Jozi City Feature

Downtown beacon of light

In an area just slightly larger than a soccer field, there is an oasis of regeneration in a sea of stagnation and decay in the CBD. It consists of apartments, a restaurant and café, an art house movie complex and a building, housing some of the country’s top artists. It is nestled between industrial buildings and factories. Its clean roads are flanked by young trees still deepening their roots, much like the young children that play and skateboard between them.

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Shooting for glory: A young girl makes full use of the facilities that have been installed on the streets in the precinct.

This is the Maboneng precinct and it is hoping to change the way Jo’burgers view and interact with their city. Translated from Setswana, Maboneng means “area of lights” and is an example of the transformation that is taking place in the city. Old buildings have been transformed into an artistic hub where young creatives, designers and urbanites are finding new and exciting ways of renewing a relationship with the cultural side of the city.

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A diagram illustrating the layout of the Maboneng precinct found in the Chalkboard Café.

This is the brainchild of Jonathan Lieberman, a young man whose energy and ambition have transformed this corner of Johannesburg’s CBD.

“I was living in a small apartment in Milpark (an area between the city and the northern suburbs) and felt like I was missing out on something,” he says. “Hell, I felt there were many people missing out on something.”

This “something” is a relationship with the city, in particular the CBD. The perception during the 1990s and early 2000s of the Johannesburg CBD is what Lieberman calls “ignorantly negative and fearful”.

“With the rise of Sandton and Rosebank, and then later Fourways, Greenstone and Bryanston, the CBD lost some of its commercial appeal,” says Lieberman. “Townhouses and complexes have been seen by many as a more desirable place to live and the middle class moved out of the city in search of something that they were misinformed about.

“What I wanted to do was to bring those people back. The middle class is called that because it bridges the gap between the top and the bottom and that is one of the challenges of the CBD.

“I knew what I wanted and used myself as a barometer for what the area needed,” says Lieberman. “I consider myself a lifestyle designer and, although I am not an artist per se, I realised that this reinvention of the area would happen at the fingertips of those who are.”

It started with the formation of Arts on Main, a renovated building that is the main attraction of the area. It boasts work from top South African artists and shows this rejuvenation can credit its rise to the artists and creative people that power it.

“Artists are curious and inquisitive. They question the status quo of things. They challenge conventional thinking and try to push the limit of what is normal. The area needed people who thought along these lines and my vision could only become a reality if the right people were on board.”

One such artist is Hannelie Coetzee, an industrious creative whose vision of our interaction with the built environment mirrors Lieberman’s enthusiasm.

Coetzee admits she was influenced by William Kentridge, a world-renowned artist who was one of the early members of the project, as well as the distinctive energy of Johannesburg.

“It is the diverse insanity that grabbed me,” says Coetzee. “That ‘jump-up-and-go’ vibe of the city that simply got me. Johannesburg is alive with chaos and I love it all.”

Coetzee, born in Cape Town, raised in Durban and educated in the Vaal, says the idea of what the precinct represents is what attracted her to it.

“I am among peers here. Like-minded people who are risk takers. The area is full of young, driven, focused, creative people. Artists are risk takers on a cultural level because they almost don’t have anything to lose but everything to gain. I have profound conversations and feel that the work we are doing is making a difference to the community.”

Coetzee is currently working on a public work of art. It is a massive eye that is made up of mining materials that will look out from the north side of the Main Street Life building.


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Old into new: Coetzee has turned a wall that was falling apart into a piece of art. This is a picture of her as a baby. She used different sized drill bits to rework the dilapidated into the delightful. Found on the 2nd floor of Main Street Life.

“I am physically leaving my mark on the area. We’ve also created jobs here with members of the community all helping in the completion of the work.”

The buildings are all “recycled”, as Lieberman puts it, and he hopes the renovated buildings are changing the way residents view the precinct and consequently the CBD.

“I feel like a custodian of the built environment in a way,” says Lieberman. “Aesthetically appealing buildings lead to creative energies and through the physical we can achieve what we want to achieve on an abstract level.

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An abandoned lift in the Arts on Main building is a reminder that this area is a place of rejuvenation.

“If the area looks like a place where artists can thrive, they will thrive.”

Fred Clarke, a young artist from Pretoria, has recently moved into the district and also has a public studio in the Arts on Main building.

He believes the relationship people have with the renovated and rejuvenated buildings is central to understanding what is special about the area.

“When people from all classes, languages and cultures can appreciate what they see in front of them, it makes unification easier. This building is a celebration of the physical. It may contain metaphors and meanings that lie in the abstract but these issues are represented in physical form.

“It is our space. It is a space for artists and through art we are breaking boundaries.”

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The community is actively involved in the rejuvenation process. Local people are employed in a positive cycle of change that affects all concerned.

The problems of the country cannot be ignored when speaking about the rejuvenation of an area in Johannesburg. Just a short walk up Fox Street is degeneration. Make no mistake, the Maboneng precinct is a small island of prosperity and improvement in a very large sea of waste and forgotten potential.

“Sure this area is unique in the grand scheme of things, but I love it,” says Clarke. “It is a microcosm of the real world. There is poverty everywhere and although I don’t want to live in it, if I move to the northern suburbs with my walls and fences, I become distant from it. Distance leads to ignorance and ignorance doesn’t help anyone.”

Clarke sees the area as a “microcosm of the real world”, yet his description may fall short in acknowledging the struggles that those outside the oasis face.

Sampson Dlamini is a security guard in the area. He has been guarding cars and keeping the trendy middle class in Arts on Main safe for five years and, although he loves the Maboneng precinct, he admits that he struggles with the disparity that for him is impossible to ignore.

“I really enjoy working here,” he says. “It is safe and clean and the people are friendly. But I wish I could live here. I wish I could enjoy what the people here enjoy but for me and people like me it is far too much money to afford a place here.”

Dlamini lives in Bertrams, a 20-minute walk from the Maboneng precinct. For him it is close to a different country.

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Outside looking in: A view from outside the Arts on Main building, towards the Main Street Life rejuvenation.

“I feel that I am crossing a bridge to greener pastures when I come here. Bertrams is nice enough but it is not like here. This place is showing people that Jozi can be good. That Jozi is a place that is wonderful. But the truth is not all of Jozi is like this. Where I come from is like a different world to here. Sometimes I get jealous that I am protecting people who don’t understand and maybe don’t want to.”

However, for the people living in the area, one of the most striking features of the community is its inclusive nature. Thabang Khumalo is the manager of Pata Pata, a restaurant on the ground floor of Main Street Life. He admits that the region represents improvement on a small scale but also hails it as an example of how inclusivity can change people’s perception of the city.

“This area captures the spirit of ubuntu like no other place in Johannesburg. I live in Newtown and although it’s similar, this place stands alone.

“I don’t want to make it a race thing but I love seeing white people in the city. Young white people, but also young black, Indian and coloured people. It is the young people who are healing the wounds of the past and if anyone wants the best example of how that is so, then they should all come here.”

“We had to start somewhere,” explains Lieberman, asked about the poverty that surrounds his neighbourhood. “The artists made sense to me initially because that’s what I wanted. Something like an orphanage perhaps wouldn’t have gained as much attention, or maybe the attention would be of a different sort.

“The Maboneng precinct needed foundation, and we found a solid one at the hands of artists. Now we can look forward.”


Signs welcome visitors to Arts on Main and yet the stagnation of beautiful buildings in the area remains a problem.

Developers are looking forward and plans are already in place to spread the energy and optimism that has gripped the liberals and artists. Young children enjoy half-pipes to skateboard on as well as basketball courts that have been erected. Security guards and waitrons are hired from surrounding areas and Lieberman has put in motion plans to renovate a nearby building and turn it into a housing project for people towards the lower end of the income spectrum.

“We are changing people’s lives with these buildings,” says Lieberman. “We are mixing history with the future and it is for all to see in the present. This precinct has layers, it has depth, it has energy. One can read history through architecture and we are changing history one rejuvenated building at a time.”

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Johannesburg is a city on the rise and the possibilities for rejuvenation are limited only by the ambitions and cooperation of those willing to take a risk and restore the CBD.                                           (Photo taken from top of Main Street Life.)




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About Daniel Gallan

Daniel Gallan has a BA in English and psychology. He is a sport and music enthusiast.

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