Expect the Unexpected

Well, Johannesburg, I was not at all prepared for this. High electric fences around houses, yes. Carjackings, yes. Not being able to just walk around wherever you like because of petty crime, rape, shootings – sure.

But no one told me about this.

I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised. They have seemingly started popping up everywhere you least expect them to. Even in Johannesburg.

Yes, lo and behold, there they were, unmissable in their felt hats and second-hand clothing, sipping lattes and ordering superfoods in the middle of downtown Johannesburg’s new ‘safe zone,’ Maboneng. Hipsters!

Set up in 2009, Maboneng started out as an initiative by property developer Jonathan Liebmann to bring professionals and creatives back into the city. After the end of apartheid in 1994 and the country’s first democratic elections (won by Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress party), the city of Johannesburg had been plunged into uncertainty and transition, bringing with it a crime wave that swept through the city. Businesses relocated to the northern suburbs and left the downtown area to become a place of squatters, crime and violence – a no-go zone with a fearsome reputation.

Now permanently guarded by a host of private security guards, Maboneng is a thriving and fascinating oasis in which tourists and locals alike can shop, dine and drink coffee only streets away from the rough and crime-ridden streets of the downtown.

Effectively built around a large indoor international food market and a beer garden beneath trees, Maboneng is full of entrepreneurial pop ups (including ‘I was shot in Joburg‘, a photographic initiative giving former street kids professional photography training to get them out of poverty), quirky shops and alternative cafes.

Supportive locals hope that the zone will be broadened to make more of the city safe for the general population, and new apartments planned for the area are already for sale.

For us Maboneng, as well as the suburbs of Braamfontein and Melville, opened our eyes to a safe, creative and vibrant side of this city not commonly known and rarely mentioned.

From day one of our three-week wedding anniversary trip around South Africa, I have been forced to reevaluate my preconceptions. In a land so characterised by contrast, so moulded by history and so enriched by diversity, I can’t wait to see what other lessons I am yet to learn here.

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