Gratitude Fisher and Phumza Mankayi were rocking their doeks—traditional South African head scarves—in ways their mothers and grandmothers never imagined: twisted and tucked à la Erykah Badu and Rosie the Riveter. Moreover, they were wearing them with thick, Urkel-style hipster glasses, oversize blazers with buttons pinned up the lapels, and prepster V-neck tennis sweaters. On this cold Monday night in June—the middle of Johannesburg’s winter—they were having a smoke outside Main Street Life, a seventies-era warehouse. Ten years ago, those who valued their safety would not go anywhere near downtown Johannesburg.
All around there were young people similarly decked out. Inside, a chunky black local rapper named Tumi, backed on keyboards by a skinny Afrikaner white boy named Peach, told the crowd to face down bling-bling hip-hoppers who used “hater” words like “bitches.” The scene definitely did not suggest the crime-racked, no-man’s-land Johannesburg that has grabbed its fair share of global headlines since apartheid ended in 1994. It felt more like Brooklyn’s hipster planet of Bushwick, if most of the cool kids were black and the white kids were the sprinkles, rather than the reverse.
Fisher is a poet, dancer, and jewelry designer. Mankayi is a poet and writer. The two friends—part of the South African generation known as “born-frees,” with birthdays right before or after apartheid’s demise—are starting a group to counsel teenage girls, in a country where the gulf between wealth and poverty is still massive and rates of both tween pregnancy and HIV among pregnant women are alarmingly high. The broader goal they share with many of their peers there is to put gritty Johannesburg on the map as one of the coolest cities in the world.
“We’re here to bring it!” Fisher exclaimed.
“But not just to be the next New York,” Mankayi added. “We want to keep the township vibe of ubuntu: humanity, humility, collectivism. We’re trying to find a balance between where we come from and what we want to be.”
Johannesburg right now—a place of about 4 million—feels like a hectic, history-scarred city full of hustle and optimism that’s brashly shouldering its way into the global arena. At the same time, it’s remaining intensely African, bursting with immigrants from all over the continent in a way that Cape Town, South Africa’s post-colonial tourism darling, simply is not. “People in Cape Town love to say, ‘Oh, isn’t it sooo European here?’ ” said Nellie Bowles, 24, an American writer living there. “Jo’burg is just being itself, which makes it sexy and cool.” Milisuthando Bongela, who writes the blog Miss Milli B and co-owns Mememe, a clothing boutique that sells local labels, put it this way: “I can still be the only black person in a restaurant in Cape Town. Whereas in Jo’burg, people like me own the restaurants.”