Exploring the culture of Johannesburg

Exploring the culture of Johannesburg

It’s the end of day three here on our trip to South Africa. Tonight is our last night in Jo'burg before we fly down to Port Elizabeth and then onto the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown where some of the best work happening in South Africa today is showcased.

Jo'burg is a bustling, thriving and expanding city. Every second of the day you get the feeling that a deal is being done somewhere. We've had two excellent guides in the form of Peter Stark and Brian Debnam whose induction to the social and political history of this city and the country has brought us all to a closer understanding of the context in which South African artists have been working. This is a city on the rise and it is estimated that at the current rate of expansion in ten years’ time it may be the size of Mexico City.

Jo-burg was built on the discovery of gold. Yet this massive reserve of wealth lying underneath the ground and stretching far beneath the earth cannot disguise the dreadful and hateful inhumanity of the political system that enslaved the majority of the population and from which the country, barely 20 years into a fledgling democracy, is striving to right the wrongs of the evils of apartheid.

Since our arrival late last Sunday we have spent time with artists and people who lived through those dreadful years. We have been to the most moving and heart breaking places - the Apartheid Museum, Soweto and Constitution Hill - this more than any place we have visited in Jo'burg embodies the powerful way in which the principles of apartheid denied humanity. During those years it was a notorious prison which practised the most brutal and sickening ways - its most famous inmates include Mahatma Ghandi and Winnie Mandela but thousands upon thousands of ordinary men and women, many of whom were imprisoned for not carrying their passbook, were subjected to horrendous conditions in a system designed to humiliate and break them.

Constitution Hill is now the sight of South Africa's highest court and the building and its design embody perfectly how this country is beginning to transform itself. From the brutality has risen a beautiful and powerful symbol of hope and justice - building a future from the bricks that literally once imprisoned them. Here is a place where history, culture, art, justice and social and political engineering collide and it all feels inextricably linked building a future in which the principles of the new South African constitution that Mandela and his comrades fought and gave their lives to are forged.

We've encountered many people and places where art and culture are inspiring and embodying the massive changes that are happening here, from the magnificent Market Theatre of Johannesburg, a place where artists went to war against apartheid and emerged victorious, to the booming artistic quarter of Newtown, housing a number of arts organisations from visual art to dance companies and music venues that have reclaimed the old buildings and turned them into something that breathes new life and optimism into the area. The new Soweto Theatre stands at one of the highest points of the township and next to the amphitheatre where Zindzi Mandela addressed the crowd to tell them her father would not accept freedom for himself until all the people were free. Art, politics, freedom, justice all living side by side and hand in hand.

There is a great deal to be optimistic about here, despite the challenges that the country still clearly faces and the fact that the cultural sector operate on little or no subsidy. Much work is being done to allow this creativity to grow and become sustainable.

On the streets of Jo'burg you will see areas of the city transformed by the power of art, passion and creativity - no more so than in Maboneng, an area of the city that is growing fast into a magnificent cultural precinct full of galleries, cafes, great restaurants, living spaces, every street you look down has art adorning the walls and the passion of this place was brilliantly captured by our guide Bheki Dube, whose infectious enthusiasm and deep knowledge and understanding of how art and culture is helping to transform a city makes us all end our tour of Jo'burg with a deep sense of privilege for having shared and experienced the complex and inspiring journey that this city and the country are on.