In South Africa, once-impoverished townships become trendy night spots

PRETORIA -- South Africa’s growing black middle-class is spurring the opening of stylish, upmarket restaurants, bars and pubs in former hotspots of segregation.

PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA -- It's Saturday night and hoards of young black professionals are jostling to enter Jack Budha in the Mamelodi township, cajoled by the voguish mise en scène, thumping house music DJs, the diverse blend of people and thick purses waiting to be flattened by dawn the next day.

Twenty-nine-year old Kabelo Ratshefola from Soweto is a first-time patron at Jack Budha, along with his girlfriend, Khumoetsile Vilakazi. On seeing other girls dressed to the nines, he turns to his girlfriend and jokingly says, “Eish, if I knew there were going to be so many skimpily clad ladies, I would have left you at home.”

While this scene would not be out of place in any big city, what sets it apart is its location: Mamelodi township, just on the periphery of the capital city of Pretoria in South Africa, and about 39 miles (63km) from the country’s economic hub, Johannesburg.

Before apartheid ended nearly 20 years ago, townships were racially segregated, underdeveloped living areas built on the periphery of towns and cities. They were reserved for black Africans only and hardly had adequate services like electricity, roads and clean water.

These areas are characterized by some of the most desperate poverty in South Africa with the largest township, Soweto, lying 20 miles (32.5 km) southeast of Johannesburg.

But now, formalized, upmarket township-based restaurants and pubs are becoming a trend for young black people in South Africa as their spending power is at a healthy rate. Historically, black South Africans were barred from getting well-paying jobs or studying degrees that would empower them to get jobs beyond teaching, nursing and the like.

Today things have changed in many of the townships where the young people are able to hang out on plush leather couches in these neighborhood establishments along tarred roads, street lighting and clean water.


Jack Budha bar.jpg

Lebo Motshegoa, director of Foshizi, a township research agency, saysthere have been a number of lifestyle outlets which have in the past opened and closed, making it difficult to quantify the numbers of these upmarket restaurant and pubs in townships. But he also notes that in the country's biggest township, Soweto, restaurants and pubs located on Vilakazi Street, have become a tourist attraction. 

Vilakazi Street, which has been home to two Nobel Peace prize recipients, the late, former president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, has always drawn fans and tourists to their former homes, but now is attracting those just looking for a lunch date with friends and family. As more and more tourists flock to this street, more businesses are set up, four-roomed houses are broken down or renovated, making way for a new restaurant or pub.

"However, it is evident that the likes of Vilakazi street in Orlando East [a neighbourhood in Soweto] are enjoying the most lifestyle restaurants with five proper restaurants all black-owned operating in that street. The significance of this is that pre The World Cup in 2010, only two existed: Nambitha and Sakhumzi, and now three new ones have opened and all three are a force to be reckoned with because they are not a scene of tourists but the local emerging market," he says.

It’s quite a turnaround given that the country's black majority fought for decades for the freedom to escape the townships built by the oppressive white-minority apartheid government to warehouse the workers who built the country in the continent's richest state.

Under apartheid, ThaboMoatshe, founder of Jack Budha, would not have owned such an establishment, since black people, among other restrictions, were prohibited from selling alcohol or entering licensed premises. “It was illegal for people to have drinking halls. During that time, locals would have been arrested as it would have been seen as an illegal gathering,” says Motshegoa. 

When apartheid ended in 1990 leading to the first multi-racial democratic elections four years later, black Africans were free to live where they pleased, with the more affluent leaving for the leafy suburbs once reserved for whites.

But now these young middle-class black professionals are returning to townships for restaurants and clubs considered to be the hottest in the country, pushing aside the shebeens, traditional drinking establishments where locals would usually down cheap booze on broken furniture under harsh lighting or where political meetings were held. 

This growing class of primarily young people wear clothes and accessories with conspicuous name brands and drive specific luxury cars. Many of them reside in suburbs but return to the townships to lunch there with a glass of wine. 

In 2003 Moatshe traded two minibus taxis for capital and started by buying furniture from a pawn shop for the restaurant and pub now operating in the heart of Mamelodi township. “I was tired of always having to drive to Johannesburg to party and then having to drive back to Pretoria, so I decided to open a restaurant/pub in the township for people like me who want to have a good time, but near home,” he says.

Going into its 11th year of operation, the business has about eight full-time staff members and 13 part-time employees including DJs, bouncers and car guards. "The nature of my clients I have are young professionals who often come to Jack Budha around 4pm onwards. Ninety percent of my clients are party animals, people who want to be here at night and have fun,” Moatshe adds.

Restaurants and pubs like Jack Budha were seen as the final stop on the way home for many revelers who still enjoy carousing in the city. But with new operating laws put in place, it makes it difficult to keep them running. Motshegoa says the construction of malls housing well-known bars and national restaurants dilutes profits because of this increasing competition to their small businesses.

Back at Jack Budha, it's nearly 2 a.m., revelers start heading out home as ladies hang on their boyfriend's arms with smudged makeup, and heels in hand.

Photos: Kelebogile Masedi

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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