The Joys of Johannesburg, Africa's Melting Pot of Creative Energy

A hub for tackling the continent's unique challenges

Johannesburg is the third in a new series, "Creative Cities," which highlights markets that have been growing in strength as creative hot spots. 

For outsiders who aren't in the know, Jo'burg may figure on their list of must-avoid cities than their must-visit destinations. Distance is a big factor (an 11-hour flight from most of Europe and even longer from New York). There is still the perception (if not the reality) of crime and danger in the city.

For insiders, it is an outstandingly friendly city with a warm, dry, sunny climate, green spaces and some of the world's most spectacular nature, which is ideal for sociable outdoor lifestyles. On top of this natural bounty came the end of apartheid, Nelson Mandela's charisma and South Africa's democratic development, which helped attract ambitious people from all over Africa and beyond. The result is an exciting multicultural city that's still a regional magnet with a buzzing music, performance and fine art scene that's one of the most exciting anywhere in the world.

Although gold and diamond mining drove the headlong growth of Jo'burg from the late 19th century, the city has transformed into the go-to regional center for manufacturing, construction, business services, finance, transport, technology, healthcare, media, entertainment, retail, tourism and services in general. Entertainment and media/advertising are particularly vigorous in South Africa as a whole, with revenue expected to rise to R54.2 billion (US$4 billion) by 2021 from R45.3 billion in 2016 (US$3.3 billion), representing a 3.7 percent compound annual growth rate.

The steady growth of Jo'burg's economy has allowed previously abandoned neighbourhoods to begin to thrive. One such example is Maboneng, labeled as South Africa's answer to Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Maboneng's district of galleries, restaurants and shops is just a few blocks long and has fast become a center of creative energy for Jo'burg's urban artists. Arts on the Main, one of the key building complexes in the neighborhood, houses a combination of advertising agencies, retail space, art galleries and private studios, including that of world-renowned South African artist William Kentridge. 

Another area going through a period of urban renewal is Braamfontein. Skyscrapers and Victorian houses that had been abandoned for years are now being filled with young creatives. It's home to theaters, markets and a number of coffee houses, as well as stores by up-and-coming South African designers. 

The great diversity of residents in Jo'burg gives it an undoubted advantage as the "senior brother" creative hub for the whole Sub-Saharan Africa region. Somalis, Zimbabweans, Ethiopians, Nigerians and Kenyans are among the ambitious professionals from all over the continent who live in the city and drive its marketing zing. They bring a wealth of knowledge and diverse creative takes on Africa's distinctive marketing challenges. 

Marketing isn't the only field in which South Africans are great at spotting opportunities. From the hawkers who sell everything from rugby jerseys to bubble-blowing machines at the traffic lights to the informal waste pickers (locally known as trolley pushers) who collect 80-90 percent of post-consumer packaging and save municipalities up to R750 million in landfill each year, they really keep the resourceful "maak 'n plan" outlook front of mind at all times. 

Africa as a whole is moving beyond informal local economies to developing more formal national and international economic structures. South Africa is further along that transition than many, and Jo'burg is even further along it. With its mix of marketers from many cultures and growing enthusiasm for art and culture, the city has in-the-muscle knowledge of how that transition works. It offers a head-start for companies that are keen to be part of the African Century, with hands-on experience of how to work within cities, between cities and between countries. 

Sala kahle!

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Naomi Troni
Naomi Troni is global chief growth officer at MullenLowe Group.

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