Welcome To Jo'burg: Spin City

South Africa's richest city is working hard to change its image and become a leisure destination. Will it succeed, asks Raymond Whitaker
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The Independent Travel

Hapiloe Sello has an impressive array of qualifications in management and marketing, and one cannot help feeling she is going to need them in her new role - promoting Johannesburg as a destination for leisure travellers.

What, Jo'burg? It may be South Africa's largest and richest city, but even its official website admits that it has an image problem. For a start, it enjoys the dubious distinction of being the world's largest conurbation not located on a river, lake or coastline. The city owes its situation purely to the gold discovered below ground a little over a century ago, and has never shaken off its mining-camp reputation as a place where money is the only thing that matters.

Nor are the locals always scrupulous about how they get their hands on wealth - as joburg.org.za concedes, Ms Sello will have to overcome "perceptions of a crime-infested city". But she is undaunted, saying that if Dubai, "essentially a desert", and Croatia, war-torn just a few years ago, can be top tourism destinations, there is no reason why Johannesburg cannot join them.

It does not help, though, that South Africa's most successful international film in years, the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, begins with a car-jacking on the streets of Jo'burg. Nor does the Johannesburg Tourism Company's marketing and communications manager get all the support she might hope for from her fellow citizens. The inhabitants of Jo'burg, like those of New York a generation ago, take a perverse pride in boasting of the dangers of their city. They relish stories like the one about the Lebanese diplomat who, after being held up and robbed in his official residence twice in 10 days, fled to Beirut and refused to return, saying Johannesburg was more unsafe than the Lebanese capital had ever been. Small wonder, then, that most British tourists use the city only as a staging-post on their way to the game parks or the Cape.

So far, says Ms Sello, Johannesburg's efforts to promote tourism have been aimed at a captive market: business visitors who have little option but to spend time in the city. If they are spooked by the high walls, electric fences and signs promising "armed response" that surround every suburban villa, they have to make the best of it. Last year, however, the city set out to attract more leisure visitors.

"We are the shopping and fashion capital of Africa," says Ms Sello. "We also have award-winning restaurants with a blend of eastern, western and African cuisines. Our theatres and museums deserve to be better known." Her stress on such features clearly makes sense for the city's main target, visitors from the rest of Africa, who make up the bulk of foreign arrivals - 4.5 million out of 7.5 million. They find the glitzy shopping malls of Sandton and Rosebank an irresistible draw, but that is not what Europeans and Americans seek in South Africa, leaving aside their worries about safety and security in Johannesburg.

Yet to avoid the city is to bypass South Africa's beating heart. It has an edge and an energy that you will not find down on the coast; as they say here, all the money spent in Cape Town has been made in Jo'burg. With the demise of apartheid, it has also opened up to the rest of Africa, again unlike its coastal counterparts. The influx from further north has created a unique urban and African cultural fusion, in areas like Hillbrow and Yeoville, that can be sampled by the more intrepid traveller.

And anyone who wants to see the transformation South Africa has undergone in the past decade or two has to come to Johannesburg, where the change began and from where it was driven. One current guide book devotes a single paragraph to the question of visiting townships in South Africa, arguing that it is pointless voyeurism, but that is absurd. Without going to Soweto, one cannot even begin to grasp the evils of apartheid, and its inhabitants, once thrust away out of sight and out of mind, are proud of its place in history. They add that these days it is a lot safer than many other parts of Jo'burg.

Ms Sello believes the city has to take the crime issue on the chin. "We recognise that Johannesburg is associated with crime," she says. "It is very unfortunate. But we have to stop apologising too. Travellers must understand that this is like any other major metropolitan area of two and a half million people: there are good areas and bad areas, places you wouldn't go at night, but it isn't the Wild West. If you exercise caution and common sense, you will be safe."

South African travel agents complained at their recent annual convention that the government appeared to be maintaining a studious vagueness about crime statistics. But anecdotally the news about Johannesburg seems to be better. Take car-jacking: everyone remembers the story of the flame-throwing Mercedes someone designed as a deterrent, but the authorities say a crackdown on exporting stolen cars to neighbouring countries has been more effective in dealing with the problem. In contrast to a few years ago, shootings and burglaries are no longer the main topic of conversation. When Jo'burgers talk of killings these days, they are more likely to be referring to the booming property market than mayhem on the streets.

There is no doubt that Johannesburg remains marked by crime, or rather the fear of it. Far from ironing out social disparities, democracy initially exaggerated them, because businesses fled the lawless city centre for new enclaves in the wealthy, formerly all-white, northern suburbs, followed by a relative handful of black professionals, business executives and officials. But that is beginning to change; the hottest story in Jo'burg right now is the campaign to reclaim the city's heart.

The model is the district of Newtown, where the once-struggling Market Theatre, created 30 years ago from the former produce market, is now at the heart of a trendy cultural and crafts complex. Served by the relatively new Nelson Mandela bridge - no, it spans railway marshalling yards - Newtown was revived with the deployment of CCTV, pervasive private security and a crackdown on slum landlords and illegal street traders.

The same formula is now being applied to the western edge of the city, where the former stock exchange building, deserted by the traders five years ago, is being turned into luxury apartments. The city's growing black middle class is queuing to buy them. Shops are reopening at the Carlton Centre further east, where until recently only the nerveless would have ventured. And the Art Deco buildings along the streets in between are being snapped up by a host of speculators - among them a local company called Urban Hip Hotels - for conversion into loft apartments and condominium projects.

"If you have a million rand to invest, I can't think of a better place to put it," said Ms Sello, speaking like a true Jo'burger. But in a city where money shouts, nothing could be more convincing evidence that the old image of Johannesburg as a combat zone may need a little updating.

Raymond Whitaker travelled as a guest of British Airways (0870 850 9850; ba.com), which offers return flights to Johannesburg from around £500. One week's car hire with National Car Rental (0870 400 4560; nationalcar.com) starts from £114