I was lucky enough to join a walking tour through the city of my birth on Sunday. I have known Gerald Garner for years, but only recently reconnected with him. He’s written Johannesburg Spaces and Places, amongst other books, and he was a most amiable and knowledgeable tour guide. Joburg put on her finest for us – it had been raining continuously for the previous few days, and the air was crisp and blue – perfect for many photo opportunities.
I haven’t walked through the streets of Jo’burg for many years, and never in the way I did this weekend. We started in Newtown, at Mary Fitzgerald Square – which was home to Joburg’s first Flea Market in the 1980’s – and made our way past Ma Brrrr outside the Bassline, past SciBono, the World of Beer, and to the beautiful sculpture of Walter and Albertina Sisulu, which just invites you to sit symbolically on their laps – they are known as patrons (saints) of children. That was the corner of Diagonal Street (different to Diagon Ally) – the boundary line of the original farms in the area, where the ZAR government managed to weasel their way into ownership of the city and ensure that they, too, made some money from the gold rush that began in the late 1800s.
There is evidence all over the city that Johannesburg was founded on gold – the opulent AngloAmerican building and gardens are a great example – but the fact that Johannesburg can still thrive, despite the fact that South African gold production has become increasingly difficult and expensive, is testament to a city that is tenacious and has huge soul.
From there we made our way through the streets of town, pausing for coffee near the quirky, gorgeous new home of Johannesburg Spaces and Places and Joburg City Tourism Association – the remaining corner – the stairwell, in fact – of what was a much larger building in the past. We strolled through Gandhi Square – quiet on a Sunday but the hub of public transportation in the city during the week. Then we moved into territory I knew well in my student days – the Carlton Centre, Small Street Mall area – where I parked my car every Friday night to go clubbing in Market Street’s Le Club. It looks different now – a hive of activity by day, much more African than it was in the early ’90s, shops selling the most outrageous clothing. Sadly, the Small Street Mall is apparently quite rough these days – the further north one goes, the more dodgy it becomes. I remember Moola’s there – one of the few places in the country one could buy Doc Martens!
Then we took the lift – yes, the same one we all took in the 1970s and 80s – to the top floor of the Carlton Centre – still the highest building in Africa. The view is spectacular! Joburg is huge and sprawling and there is so much development happening at the moment that one can only be optimistic about her future.
Modern Johannesburg combines colonial affluence and African spirit. One sometimes has to do a double take because beautiful Victorian buildings stand side by side with the most fantastic street art, symbolising how this city has fought her way through a very tumultuous history in a largely peaceful manner, and is forging her identity as a World Class African City (as the 2010 World Cup byline cast her).
It was so great to see the tributes to some of Joburg’s most famous citizens – Mandela, Gandhi, Bosman, Sisulu. I find it fascinating how the lives of Mandela and Gandhi, both great peace makers, parallel, despite the fact that they never met and lived in different times. Kipling sat next to Fitzpatrick at the Rand Club (where he wrote the famous poem If) and inspired Fitzpatrick to write the story he’d been telling the dinner guests – Jock of the Bushveld.
From the Carlton, we made a turn past the Rand Club, in all it’s glory, to a small treat on the penthouse floor of what appears to be a non-descript building – 84 Market Street. Here we were served Krone whilst we sipped in the views of Johannesburg, surrounded by the decadence of the Apprentice apartment. I’m starting to save my money now to have my next big birthday (9 years away) at this venue.
At this point we gave our feet a rest and hopped onto the Rea Vaya bus – quick, cheap and safe transportation throughout the city – to the Maboneng Precinct. This area has been revived primarily by the private sector. It had been an industrial, run-down part of town. Now it is a hub of cultural activity hosting the BioScope, the Film Factory, Arts on Main, a trendy market and sought after residential accommodation. The street art in the area is a real treat too.
Bussed back to Newtown in time to see it coming alive – SciBono filling up with people coming to see the world-famous Body Worlds exhibition, pubs and restaurants blasting music and people taking back their streets.
I am so grateful to live in a city that I love. After this tour with Gerald, I feel much more comfortable to go back into certain parts of my city which were no-go areas not too long ago. I’ve walked the streets of Florence, Rome, Naples, London and Barcelona in the last few years. Those are great cities too, but I can state with confidence and pride that Johannesburg, My City, has as much to offer.