Most simply avoid Downtown Johannesburg with its no-go zone reputation. However, the city has changed and bits by bits local initiatives pop up and travellers explore the vibrancy, art scene and culture of South Africa’s biggest city!
It is still early morning when we park our car at 1 Fox Street and meet the passionate Jo Buitendach. With a degree in archaeology and history and with a true love for Johannesburg and its people, she takes us through its vibrant heart where not too many tourists dare passing by. Jo describes herself as an inner-city activist and this is why she founded Past Experiences walking tours. Jo explains: “It is after the great trek of 1836 (the Eastward migration of Dutch-speaking settlers escaping the British colonial administration) that some settled and farmed in what is now Johannesburg. About 500 metres from where we stand the first gold was discovered on the Vogelstruisfontein farm in 1886. There was nothing here but a few isolated estates. It did not take long for gold diggers to arrive by flocks and this is the starting point of the biggest city of South Africa.”
Today the farms have disappeared and their names were given to city districts. As we stroll in the oldest part of town where the gold digging started in Ferreirasdorp, Jo apologizes for the messy streets covered in confetti: “Last night was a big celebration here of the Chinese new year with lots of fireworks!” She shakes hands with and old Asian-looking man who is brooming his doorstep. “By the end of the 19th century, machinery and labour were needed to mine the gold. Some Chinese who were sentenced to jail in their home-country were sent here to work in the mines. In parallel, the government imposed a tax on rural black people who consequently came to the city to work. All in all, about 100,000 people from different areas, countries, classes and backgrounds moved to Johannesburg to find a job in an exponentially fast growing city. Jozi has always been an immigrant city. People used to stick together forming communities like the Chinese one. In 1948 the Group Areas Act started to force non-white people out. As crime was rising in the late 1980s, the city degenerated and white people fled to the suburbs. The early 2000s may have been the lowest point for Jo’burg. You’ll see that today it is thriving again and full of opportunities!”
With the help of CCTV cameras to fight crime bits by bits people start living and investing again in areas that have been neglected for decades. Part of the regeneration budget is spent on art, making it very pleasant to stroll the streets where history and strong social messages merge. Art studios have replaced dynamite storage buildings; parties take place at night at the local brewery; restaurants are booming with young and trendy people of all backgrounds in this former no-go area.
A few kilometres further down, we walk in the quiet streets of the Central Business District (CBD) on this weekend morning. This white-only area during the apartheid regime has the largest density of skyscrapers of all of Africa today. By the late 1990s the CBD resembled a ghost town with hardly any businesses left and an extremely high crime rate. Today, curious passers-by look at the sculpted frescoes along former headquarters of mining companies. They seem to date from a very distant time picturing the history of South Africa with white colons civilizing the savage black populations and the power of the mining industry supporting the rise of the nation.
Passing a few massive mining machineries displayed along the heritage trail, we arrive in front of another building of the Anglo American mining company. With its 1938 colonial Art Deco style, its stature reminds the fascist designs of the Mussolini times. The massive bronze doors showcase wild animals and bush scenes. The wealth of this architecture and the local Rand lords contrasts greatly with the actual situation of the poor populations of Johannesburg: about 20 years ago in the close-by and popular Uppenheimer Park, the feet and a head of the famous impala artwork were cut off for scrap metal. If the situation has improved, there is still a long way to go as today some people are so poor that they illegally mine around town: between mercury poisoning, rock falling and the extremely poisonous mining sands with high cyanide content blowing straight into Soweto, casualties are many.
These issues seem far from the hipster Maboneng district. Its Sunday market celebrates cultural diversity in the streets where a strong and proud community feeling resonates. A vibrant young crowd enjoys this day off grabbing brunch at one of the many food stalls of Arts on Main, browsing through the handcrafted goods sold down Fox Street and enjoying street art performances of some less fortunates who are trying to make a living by bringing a smile on other’s faces.
Johannesburg has not come to terms yet with its violent history and marked inequalities, but it feels like many of its inhabitants all over the social ladder are changing the game. From the Soweto township to the former no-go zones turned into hipster areas, local initiatives sprout, sometime with a hint of controversy like the smartly branded “I was shot in Joburg” community project for street kids based on photography. So give it a go, and just like us, let yourself be pleasantly surprised by Jozi, the vibrant heart of South Africa!
- As a warning, even though we felt completely safe during this tour with Jo despite the expensive professional cameras and the fact we were three women, Johannesburg can be a dangerous city. For instance, Jo refuses to run this tour on Sunday afternoons when private security is off duty. Use caution and common sense at all times.
- To live this adventure, refer to Past Experiences!
- A must visit in Johannesburg is definitely the Apartheid Museum.
- Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area! Here is a short tutorial to download it.