Culture + Style

Find Your “Place of Light”: A Weekend in Maboneng, Johannesburg

Can one man single-handedly ignite the revitalization of a city neighborhood? Since 2009, Johannesburg native Jonathan Liebmann has tried — leading the regeneration of Johannesburg’s downtown district by creating spaces where people can work, live and have fun.

Back in 2008 the area had seen better days. During the crime-ridden ’80s and ’90s, large businesses left for the safer northern suburbs. By 2000, even the Joburg Stock Exchange — the business anchor of the central business district — had moved.

Without adequate street security few people dared to walk the streets at night, particularly in industrial areas like Jeppestown, which were filled with abandoned warehouses.

Maboneng
Jonathan Leibman strolls through the neighborhood he helped revitalize. (Photo: Getty Images)

None of this deterred Liebmann. Before starting his property investment business, he had already traveled to Europe’s biggest cities, where much of city life centered around the central business district. He felt that he could replicate this in Johannesburg. He purchased several empty warehouses and transformed them into creative housing, filling them with artists looking for centrally located housing.

In 2010 Liebmann christened the small area Maboneng, meaning “place of light” in the Sotho language. Since then Maboneng has expanded to include rooftop bars, restaurants and markets.

It has become the entry point for the return of locals to Johannesburg’s downtown. And now tourists are flocking to this urban arts district to hang out on weekends and soak up its unique, gritty energy.

Here’s how to enjoy the four-block neighborhood during a weekend in Johannesburg.

Madiba Mural

Artist Ricky Lee Gordan painted a mural of President Nelson Mandela in his younger years when he was a boxer. The 40-meter-high mural is not far from where Mandela trained at the corner of Staib Street and Beacon Road just east of the Johannesburg CBD.

Market on Main

Maboneng
Stretch your purse strings in Mahboneng. (Photo: Getty Images)

This eclectic food and design market is held every Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m at Arts on Main, 245 Main Street. Food vendors sell cuisine from around the world — Venezuelan, Chinese, and, of course, South Africa.

The art and clothes vendors are independent and sell unique pieces that make perfect gifts to take home — or keep for yourself.

MOAD (Museum of African Design)

This is Africa’s first museum dedicated to design. The museum is housed in a cavernous industrial building, and instead of showcasing a permanent collection, it functions as a cultural laboratory.

Its first exhibit in 2013 examined “Native Nostalgia” and featured African artists looking at the darkest chapters in the continent’s history.

The Bioscope Independent Cinema

Since 2010 this 68-seat cinema has screened independent films from Africa, and it was one of the first permanent creative endeavors in Maboneng. The pizza and craft beer sold next door at Chalkboard is delicious.

Living Room Jozi

Maboneng
Get a dose of rooftop eats and drinks at the Living Room. (Photo: Alamy)

In recent years Joburgers have flocked to rooftop bars and clubs sprinkled throughout the city, and Living Room Jozi is a favorite. It combines vegetarian-friendly food with delicious cocktails. South Africans also love the bar’s house music soundtrack — the most popular music in South Africa.

Little Addis

Restaurant owner Kassa moved to Johannesburg in 2002 and began waiting tables in Ethiopian restaurants in the city. He set up a stall at Market on Main in 2011, and by 2012 he had his own permanent food stall in the neighborhood. Now his restaurant seats 35 people and includes a coffee bar.

AGOG Gallery

This gallery’s tagline is, “The meaning of art is also the meaning of the artist.” Beyond showcasing art, the building is a one-stop shop for food, drink and partying. There’s a wine and tapas bar on the ground floor and a whiskey and cigar bar on the rooftop. The gallery is open until 2 a.m., making it a late-night hang out.