The Nelson Mandela Bridge connects Braamfontein to the city centre. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

Hanging out in the heart of Jo’burg

I spent two years at Wits University without ever venturing out into Braamfontein. Shameful, I know. Back then, in 2009, I referred to it as ‘town’. I didn’t differentiate between this place and the undesirable stories I’d heard of Hillbrow. I was a sheltered, suburban South African teen with a penchant for pop music who never walked more than 1km from her home. I had no idea about Braamfontein’s vibrant history as a student destination, packed with coffee shops and eclectic students, or the time when the revolving restaurant still was a restaurant. Basically, I thought Braamies was dodgy so I avoided exploring it.

That changed in 2011 when I got a job off campus at University Corner. Then my access to the ‘safe haven’ of the Matrix (the university’s student mall) was cut off. It was a 20-minute walk plus a ten-minute wait to get overpriced and average food in town. I had to venture down Jorissen Street – and now I don’t regret it.

Before the Neighbourgoods Market (originally a parking garage, now a popular Saturday hangout to get homemade breakfasts and vintage clothes from), before the Puma Social Club (Jozi’s new ‘it’ venue) and Velo cafe, there was the McDonald’s on Jorissen Street. I’d step out of my office and practically run to McDonald’s on my first few trips there, hoping to get back in one piece. Before this I’d never been in the thick of the CBD at lunch time. The first obvious thing I noticed was that it’s dazzlingly cosmopolitan. Students scattered everywhere, school boys cat-calling me, plenty of ‘suits’ and even a McLaren parked on the street.

The Nelson Mandela Bridge connects Braamfontein to the city centre. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)
The Nelson Mandela Bridge connects Braamfontein to the city centre. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

I soon realised that I’d missed out on the feel of living in a city. It’s not the same as living in the suburbs – it’s more alive, more electric, more human, here. Despite my reservations about the CBD, I knew that crime is rife in the suburbs too, so in retrospect I don’t really know what I was so afraid of. We live in Africa, yet we spend our time in traffic jams of 4x4s and tree-lined streets of The Parks, a group of upper-middle class suburbs scattered towards Sandton. I’ve always thought I lived in a city but this – ‘downtown’ Jozi – is the city.

There’s a huge inner-city revival going on in Braamfontein, a part of the CBD that’s home to more students than you can count. South Point , a property investment company, has taken over and revamped many of the buildings into chic but cheap student accommodation, and scattered bars around their Lamunu Hotel (which warrants a visit).

Over the past few years, Braamfontein has been transformed into a haven for hipsters. You can enjoy a great cup of well-priced coffee while enjoying the art on display at Velo,  then visit the Wits Hospice store which is nothing like a charity shop, and, if you’re a photography lover,  pop into the Lomography Embassy at 70 Juta. It’s hipster’s paradise in the inner city, and a coffee in my hand and fashion on tap is my idea of heaven.

You'll find art, coffee, furniture, fashion in the shops that line 70 Juta. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G
You’ll find art, coffee, furniture and fashion in the shops that line 70 Juta. (Madelene Cronjé, M&G)

The nightlife in Braamies is also steadily growing. When acclaimed South African rock band Shadowclub made the line-up at the Puma Social Club a few weeks ago, the queue to get in was nearly a block long. Hundreds of 20-somethings waited for hours to be entertained (and to Instagram their experience).

To me, Braamfontein is where the charm is. It’s a place where anyone, even yuppies clutching onto their handbags, can feel at home. The next time you’re driving through the city, park your car, get out, and walk. Take in the cacophony of traffic, the busy sidewalks, the mix of people and shops . You’ll get,  like I did, that this is an African city.

Zaahirah Bhamjee runs the women’s interest blog She’s based in Johannesurg and spends her days juggling work and blogging. Connect with her on Twitter.

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