first laid out, separate suburbs, or ‘locations’ as they were known, were allocated for Black, Malay and Asian occupation. This is an aspect of colonial town planning which was not unique to the Transvaal, but was common to most other parts of southern Africa. Not only did it conform to existing [South African] policies, but the idea of separate residential areas for Black and White also suited the mining companies who had recently adopted the ‘compound’ as a means of housing their Black labourers.” [2]

Mayfair West
The first neighborhood we visited, Mayfair, was one of Jo’burg’s first suburbs, and it was no exception to the “locations” policy in effect at that time. Situated just west of Johannesburg’s center, Mayfair is one of several surrounding neighborhoods whose “proximity to the mines and to the centre of the mining town made it a popular choice for the poor irrespective of race or creed. Mine workers chose to settle here – since the suburb was in easy walking access to a number of gold mines…. Indian traders, Chinese merchants and men working in the Johannesburg transport business also set up [commercial ventures].” [3]

Mayfair and surrounding areas, early 1930's

Mayfair and surrounding areas, early 1930’s


Multi-cultural cemetery along road to our Airbnb cottage

Multi-cultural cemetery along road to our Wimdu cottage

When apartheid was formalized 1948, Mayfair became a designated “white area”[4], but after the fall of apartheid, the neighborhood gradually returned to its former multi-cultural roots with Indian, Middle Eastern, and black South African residents.[5] Today, a great example of the transition is the two former protestant churches that flank the block where we stayed: one was converted to a mosque and the other a Hindu temple.

Mayfair synagogue, 1980s

Mayfair synagogue, 1980s


On our first day, we enjoyed a walk to the local mall less than a block away (what day in Africa wouldn’t be complete without a visit to a mall…) where we ate delicious fish & chips, but on subsequent afternoons we took advantage of our rental car and explored further afield. Our Wimdu host provided great local maps with restaurant recommendations and easy-to-access cultural hotspots, so we set out after work each day to explore a different neighborhood, from the Hawthorn’ish (if you know Portland, OR) neighborhood of Melville with art galleries, pizzerias and late-night clubs to the university district of Braamfontein with its famous weekly food market and the energy of student life. KC got in his art museum “fix” at Wits University and on one afternoon we turned a budgeted one-hour zip through the Museum Africa in the neighborhood of Newtown into a 3-hour-where-did-the-time-go immersion into the fantastic photo exhibit entitled Rise and Fall of Apartheid.[6]

Museum of Africa, with downtown Johannesburg in background

Museum Africa, with downtown Johannesburg in background

After a year spent mostly in small towns, we were suddenly enjoying city living again. And at the end of each day, our little casita in Mayfair was a welcome respite from the electric fences and razor-wire-topped walls typical to much of the rest of South Africa; we were drowning in greenery as we wove through the lush garden paths to the cottage behind the main house where we stayed. Once inside, the bookshelves and CD collection kept us busy for the evenings!

Newtown Theater

Newtown Theater


Maboneng Precinct

Our next stop was the Maboneng Precinct, a former “no go” area straddling the neighborhoods of Jeppestown and Fairview, 5 km east of Mayfair. Unlike Mayfair’s residential and commercial history, Maboneng inhabits a former industrial neighborhood of abandoned warehouses and factories. Over the past 4 years, Maboneng has developed into one of the country’s – and I would estimate the world’s – most ambitious inner city revitalization projects. A young South African, frustrated with suburban living and inspired by other similar projects where his actress-wife’s friends hung out, has converted this decaying district into Jozi’s most talked about neighborhood. Not only are young professionals moving into flats and rooftop penthouses ranging from modest to swank, but suburbanites throng to the restaurants, boutiques, and Sunday Market every weekend, making parking a challenge.

Artist and owner of Negritude, one of the startup businesses in Maboneng's weekly market.  She's wearing the choker I bought!

Faith, artist and owner of Negritude, one of the startup businesses in Maboneng’s weekly market. She’s wearing the choker I bought!

Offices, quality restaurants, a bike shop, independent film theater, design museum, and a planned organic grocery store make Maboneng both a livable and a workable community. We loved it and were swept up enough by the vibe of the precinct to meet with a realtor twice during our short stay…

There's even a microbewery!

There’s even a microbewery!

One of Maboneng’s filmmaker residents made a short documentary about the precinct, and while it feels part sales pitch, it provides a good history of the area and also discusses the difficulties of introducing middle class housing and retail into a low-income neighborhood.  (See it here:]

Place of Light from Bram Janssen on Vimeo.

Shipping container-turned-bike shop, Maboneng Precinct

Shipping container-turned-bike shop, Maboneng Precinct

Our week in Jozi raised our spirits about the state of South Africa considerably; it’s dangerous to generalize, and of course we’ve met many wonderful people in the country, but we’d been discouraged at the lack of racial integration and too-often outright racism we’d witnessed. South Africa still seems almost exclusively split by color, and by extension, by economic lines. To be fair, we’d been encouraged by some middle-income interracial neighborhoods in Cape Town, yet overall South Africa is still very much a haves/have-nots country where the 10% minority population controls 90% of the wealth. (I don’t mean to throw stones; our own country isn’t much different, and to SA’s credit, black citizens at least hold their representative share of civil service and political positions, and impressively, they’ve accomplished it in the 20 years since independence.)

Sidewalk cafes in Maboneng

Sidewalk cafes in Maboneng

So it was refreshing to eat curry at Poppy’s Café in Melville amongst diners of varied backgrounds and to watch a television interview with the young African owner, and when we shared the elevator to our flat in Maboneng with young professionals and artists, it was a fitting way to end our time in South Africa: on a high note with great anticipation for the next generation of South Africans and for Johannesburg’s urban centers.



**Note: all Maboneng photos are our own.  The others are taken from historical archive or tourism sites, and I forgot to track which photo came from which site.  Apologies to the hard-working volunteers who doubtless would have appreciated a link to their own organizations…


  1. An interesting way to end your sojourn in South Africa, on an upbeat note. Loved the photos and the video of the beginnings of restoration in the Mayfair Precinct– an example of what is currently happening that portends a better life for those less advantaged now.

  2. Thank you! It was fun to search and find the early history and especially the old photos.

  3. hcyip · · Reply

    That’s cool you went to check out Johannesburg before it left. It may not exactly be a famous tourist place but it’s got interesting history and places as you saw. I went to Museum Africa, which was alright, and passed by Newtown Theater as well back in 2010 (I spent two days there as part of a longer trip in South Africa).

    1. I think that’s how I found your blog originally… looking for something about SA and found one of your posts. :o)

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