A few weeks ago, a work assignment took me on a tour of the Maboneng Precinct in Johannesburg’s Central Business District (CBD). Now if you are a frequent traveller to Johannesburg, it is quite likely that there is little, if anything, that will take you into the city’s CBD which features tall, imposing skyscrapers grounded in streets teeming with bustling retail spaces and some rough thoroughfares that even locals fear venturing into. Most visitors tend to focus on the more glitzy shopping districts of Rosebank and Sandton rather than the dated and down market offerings to be found in the CBD, which has notoriety for high criminal incidence. To get to Maboneng, we drove past the financial district that has the distinct campuses of two of South Africa’s big four banks: Standard Bank and Absa. The two banks have multiple towers in close proximity that are linked via underground tunnels and air bridges which reduce the need to walk the streets. Getting off the ramp from the highway we entered streets that had clear evidence of time decay: broken windows, graffiti walls and heaps of uncollected garbage. The shops were kindred spirits to Nairobi’s Kirinyaga road with automobile industry players like “Camara Car Parts” and “Onyechi Auto Repair” dotting the scene nestled next to “Al Hakim Super Store” that seemed to sell just about anything, “Omega Fire Ministry” which hinted at the promise of spiritual redemption and “Cash For Scrap” that had an equally compelling promise for disposers of scrap metal. Meanwhile the city’s skyscrapers cast long shadows less than 400 meters away.
After making a few wrong turns here and there, we arrived on a street that was straight out of a European capital’s photo album. Chairs and tables filled the streets in front of cafés and restaurants offering multiple gastronomic delights. There was the fashionable Patta Patta restaurant owned by a fairly young South African gentleman called Ziggy, which had eclectic non matching chairs, burlap lampshades and brick cladded shelves that created a very warm and inviting atmosphere to taste local South African fare. Further down were more artisanal coffee shops and specialist bakeries co-located with architectural offices and electrical engineering consultants making for a very interesting mix of businesses and synergies. This was the heart of the Maboneng Precinct.
According to the official Gauteng Province website, “Maboneng” is a Sotho word meaning “place of light”. In 2008, a developer called Jonathan Liebmann bought old construction offices and warehouses dating from the 1900s and, in collaboration with an architect, he transformed the industrial space into a cultural oasis that is now Arts on Main, which is one of Maboneng’s two main building complexes. The building houses various studios which displays beautiful arts and crafts created by local South African artists. One studio was a testimony to social responsibility using creative rather than financial means. With an arresting title of “I was shot in Jo’burg”, the studio is the brainchild of South African architect Bernard Viljoen who converts Johannesburg’s street children into prolific photographers. His program started in 2009, when he picked 15 children from Twilight Children’s Shelter in the less than stellar Hillbrow neighborhood of Johannesburg. He gave them disposable cameras and met them once a week on a Monday afternoon for a workshop. Bernard says, “We learnt how to search for beauty, composition and interesting subject matter where we thought there were none.” In December 2009, they had their first exhibition at the Arts on Main and it was a runaway success. Bernard says, “the kids mingled and chatted and explained their work like they have been doing this for their whole lives. They had a voice. I wanted to create an evening these children will never forget for as long as they live. It was a great success.”
Having walked the few streets of the Precinct, I was struck by the power of gentrification, and its ability to convert previously unattractive and uninhabitable spaces to premier retail real estate in the space of a few years. Every Sunday, the Precinct hosts “Market on Main” where fresh produce, baked goods, indigenous plants, books, art and fashion are all showcased. It launched in January 2011 and has morphed into a compelling weekend destination for the Johannesburg residents as one can find Ethiopian, Moroccan, Chinese, Italian and Indian food for sale as well as local South African delicacies.
This is not pointless rambling. What I saw in Maboneng is something that is inspiringly easy to replicate. From the roller skating youth that throng the car park adjacent to Aga Khan Walk, to the countless artists and designers that showcase their wares in the rather elite confines of the annual Christmas Craft Fair Nairobi has the capacity to showcase its food and culture in an organized, cheap and vibrant manner that can provide depth to the limited public offerings in the city. A drive past the roundabout near ILRI in Uthiru’s shopping centre will reveal an amazing use of public space every Sunday. Someone was inspired to provide a bouncing castle and other forms of children’s entertainment on Sunday afternoons, resulting in an efficient and cheap use of a public space that elicits delightful use by the residents of Uthiru. Parents, children and young couples sit on the grass and make active use of the space provided, which is simply a roundabout on Naivasha road that has unkempt grass but is transformed into a public utility by an enterprising entertainer. From rough neighborhoods on Nairobi’s Quarry Road to Industrial Area there are lots of opportunities to transform streets into public entertainment spaces that can showcase our inimitable Kenyan culture. We need to deepen our perception beyond giving youth loans to do businesses and look at art and culture as a credible source of compelling youth engagement as it provides an outlet for self expression as well as a non academic based source of gainful self employment.
Food for thought on this Labor Day holiday.