Road trips

City of gold: Johannesburg regains its former splendor

When Apartheid came to an end, the wealthy inhabitants of Johannesburg hurriedly abandoned the city center. The business capital of South Africa was becoming the most dangerous city in the world. It’s largely thanks to the staying power and creativity of artists, activists and young entrepreneurs that today’s Johannesburg radiates a new sparkle – and looks forward to the future with great optimism. Today, we explore the region from Soweto to Sandton in the BMW 328d.

Felix Seuffert
Heiko Zwirner

The Oppenheimer Tower may not be among the main attractions of South Africa’s largest city, but visitors are rewarded with a truly spectacular view.

From here, the Johannesburg skyline seems like a shimmering mirage on the horizon, floating above the High Veldt plateau beyond a sea of single-story houses and shacks. Somewhere in the middle is the FNB Stadium, one of the landmark edifices of the 2010 World Cup in soccer, looking for all the world like a vast, glittering inflatable craft moored among the roofs. The Oppenheimer viewing tower, at the geographical center of Soweto, was erected in the 1950s in honor of diamond magnate Ernest Oppenheimer. Around its foot, the artist, poet, medicine man and outsider Credo Mutwa created – from the 1970s onwards – a surreal mixture of shantytown and sculpture park called Kwakhaya Lendaba, “the place of stories.” The fantasy village is peopled by aliens, dinosaurs and tribal chieftains. It was intended to remind the township dwellers of their ancestral traditions and to awaken a pan-African consciousness; it has since become a popular tourist attraction.

Credo Mutwa is regarded as a Zulu prophet. It is said that he foresaw much that would come to pass: the Soweto uprising and the killing of many schoolchildren; the murder of the communist leader Chris Hani; and the epidemic spread of AIDS. In one of the shacks hangs a painting depicting an aircaft in the dawn light, flying toward two identical skyscrapers; Mutwa painted it in 1979. He has long since said goodbye to Soweto and Kwakhaya Lendaba. He is now very old and seriously ill, which is why he can tell us nothing about the future of Johannesburg. The man who speaks for him is Lebohang Sello, an actor and performance artist, who takes visitors around the complex when he is not busy putting on theater workshops for schools in the neighborhood. “Credo Mutwa would say that we must go back to our origins,” he explains. “That doesn’t mean we have to wear animal skins and run shrieking through the jungle. What he’s talking about is a spiritual state: if we remember to respect and understand nature, then our Earth, the mother of all life, will be happy again and the human race will be able to live in harmony.”

Johannesburg expanded in a completely unplanned fashion: a decade after its official founding in 1886, the population of what was originally a goldminers’ camp was already 100,000.

A place of stories: in Soweto, artist Credo Mutwa created a fantasy village. Christopher Till (left), director of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, declares, “We mustn’t regard our history as a completed process. Today’s South Africa is anything but a fairytale country.”

Gamblers and gangsters, merchants and mercenaries

Johannesburg, the city of gold: at the end of the 19th century, prospectors on the Witwatersrand discovered vast deposits of the precious metal. The news quickly attracted adventurers from every corner of the globe. Johannesburg grew out of a goldminers’ camp and expanded in a completely unplanned fashion. A decade after its official founding in 1886, the city’s population was already 100,000 – consisting of gamblers and gangsters, merchants and mercenaries, remittance men and roustabouts, priests and prostitutes. Today, 4.5 million people live in the city, with a further six million or so in the metropolitan region, the largest in southern Africa.

Gold brought great wealth to a minority and led to unparalleled social fragmentation as well as the brutal suppression of the black majority of the South African population. This story is told by the Apartheid Museum in Gold Reef City, in the southwest of Johannesburg. The values that the museum wishes to convey are written in capital letters on five huge concrete pillars: democracy, reconciliation, diversity, responsibility and respect. When asked if he wanted to take on the job, the museum’s director, Christopher Till, did not hesitate long before accepting, saying, “It was a unique opportunity.”

Till is an experienced museum curator who understands how art can act as a catalyst in transforming society. As director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery in the 1980s, he included traditional African art in the collection for the first time, placing it alongside the Old Masters from Europe. As the initiator of the Johannesburg Biennale, he brought the art world to South Africa at a time of racial separation and international boycott. He is currently working on expanding the Apartheid Museum and enlarging the permanent historical exhibition to include contemporary art. “We should not regard our history as a completed process,” he maintains. “Today’s South Africa is anything but a fairytale country.” That is why, in an annex of the museum, it will soon be possible to see the works that Till assembled under the banner “All the World’s Futures,” for the South African pavilion at the last Venice Biennale. “We want to show, through the eyes of young artists, what is happening in this country and in what direction we are heading,” he says. The exhibition is designed to tell the story of the country’s massive xenophobia, of the massacre in Marikana in the summer of 2012 (when several dozen striking mineworkers were killed by police), and of the current campaign to demolish monuments that were erected to commemorate the colonial rulers. “Nothing will be achieved by simply destroying these monuments and effacing the memory,” Till asserts. “But I believe that artistic statements can help us to reevaluate them.” One of the artists has used the hands of a statue of Jan van Riebeeck, the founding father of white South Africa, and molded them in red plastic so as to make the blood on his hands plain to see.

What was once a no-go area is being transformed into one of the liveliest neighborhoods in Johannesburg.

“We are chiefly aiming at the young generation, known as the ‘born frees,’” says Till. “Most of them know very little about Apartheid, and they wonder why they are not economically better off today. They’ve grown up with mobile phones and social networks; the small screen is their window to reality. I’m convinced that this museum can contribute something to broadening their scope and reminding them what sacrifices their parents and grandparents had to make – and make them realize that nothing is going to fall into their laps, either.”

The transition from systematic racial separation to democracy was far from smooth. After the end of Apartheid, Johannesburg’s city center saw a wholesale exodus. The white middle class no longer felt safe and took refuge in the gated communities of northern suburbs, like Rosebank and Sandton, or tried their luck abroad. A lot of companies moved their headquarters, as well. Chaos and crime reigned in the downtown area. Homeless people and migrants from west and central Africa occupied the vacant buildings, while organized gangs fixed arbitrary rents and made sure they were collected.

Until a few years ago, even the trendy district of Maboneng was considered a no-go area, where visitors were pelted with empty bottles – or worse, if they were unlucky. The fact that the area has developed from danger zone to fashionable international scene is largely thanks to the vision of the investor Jonathan Liebmann. Over the past seven years, the 32-year-old entrepreneur has gradually bought up, through his Propertuity property company, some 50 buildings in the neighboring blocks. He deployed a small army of security guards on the streets and created space for homes, studios, offices and shops. He intends to have his latest acquisition redesigned by the renowned Ghanaian architect David Adjaye – and vegetables will be grown on the roof. To make the district attractive to live in and visit, he has aimed for a marketable blend of art, culture, enjoyment and lifestyle. Within a radius of a few hundred yards, you can find not only numerous restaurants and snack bars, but also a market hall, an arthouse cinema, and a Museum of African Design, which is housed in an old pump factory and sees itself as a research laboratory for the entire continent. Maboneng, which means roughly “Place of Lights” in the Sotho language, now resembles – especially on weekends – a miniature African version of hip destinations, such as Williamsburg in Brooklyn or Shoreditch in London.

Afro-Asian taste experience

Maboneng has turned hand-to-mouth survivors into entrepreneurs, and thus created its own success stories. Take, for example, Vuzi Kunene, the inventor of African sushi and owner of Blackanese on Kruger Street. “Because We Are Not Japanese” announces a board on the black-painted wall of the little restaurant. The house specialities include California rolls with biltong (the typical local air-dried game meat), grilled shrimp, and meibutsu with strawberries and piquant kiri curd cheese. “To me, sushi is more than raw fish,” says Kunene. “I’ve done a lot of experimenting with a wide variety of ingredients in order to create an Afro-Asian taste experience.”

Before he hit the spot for the young black population of Johannesburg with his fusion concept, Kunene struggled along for years with temporary jobs, from waiter to parking attendant. In the Johannesburg food markets, he found his niche between stalls selling dim sum, tacos and souvlaki, and opened the mobile sushi bar from which his own restaurant eventually emerged. “I’ve had no training,” he says. “The street was my university.” Now, Kunene gets others to cook, and concentrates on refining the menu and forging plans for expansion. Alongside the sushi cuisine, he runs a catering service and holds cooking courses. In the near future, he will open a branch in Cape Town, and is planning subsidiaries in other African countries, as well. However, he still takes bookings personally for the coming weekend. “As the host, you always have to be on hand and pay attention to minor details,” he explains. “Otherwise, you miss the opportunities that life offers.”

Incurable optimists

Another contributor to the revitalizing of the former industrial area is artist and activist Marcus Neustetter, an incurable optimist with a penchant for denim shirts. “You will find the new South Africa here rather than anywhere else,” he says when we meet in the Chalkboard Bar of the designer hotel 12 Decades, in which every room is devoted to a decade in the history of this comparatively young city. His studio is just around the corner. On his tablet computer, he shows impressive films and photos of innumerable projects that he and his two-man agency, the Trinity Session, have brought to fruition. They range from nighttime performances with glow sticks all the way to a set of postage stamps celebrating South Africa’s contribution to space exploration. For investor Jonathan Liebmann, Neusetter has set up an artist-in-residence program and given an artistic makeover to façades, including the imposing frontage of an apartment complex called the Rocket Factory, for which he used a satellite picture of the surrounding area as a model. You could say that Neustetter has transformed Maboneng into an artwork for people to walk through. At the same time, he wants to ensure that those who possess little are not left behind as the district is upgraded. That’s why he and his wife Bronwyn have organized twice-weekly boxing training sessions on the roof terrace of their apartment building, free of charge for the kids from the neighborhood. George, the coach, lives in the still-dangerous suburb of Hilbrow, where he runs a boxing school in which some of South Africa’s best female boxers are also trained. The range of Neustetter’s activity extends far beyond Maboneng. Commissioned by the Johannesburg Development Agency, he and his partner Stephen Hobbs have, in the last 10 years, selected and installed more than 300 works of art in public spaces.

In every part of the city, these artworks evoke events that took place there. In doing this, Neustetter feels more indebted to an outsider like Credo Mutwa than to public art on the European model. “I don’t believe in imposing imported concepts on people,” he states. “They need to understand that Johannesburg is their city and is just waiting to be taken back by them.”

Transforming public spaces

Johannesburg can be a brutal city. Thiresh Govender is attempting to make it a more humane place, not through artistic intervention, but with the tools of urban planning. He was born in Durban to working-class parents and grew up in Cape Town. “After a while, I longed for something greater, for something undefined,” he says. “It was this yearning that brought me to Johannesburg.” In his studio in Maboneng, there is a detailed cardboard model of the central business district. Even in this miniature representation, many of the buildings look like fortresses. “The design of public spaces has an enormous influence on the way people behave,” states Govender. “We want to remodel these spaces to fit in with the everyday needs of their users, and not the idealized notions of the planners.”

Parabolic forms and an eclectic program: the Soweto Theatre opened in 2012 as a local cultural center with international ambitions. Previously, the area had only housed temporary performance venues.

Boxing training above the rooftops of the city. “I don’t believe in imposing imported concepts on people. They need to understand that Johannesburg is their city and is just waiting to be taken back by them,” declares artist and activist Marcus Neustetter.

Boxing training above the rooftops of the city. “I don’t believe in imposing imported concepts on people. They need to understand that Johannesburg is their city and is just waiting to be taken back by them,” declares artist and activist Marcus Neustetter.

Commissioned by the City of Johannesburg, Govender’s firm Urban Works is currently transforming the final section of the traffic artery that leads to the main railway station into a market square that will celebrate, by culinary means, the cultural diversity of the “Rainbow Nation.” At the center of the new square stands a pavilion in which street traders can learn more about a healthy and balanced diet. The planning phase is already completed; now the plans have to be implemented. In parallel with this, Govender is working on a project aimed at promoting the small shops in the Ivory Park township north of Johannesburg, which often operate on the edge of the law. That is his way of giving progress a boost. “I never cease to be impressed by the inventiveness with which the township dwellers manage with their meager resources,” he says. This spirit, he believes, is what is so special about South Africa.

Too many South Africans are still excluded from the process of wealth creation. Probably the greatest problem the country faces is the vast level of unemployment among adolescents and young adults. In the 15–24 age group, the figure is above 65 percent. The South African education system is widely regarded as costly and inefficient, as many leave school with no qualifications. Much the same can be said of the healthcare system: one could argue that the “born-free” generation is still in chains. In their trailblazing study How South Africa Works – And Why It Needs to Do Better, Jeffrey Herbst and Greg Mills therefore advocate, among other things, closer cooperation between the government and private companies that are technology leaders.

Medical knowledge versus dangerous cultural myths

How well this kind of partnership can work is demonstrated by the Moms Connect project, which the Praekelt Foundation has developed for the South African Ministry of Health. Moms Connect reaches its target group by mobile phone, regardless of whether it has internet capacity or not. Using a dialog system, expectant mothers receive customized information at regular intervals during each phase of pregnancy. “In South Africa, there are many prevailing cultural myths on this subject, which represent a danger to the health of mother and baby,” says Debbie Rogers, General Manager of the Praekelt Foundation. “We counteract these myths with solid medical knowledge.” Participating women sign up for free consultations in the project’s public clinics. The goal is to protect the health of unborn children and to encourage mothers – who are often living in precarious circumstances – to be independent. It also provides the Health Ministry with valuable data on public health and reveals weaknesses in the system of care provision. South Africa’s Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, is quoted as describing Moms Connect as “a bazooka in the hands of South Africa’s women.” The Foundation is an offshoot of the Gustav Praekelt management consultancy, which develops digital strategies for companies in many different sectors. Their headquarters are located in Stanley 44, a labyrinth of offices, apartments, shops and restaurants, much as one would expect to find in European capitals, such as Berlin, Stockholm or Amsterdam. On the premises of the Praekelt Foundation, there are no fixed workstations. In the atrium down below, junior staffers serve gourmet coffee and sourdough sandwiches. While many young whites of her generation have left the country, frustrated by its ponderous politics and stagnating economy, Rogers likes coming here. She has lived in Britain, the U.S. and Australia, but she keeps returning home. “We have a lot of problems in South Africa,” she says, “but we also have the right people to solve them.”

The BMW Group as a driving force for development

One of these problems is the often pitifully poor equipment in the state educational establishments. For this reason, the BMW Group is working closely with selected schools in the vicinity of the Rosslyn plant, near Pretoria. It began operations in 1972 as the company’s first production plant outside Germany, and today builds BMW 3 Series models. “Our social commitment begins at our own front door,” declares Esther Langa, who is responsible for BMW South Africa’s Corporate Social Responsibility program, and has the energy and sense of mission of a gospel choir. “We want to contribute to improving the standard of living in the areas from which many members of the BMW Group family originate,” she continues. It was back in the late 1990s that the carmaker launched agricultural projects, initially in five primary schools around its factory in Rosslyn, to help promote environmental awareness among the pupils and to help them become self-sufficient in producing fruit and vegetables. The project has now grown to cover a total of 60 schools. Beyond this, the BMW Group is also equipping a number of schools with computers and mobile laboratories for teaching IT and natural sciences.

The collaboration with the schools is close and lasting: items of equipment are not simply provided on a one-off basis, but are also serviced and, if necessary, replaced. “This isn’t charity – it’s social investment,” says Langa. “The pupils of today are the employees and leaders of tomorrow.” In the classrooms of Soshanguve High School, it’s plain to see how popular the program is with students. In the physics lesson for the 12th grade, the teacher demonstrates the principle of electromagnetic induction with the aid of a shiny red mini-generator. At other schools, the complex physical connections can only be explained verbally, but not demonstrated. The demonstration tool is a great help, and the results are measurable. At Soshanguve High School, the number of pupils succeeding in obtaining qualifications for leaving school has increased significantly since the demonstration tools have been made available. “What’s more, the best pupils in each year have improved their grades substantially,” says school principal Victoria Ledwaba. “Before the program was launched, the top grade for physical science was just 64%. In the last school year, it increased to 98%.” Still, for many students at Soshanguve High School, the chance of going on to higher education is remote for financial reasons. That is why BMW awards scholarships on merit to aspiring engineers and IT specialists. Winners of the scholarships then go through a rigorous selection process for a two-year graduate training development program, through which the car manufacturer recruits new staff.

Mobilizing talented young people

Networker Raelene Rorke recently gave a lecture to these trainees about the unexploited potential of young people. Rorke believes that in South Africa there is too much talk of disadvantage and equal opportunities, and too little about the talented young people who want to make a difference to their world. “We are mobilizing the brightest young minds in the country and sitting them at the tables where decisions are made,” she says when we meet in the Rosebank Mall, which is as large and complex as a small town under glass. Rorke’s organization, SpringAge, brings highly qualified young people together with big companies in order to develop – in half-day workshops – innovative answers to clearly defined questions. Some 700 talents from a wide variety of disciplines are already members of the network. As one example, a team of “springers,” as Rorke calls them, are currently developing a campaign on responsible drinking behavior on behalf of the giant SAB brewery. “Drunk driving is a huge problem in South Africa,” she notes. Not yet 30, Rorke already has one career behind her. She grew up in poverty-stricken circumstances in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape region. When she was 14 years old, she went to Johannesburg to work as a model and was voted Miss Teen Africa. At 18, she bought her first home. Photo shoots, filming for commercials, and beauty contests took her all over the country. “That was when I first realized how diverse South Africa is,” she recalls. “Everyone talks about ‘the young people’ as though they were a single, homogeneous mass. In fact, we have so many different kinds of young people, with so many different ambitions and so many different abilities. It’s time we listened to them.”

At the Branson Centre for Entrepreneurship in the inner-city district of Braamfontein, on any normal Friday afternoon you can find a number of these ambitious young people running catering firms and travel agencies, transportation firms and photographic studios, modeling agencies and small publishing businesses. At the reception desk, their business cards have been fixed to metal wire holders and arranged like a bouquet of colorful flowers; workstations and wi-fi are provided free of charge, and anyone who helps themselves at the small coffee bar will often be given a free sales pitch with it. Richard Branson, the self-made British billionaire and South Africa fan, created this business nursery because he believes that unemployment can only be defeated by promoting the entrepreneurial spirit. The Branson Centre offers free courses for the self-employed, providing solid knowledge on subjects such as marketing, accounting and human resources. Participants must fulfill only one condition: their business must already be up and running.

African products and boosting self-confidence

Brian Makwaiba and Curtis Myeki are regular visitors to the Branson Centre. They come to exchange ideas and network. Makwaiba stages hip-hop events, and programs augmented-reality apps for brands and educational institutions; Myeki works with his mother to manufacture natural cosmetic products, for which they grow the ingredients themselves. Both these youthful entrepreneurs exude a very healthy self-confidence, and plan to be rich within five years. “In the multimedia industry, South Africa is lagging behind the rest of the world,” says Makwaiba. “I want my agency to close that gap.” Myeki plans in stages to enlarge the area for cultivating the plants that go into his products and to broaden the product range. “Shopping malls look the same all over the world, and sell the same products,” he says. “I believe that the future lies with local shops. It won’t be long before Africans are demanding African products.”

Even today, South Africa is still sitting on the largest gold deposits in the world. In order to bring the valuable ore to the surface, the mining companies must spend more and more, and dig ever deeper. The deepest mines lie about 2.5 miles underground. To get down there, the mineworkers are transported into the depths of the Earth in rugged elevator cages at speeds of up to 37 mph, having to change elevators three times before arriving at the very bottom. Yet after a few days in Johannesburg, you can’t help thinking that the greatest unexploited resource of this city is the population that lives here.

European model shown

Through her organization SpringAge, ex-model Raelene Rorke mobilizes the country’s young talent and puts them in touch with big companies.

Model facts

BMW 328d

Engine – 2.0-liter TwinPower Turbo Diesel

Inline 4-cylinder

Displacement (cc)


Output (hp@rpm)


Max Torque (lb-ft@rpm)


Acceleration 0-60 (sec)*


Top Speed (mph)**


*BMW AG test results. BMW urges you to obey local speed laws and always wear safety belts.
**Top speed electronically limited.