Archive for February, 2010

What’s the word? Johannesburg

February 24, 2010

So it was salad and chips and a spectacular sunset while crossing the Karoo from Cape Town to Johannesburg by train. Not at all dangerous as quite a few people we had told we were doing it had warned us. Just 27 hours of chilling in our cabin watching the Karoo roll on by.

I’ve been told there’s a song that claims ‘There’s not much to do in the Karoo’, so I don’t think we missed much.

I like arriving in new places by train. Mainly because there’s always good (well, at least some) graffiti to view from the tracks, but also you usually end up in the centre of a place with half a chance of seeing some of it, unlike when you fly.

Johannesburg, Jozi, Jo’burg, the city of gold, eGoli – whatever you want to call it – is a funny place. I’ve previously avoided it or treated it as a stop-over when getting to other places, while using and abusing my relatives who live there’s hospitality. Most people think crime, grime and whites living safely secluded in their gated compounds in the northern suburbs, driving between work, the mall and the mock Tuscan village just off the highway that serves as a safe evening venue. And all that’s true. The challenge was to find what else makes this city tick that seems more normal to us from a European mindset.

It wasn’t that easy. What we did find and liked were: the well-stocked book shop with its counter serving Seattle Coffee Company cappuccinos in the corner of Sandton City shopping mall. The couple of streets in Parkhurst we wandered up and down with antique and design shops, delis and cafes spilling onto the street front and a British-style boozer. The 60s style apartment block with minimal security we were invited to in Illovo with its balconies over-looking a communal garden which felt part Barbican part Nottinghill. And a cluster of shops in Parkwood in a small, non-energy-zapping shopping centre.

There’s obviously a lot more going on in a city that truly has a heart, as these sites are testament to: Jobusy – a guide to loving Johannesburg city and a lovely, inclusive, people-focused campaign You Make Jo’burg Great.

A friend and new blogger Ross who lives half in Jo’burg and half on a construction site in Mozambique, but is from Kenya, very aptly said: “Here the highs are higher and the lows are lower.” Other adjectives included edgy, gritty, raw, fresh, sharp and exciting.

Another insight was the North-South divide between Cape Town and Johannesburg. Wherever you are, locals will claim their city is better than the other. Here are some of the sort of things we were told (not exact quotes but you get the gist):

“Jo’burg has the better climate; did you experience the wind in Cape Town?”

“I don’t want to scare you, but Cape Town’s more dangerous these days!”

“But there’s no beach near Jo’burg, it’s all air conditioned malls and running on a treadmill.”

“Cape Town is so arty-farty… they’re all living in their own bubble world.”

“The real business happens in Jo’burg, people in Cape Town as soooo slow at replying to emails and on a Friday afternoon they’re all on the beach.”

“They may have a mountain, but we’ve got Kruger and the Big 5 at Sun City.”

To get a much better idea of the real Johannesburg, I can recommend the book ‘From Jo’burg to Jozi: Stories about Africa’s infamous city‘ edited by Heidi Holland and Adam Roberts, and written by journalists and writers who have lived and worked there.

And also, the Gil Scott Heron song Johannesburg recorded just before the Soweto riots for some of the upbeat Jozi vibe. It’s pretty kewl.



February 16, 2010

Often I find that people in the UK (London more specifically) have this attitude that they’re at the centre of the world. If you’re anywhere else then you’re not at the centre of the action. You’re missing out. Life revolves around GMT, the FTSE index and people who speak the Queen’s English. But hey, surely the centre depends on how you’re looking at a map of the world?

The picture above was on the back cover of January’s 021 Cape Town monthly events listing magazine. Cape Town may be at the bottom-most tip of the African continent, but like this it’s at the top of the world. The Mother City surveying the Motherland.

I’ve come on a trip to explore South Africa because I’m thinking of moving here.  After 10 years in London I’m contemplating my exit to the hinterlands. So, I have been checking out Cape Town (and Johannesburg – more to come about that later) and their capability to sustain… not just me, but also their residents and support the rest of Southern Africa in developing sustainably.

While I’ve been here, I’ve read a series of short stories about CT called “A City Imagined”, edited by Stephen Watson, a local poet who lives in the more arty environs of town, Kalk Bay. See photo below (taken by Emily, who I’m here with) from the window of the Olympia Café & Deli in Kalk Bay.

A great number of the stories in the book mention Cape Town’s majestic Table Mountain and its remarkable power over the city. In Stephen’s closing chapter ‘Afterword to a City’ he describes the mountain appearing in view from the Waterfront as “a mountain docked like a liner from another planet” and talks about how he feels Capetonians come close to empathizing with American poet Wallace Stevens when he wrote: “the greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world.”  It’s an elemental place as Emily describes it, especially after experiencing the ‘Cape Doctor’ winds.

But my favourite has to be this description of Cape Town by Stephen:

“It continues to offer something which almost all other cities in the twenty-first century have lost – a home in which human beings do not have to suffer the exile of being a species so dominant they have obliterated all but the signs, the scars, of their own presence. Even in the midst of downtown streets, the stone world has not yet become completely other.”

This inability to escape, or not to be aware of, the physical mass looming over your head in Cape Town I think has implications for Capetonians’ attitudes towards their environment.

Here are some of my very fledgling thoughts on CT’s capability to sustain itself in a changing world:

Safety and security: Compared to SA, in the UK we can pretty much take our security for granted. Gated residences and high security are more for the ostentatious needs of the mega-rich back home. Whereas here, you’ve gotta be a lot more aware of not getting caught up in crime.  Central areas of CT seem to be far safer than they have been because of many more police on the streets and heightened security. But the fear-factor does get hyped: if you talk to locals about all the recent overseas reporting of ‘Kill a Tourist Day’ and gang initiation they will say it’s been sensationalised by the international media. I agree.

Getting about: In the centre of CT, it’s mostly private cars and public minibuses on the roads given the lack of any well-connected mass transit alternatives. The local buses always seemed bereft of passengers – not really living up to their ‘The Bus for Us’ slogan – while the ubiquitous African shuttle minibuses are always jam packed. We saw some fantastic classic cars cruising the streets: VW Beetles and old school Mercedes Benz being used for regular trips round town and some Triumphs and Morris Minors being taken out for a Sunday spin. The commuter trains out of town were good too, albeit crammed in rush hour. Bikes are far from being king of the road; only a few commuter types dodging traffic but mostly lycra-clad speed demons off to flex their thighs on some steep mountain road. I think a lot more could be done to make CT more cycle friendly, but at least now I know I wouldn’t be the only crazy city cyclist!

Consuming stuff: In my mind, Africans are the true masters of the art of re-use and recycling. I’ve always assumed that like people who grew up in war-time Britain, the waste-not-want-not attitude prevails among people here. But maybe not in the bubble-world of affluent Capetonians. However, the vintage vibe in CT seems strong. You can get retro furniture and second-hand clothing at competitive or cheaper-than-new prices, which is not always the case in the UK now it’s got fashionable. Made in South Africa is getting big too with up and coming South African designers and local production. And also lots of delicious local and organic food.

These are just some signs I saw of CT’s sustainable happenings, but I reckon the city’s got a whole lot more that it’s cape-able of creatively doing that isn’t just the preserve of the affluent minority.

So, who needs to be in the centre when you can be at the tip for these exciting and changing times? I think I’ve just talked myself into going… or should that be staying?

Cards of Cape Town

February 4, 2010

These are some cards of people and places I’ve come across in Cape Town.

Starting top left, cousin* Roger Goode DJ-ing at the J&B Met races’ after party. (* in a distant random relative kind of way.)

Zig-zagging along, next is creative incubator Matchboxology who do the South African government’s HIV/AIDs behaviour change campaigns, among other cool, creative, social change things.

I ♥ NEW WORK from Whatiftheworld / Gallery in Woodstock which Emily and I visited – it’s a “platform for a new generation of emerging South Africa contemporary artists” and was selected as on the of the ‘Top 50 Emerging Galleries from Around the World’ but Contemporary Magazine in London. I liked the Guyanese Samsonite – the ubiquitous plastic African holdall bag often seen trying to be taken as oversized hand luggage on flights, kitchen sink and all!

Next line down, it’s the logo of the NeighbourGoods Market at the Old Biscuit Mill on Saturdays. Think Borough meets the Portobello with a urban micro-festival feel from the DJ amid the hay bale seats. You can get a good coffee, buy a dress that’s been designed and made in South Africa and then gorge on an assortment of culinary treats from the food stalls. (I asked someone if they could sum up Cape Town in one word and he said “schmorgasboard”; the food here was just so).

Then, Truth Coffee Cult. Our local coffee house. I started following them on Twitter and got a direct message: Have you tasted the TRUTH yet? Yes, I have! And it’s gooooooood. They recommended Square Mile Coffee to me, and that’s when I knew I’d come to the right place as it’s what I like to drink in London.

Bikes had to make it in somehow… here’s CT’s first Critical Mass flyer. Spread the word.

Today is a good day, especially if you have your breakfast here. Monocle magazines to browse while sipping your morning cappuccino.

Heather Moore, aka Skinny La Minx. An illustrator and designer she makes really cool home stuff like tea-towels, cushions and aprons as well as putting her illustrated transfers on ceramics. I especially like her Sevilla rock-art range.

Openveld’s card I picked up at the Neighbourgoods Market. They had great tasting salami and I liked the birds. There seems to be a thing about the use of birds in designs in Cape Town, they keep cropping up everywhere including the fab Birds Boutique Café.

I keep popping back into Lynne’s shop ‘Hello Again’ and have to stop myself from saying “hello again” – it must be an old joke and incredibly annoying. Lynne sells lots of fab American Apparel style clothing that’s made in SA, as well as her husband’s fittees (tailor made fitted T-shirts for people who demand a perfect fit to “feel sexy and look their best”) and his custom made fixed gear bikes, complete with recycling logo stickers. Love it.

Spier is a large vineyard in Stellenbosch that produces it’s own sustainability report, set up the Sustainability Institute next door and has a fantastic organic restaurant called 8 which serves only the food that is grown locally. Menus are created for the day based on what produce is available. Pity it was closed the day we went, but I did like the recycling messages stuck up in the loos. Good for a captive audience. I’d be interested to know if they really do all they say they do.

Second to last, Monkey Biz is an amazing bead-business. If you can’t read what’s written on the tag in the picture, it says: “I am a unique artwork created by disadvantaged people in the townships of Cape Town. Thank you for choosing me. Make us welcome in your home.” By us, they mean whichever elaborately beautiful beaded animal or item you have bought from them. The shop is a bead crafters emporium and a beady-eyed shopper’s heaven. There’s no artistic direction from the salespeople, the crafters in the townships (many with HIV) learn the art from their elders and are simply provided with the beads, wire and twin. Totally different and fantastic presents.

And finally, boutique design hotel and restaurant Daddy Long Legs. Rated by The Guardian as a good place to stay in CT with each of their 13 rooms designed by a different local artist/ poet/ designer/ writer/ photographer/ musician, etc., it’s a bit rock and roll with a retro Airstream trailer park on the roof and open air cinema screenings. It promises “to bring the creative spirit of Cape Town into your hotel room experience” although it’s probably a good thing you’re “in a world of your own” given the overload of onions in their Ceasar Salad. But great design and good they’ve got Fair Trade in Tourism status.

I ♥ CT

February 1, 2010

It’s 13 years since I was last in the ‘Mother City’. And just like when you’re growing up and someone who hasn’t seen you for a long time typically says, “my, haven’t you changed”, so have I reacted to Cape Town. It’s like CT’s Big African Mama has finally kicked the city into shape. And just in time for the 2010 World Cup being hosted by South Africa!

There’s a joke that it’s called the Mother City because it takes 9 months to do anything in Cape Town. But I’d be inclined to disagree. It only took me two emails, one phone call and a visit to a shop in the city centre to find a bike I could borrow to take part in Cape Town’s Critical Mass last Friday. The guys at Fixed Gear Cape Town are doing a great job of bringing fixie culture and city cycle style to Cape Town.

I’m not sure what I expected to find on coming back here. I have hazy memories from January 1997 of the backpackers’ hangouts on Long Street, climbing Table Mountain because the cable car was out of service with a hangover (mine not the cable car’s), getting sloshed in Stellenbosch on a wine tour and being surprised by the chilly sea waters on the Atlantic coastline.

All of that is still here, although the cable car works and I’ve drunk considerably less Hunters’ Gold this trip. But there is so much more now too. A shiny new stadium built for the World Cup which Capetonians are really proud of. It hosted its first match just the other day. Lots more security and police presence. Arty suburbs aplenty with great creative spaces and lots of seriously great designers. A small but growing bike culture. A blooming green scene – the first article in Cape Town’s Time Out is all about “going green in the Mother City” citing the city’s first green shopping arcade, local organic markets and a green cab company. A retro vibe from all the vintage cars and second-hand clothing stores. And my personal favourite, a cafe culture with divine coffee, cakes and croissant. “Lekker” as the locals say.

It’s almost as though Cape Town has done a London. From a structure-less city it’s become a series of areas with their own identities, like the idea that London is really just a collection of villages each with a different vibe. There’s even an imaginary dividing line known as the ‘lentil curtain’ that separates the hippies from the townies here!

As far as I can tell in 10 days, the main areas and the character of their inhabitants are:

Observatory (or Obs) for the hippy-arty crowd

Woodstock for the eco-arty-foodie tribe

Sea Point promenade (a la Miami boulevard) for the highly-toned fitness fanatics

Camps Bay for the Riviera beach set (more St Tropez than S Africa)

Clifton for the wannabe-seen scene

Bo-Kaap around Cape Quarter for the true flag flyers of the Rainbow Nation

Long Street/ Kloof Street and Gardens for the they-think-they’re-trendy Alpha types

Kalk Bay for the literary-arty lovers


More to come about CT and its ‘capeability’ soon.

I just know that I ♥ the city whose tourism slogan is “Live it. Love it.” Exactly my motto.