JOHANNESBURG -- The Nelson Mandela Bridge, opened last summer at the celebration of the hero's 85th birthday, is a graceful span that links the elegant white-flight community of Braamfontein with Newtown, in the heart of the city. It symbolizes the unity this country is striving to achieve; it was intended as a landmark, Johannesburg's Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty.
While Cape Town is the South African city easiest to love, for its cosmopolitan culture and jaw-dropping views of Table Mountain descending into the sea, Johannesburg is, in a grittier way, equally captivating. Burdened with sad statistics on crime rates and HIV infection, it is nonetheless a place whose energy convinces you that the new South Africa will succeed.
A decade or so ago, I commiserated with a friend visiting Johannesburg who had asked the concierge at the last remaining five-star hotel in the city center about a good walking route, only to be told he couldn't safely leave the building on foot, and that taxis weren't a good bet either.
Since then, I've been to Joburg several times, most recently to be impressed by the collective willpower that seems determined to turn the place around, a willpower epitomized by Kim Berman, founder of the Artist Proof Studio, a multiracial print and paper-making facility whose Newtown headquarters burned to the ground last year in a terrible accident that killed one artist and destroyed years of work by others.
Berman isn't one to give up. Thanks to an international fund-raising campaign that included a $100,000 Ford Foundation grant, Artist Proof has moved to greatly expanded headquarters in a former bus depot. The new space is on two floors: The top is a studio for professionals, the lower one is for community projects and a shop where prints and handmade paper goods are sold.
During my stay, Artist Proof held a ceremony in the shell of its old building, to mark the move to the new one. Linda Givon, South Africa's top art dealer, whose Goodman Gallery on the outskirts of Johannesburg shows the best of the country's contemporary art, donated huge portfolios of start-up supplies to the artists who had lost not only their work, but also the paper, pigments, and other supplies they needed. The room also contained art made after the fire, out of remains including burned metal and scorched papers. A charred wire sculpture is obviously an abstracted bird.
"A phoenix rising from the ashes?" I asked its maker.
"No," he responded solemnly, "actually it's a duck.
The Bus Factory, as the newly made-over space is called, now has a permanent display of crafts from all over South Africa, as well as a drumming and singing school where you can eavesdrop on a rehearsal and be swept away on a tide of rhythm. Graduates find work in unlikely places including corporate offices, where the latest executive stress-reliever is on-site drumming workshops.
Like Berman, Albie Sachs survived the bad times and now relishes his country's freedom. A liberal lawyer, Sachs was the victim of a car bomb during apartheid; the incident cost him an eye and an arm. He also was imprisoned. When apartheid fell, Sachs became a judge on the Constitutional Court, the equivalent of the US Supreme Court, and helped write South Africa's new constitution. Utterly unpretentious, Sachs is perhaps the only person in his position anywhere in the world who answers his own office phone.
Prominently placed in the court's old headquarters (which are soon to be supplanted by new ones next door) is an eight-panel screen of Berman's "Fire" series: opulent, multi-process prints depicting a raging fire and its aftermath, one of the symbols of the new South Africa. Another symbol, Sachs said, is the spreading tree, the court's logo. In many African societies, justice is meted out under a sheltering tree.
"How do you establish the iconography of a new system of law," he asked. "With Roman columns and a blind lady holding the scales of justice? No. We fought for freedom on African soil and we wanted African imagery."
The architecture of the new court is heavily symbolic. Natural light will be plentiful, suggesting that no dark secrets lurk here. Justices will sit not on a dais, but at the same level as everyone else, emphasizing the egalitarian contrast with the old authoritarian rule. Columns will be clad with mosaics meant to look like seeds from African trees.
Equally symbolic buildings also have gone up in Soweto, the township that celebrates its centennial this year and has grown into a tourist attraction with two new museums. One is the Apartheid Museum, which takes as its motto, "Segregation is exactly where it belongs -- in a museum." The route through the building begins with a chilling experience: Your entrance card categorizes you as either white or black; there are separate doorways for each.
The Hector Pieterson Museum is devoted to the events of a single day -- July 16, 1976 -- when a student protest quickly turned into a bloodbath, with over 500 protesters killed. Thirteen-year-old Hector was among the first to fall.
Scattered in a courtyard of the museum are bricks, each etched with the name of one of the victims. The water streaming down a low granite wall symbolizes tears shed over the tragedy.
While Soweto is now on the tourist route, other, more remote townships and unofficial settlements occupied by squatters are less accessible. Berman drove me to Ivory Park, a squatter settlement where she helped start a government poverty relief program called Phumani Papers. More than a million people live in Ivory Park, in tin shacks made from whatever they salvage from the landfill. Recycling has become big business here. One resident explained: "When people here go on a drinking spree, we ask them to put the glass bottles in one place and the tin cans in another."
Phumani Papers is in a makeshift building where a small group of women turn out handmade papers they then turn into stationery, picture frames, wine bottle carriers, and other accessories. They've also become market-savvy. When I visited, they had just sold a huge order to The Body Shop.
Sachs, Berman, and others who have stayed the course in Johannesburg believe art will play a key role in building the new South Africa and in coming to grips with the legacy of the old one. That tortured past seeps into contemporary culture, and traditional indigenous life mixes with modern industrialization. Under a multilane elevated highway in the city, for example, is a market selling herbal remedies.
For most visitors, Newtown will be Johannesburg's big lure. At its heart is the Market Square, a buzzing center of activities day and night, with theater, restaurants, clubs, bars, and boutiques clustered around a pedestrian mall. Some institutions here are legendary: the Market Theatre, for one, cofounded in 1976 by Barney Simon, who died in 1995. Simon was a larger-than-life figure who insisted on using actors of all races, even under apartheid.
Next to the Market Theatre is Gramadoelas, a restaurant that opened in the 1970s and serves African dishes including snoek pie, bobotie, biltong, and mopani worms. (The worms are usually deep-fried, a treatment that so masks their flavor that you can't even claim they taste like chicken.) When Queen Elizabeth II or David Bowie show up in Joburg, Gramadoelas is where they eat.
Gramadoelas has new competition a few doors down, in the form of Moyo, which defines itself as a "World Music Restaurant & Bar." You'll hear some of Africa's best bands playing here, and you'll eat divinely: grilled ostrich, smoked crocodile, a pan-African menu that is a culinary journey from Cape Town to Cairo. The interior is a cocoon of African textiles, beads, baskets, and, because parts of the restaurant are open to the sky, a mohair blanket on each seat. Even the menu is a visual treat. Its beaten-copper covers are so popular that the restaurant now sells them for around $20. The waitstaff have painted faces and they offer to paint yours, too, for free.
During my latest visit to Johannesburg, I got tickets for the Market Theatre's "Tshepang: The Third Testament" by the young Johannesburg writer Lara Foot Newton, whose point of departure was the horrific epidemic of child rape in her country. She created a work of art, not a polemic. The most haunting image is the mother of an infant who had been raped and murdered by the mother's boyfriend. Blaming herself, she carries a baby's bed on her back. Bent over by the burden, she is the image of grief and guilt.
Bringing the unspeakable into the open, as Newton's play does, is a theme in South Africa's art as much as in the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
"With statistics showing 20,000 child rapes a year, one has to do something!" Newton wrote in the play's program. "Theatre is always a good place to start."