It’s hard not to feel the presence of Nelson Mandela wherever you go in Johannesburg. From the boulevards bearing his name to the enormous building covering banners that bear his face, the much mourned Madiba will leave an enormous hole in the country’s hearts. But he also left behind a radically transformed land that is thriving – nowhere more so than Johannesburg. Described by Tanzanian-born, London-based über-architect David Adjaye as having the energy of New York in the ‘80’s thanks to its cosmopolitan bandwidth of African people, a drive across Jo’burg reveals shiny new malls, elegant pavilions and dramatic skylines.
But after a 12-hour flight, the first stop is our home for the next week – the chic boutique hotel 54 On Bath in the central area of Rosewood. Surrounded by the pretty purple blooms of Jacaranda trees, the hotel, formerly the Grace, retains all the original elegance but has been given a shot of sleek modern style including a beautiful rooftop terrace, champagne bar and food fit for a star – just as well because we’re sharing the hotel with the cast and crew of Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom who are in town for the film’s world premiere.
Back on Planet Fashion, we’re driven down the road to Pretoria where the Africa Fashion Week 2013 shows are being held. On the bill are shows from designers hailing from 15 different countries including Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and, of course, South Africa. Among the highlights are Gavin Ranjit, the only couturier from the continent invited to show at Paris Fashion Week and who specialises in slick European style. Then there’s local favourite, David Tlale, a judge on South Africa’s Next Top Model, who unveils his vibrant mix of ethnic and global styles at the private Rovis train station; and KLUK CGDT who closed proceedings with a show in the spectacularly lit Freedom Park outdoor arena.
Post-show, we headed back to Jozi to see what Africa’s most stylish city has to offer. One of the most exciting and talked about areas is Maboneng, meaning ‘place of light’ and, less than a decade ago, a no-go zone where drugs and violence were rife. Thanks to a massive rejuvenation project, today, it’s home to a cosmopolitan mix of curious independent stores, a bustling weekend market and cafes and restaurants whose food spans the globe. We stop off at weekend hotspot, The Living Room, a rooftop bar and café with an organic menu, huge seats and fantastic views over the area. For getting to grips with the locals, you won’t find better.
But although The Living Room is great for getting to know the locals by night, by day only the market at Arts on Main will do. An essential pit-stop for anyone passing through the city, it’s where you’ll find quirky fabrics and crafts as well as bargains by fledgling designers. While there are many Western styles to be found, the traditional African prints and designs that were so evident at Fashion Week Africa are given pride of place. Also in Maboneng is the Museum of African Design, a huge converted warehouse recently opened by David Adjaye that features exhibitions that celebrate the best in modern sculpture, furniture and design from across the country. Best of all, every piece is for sale.
For a different shopping experience we head to Parkhurst, to wander around 4th Avenue and 6th Street. Its long laid-back boulevards are filled with a mixture of African and international names offering everything from underwear to some very slick modern art. I nip into Nice Things, a café-cum-fashion retailer for a latte and emerge with a very chic bandeau dress – perfect for the South African heat.
Next is Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein which feels a bit like an East London pop-up food festival transported to 30-degree sunshine. This is where the city’s hip and happening gather each Saturday for brunch. Choose from a huge and mouth-watering selection of stalls selling everything from biltong (cured meat) to Turkish flatbreads and paella, all locally sourced and mostly organic. Head upstairs to bask in the heat while you tuck in at one of the picnic tables and mingle with the friendly crowd imbibing everything from champagne to cocktails.
Of course a trip to Jo’burg wouldn’t be complete without visiting Soweto: a township of two million people on the outskirts of the city and the one-time home of Nelson Mandela. En route we pass the vast Soccer City Stadium, the venue for his memorial service, a poignant reminder of the impact he made on this once-divided country. The small dwelling on Vilikazi Street, West Orlando where Madiba once lived is now a museum filled with pictures, awards and letters that trace the family’s history and is a truly humbling experience to visit.
It’s a 20-minute drive from another Soweto landmark, Two Towers Park – a pair of vast converted cooling towers painted so brightly and decoratively that they are visible for miles. Here you can bungee and base jump, rock climb and abseil. Not that we indulged in anything so energetic, plumping instead for a braai – South Africa’s national food – at Chaf-Pozi. It’s certainly no place for vegetarians – the menu is based around barbequed lamb, chicken and pork or beef sausages. The only thing to come without a dollop of flesh was the delicious chakalaka salad of carrots, beans and spice and the pap, a dish created by boiling maize meal served with sos, a spicy tomato dressing.
It was the perfect way to end a stay in Johannesburg, the African pap and Afrikaans barbecued meat eaten together providing the perfect metaphor for how the country has changed since Mandela came to power. Madiba might be gone but, as those visiting Johannesburg will discover, his legacy lives on. A divided people united and a society where politics, arts and, yes, fashion, can flourish.
NEED TO KNOW
RIH stayed at 54 On Bath, where rooms start from £220 per night based on two sharing and including breakfast. For more information, see tsogosunhotels.com. South African Airlines operates daily flights from London Heathrow to Johannesburg. Return flights start from £839.85 including taxes. See flysaa.com for more information and to book.