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Townships/Informal Settlements

Inside Mandela House, a museum on Vilakazi Street in Soweto

A Visit to Mandela House on Vilakazi Street

Sometimes in my quest to discover all of Joburg’s hidden places, I miss out on the un-hidden ones. Such is the case with Mandela House, the Mandela family’s former home on Vilakazi Street in Soweto. It’s probably one of the top five tourist sites in Johannesburg and not only had I never blogged about the house before this, I’d never even visited. Nelson Mandela and his family lived on Vilakazi Street between the 1940s and the 1990s. The house is now a museum run by the Soweto Heritage Trust. It’s a small, one-story red brick house and there’s nothing particularly remarkable about it, other than the fancy fence around the property and the many photos and plaques covering the walls inside. Vilakazi Street is hugely popular with foreign tourists and student groups and it’s always choked with buses and souvenir salesmen. I’d also heard (although I can’t actually remember from who) that the house isn’t all that interesting. I guess that’s why I didn’t go for so long. But I finally wandered in earlier this month and realized I’d been completely wrong. The beauty of this house lies in its simplicity and I think it’s a stunning tourist destination. I […]

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Alexandra Township cycling group in front of the Alexandra Heritage Centre

Not Cycling Through Alexandra Township

I recently found myself not cycling on a cycle ride through Alexandra Township. I was supposed to cycle, but there weren’t enough bikes and it was blazing hot and when someone suggested I ride in the Jeep that was escorting the riders and take photos through the open top, I gladly accepted. The bike ride was hosted by Art Affair, a tiny art gallery and studio in Alex’s East Bank that also serves as an events venue/community gathering place. Artist and cycling enthusiast Mxolisi Mbonjwa owns the gallery and organized the ride together with Bicycle Stokvel. I’ve visited and blogged about Alex many times. (You can browse all of my Alex posts here.) I don’t want to belabor this point. But if you live in Joburg and have never been to Alex, please go. Alex is a five-minute drive from Sandton but many Joburgers are afraid to even drive past it due to Alex’s reputation for poverty and crime. In fact, Alex is quite easy and safe to visit as long as you go with someone who knows their way around. And it’s one of the most important parts of Joburg historically, being the first township in Joburg and the […]

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Pantsula dance group in Orange Farm

Jaw-Dropping South African Dance in Orange Farm

On Saturday and Sunday I participated in the 2018 #JoziWalks weekend. Sponsored by the Johannesburg Development Agency, #JoziWalks invites people/groups from all over Joburg to organize walking tours in their communities. (Read about last year’s #JoziWalks.) On Saturday I joined the walk through Orange Farm, led by the InTouch Youth Development group. The start of our walk through Orange Farm. Photographer Hymie (left) walks with one of the hosts from Orange Farm. Cute kids who demanded a photograph. Orange Farm onlooker. Orange Farm is a township founded in 1988. It’s an hour’s drive south of downtown Joburg — a perfect illustration of the spacial segregation of apartheid. There are very few jobs in Orange Farm so virtually everyone (I mean everyone able to find a job, which isn’t easy) living there has to make the long, costly commute to Joburg for work. I was excited for this walk as I’d never been to Orange Farm before. It was really interesting seeing a new place, and I was particularly blown away by the dancing. Dancing in Orange Farm We watched three dance groups perform: a Tswana dance group called Jascho, a Pantsula group called Killers Entertainment, and a Zulu dance group […]

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Marie-Lais and Lucky cycling through Diepsloot

Cycling Tour Through Diepsloot

Diepsloot is one of those places, like a lot of other Joburg places, where people are afraid to go. A Diepsloot street. Diepsloot, which means “deep ditch” in Afrikaans, is a huge informal settlement in the far northern outskirts of Joburg; in fact, it is so far north that it’s just as close to Pretoria as it is to Joburg. It emerged from nothing on an abandoned farm in the 1990s, as migrants poured into Joburg from rural South Africa and the rest of Africa and had nowhere else to go. Hundreds of corrugated iron shacks sprouted up, then thousands. There were no public services, no police stations or hospitals or shopping centers. Diepsloot was a wild, post-apartheid frontier — one of those places that can only exist in South Africa. Just another day in Diepsloot. Today, hundreds of thousands of people live in Diepsloot and the number continues to grow. The area has more infrastructure than it did a couple of decades ago, but it still has an anything-goes kind of feeling about it. Diepsloot has kota stands, open sewers, vibrant community centers, secret gardens, fashion designers, herds of goats, Rastafarian hair-braiding shops, colorfully painted general dealers, and salons […]

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Papy at Urban Zulu

10 Really Cool Jozi Places I Didn’t Blog About in 2017

I blogged about a lot of Jozi places in 2017. But there are also a lot of places I visited but never managed to write up, for one reason or another. Lots of these places are really cool and I don’t want their photos to languish forever in my Lightroom catalog. Also, I want you to visit them. So here is a quick rundown of the 10 best places I never blogged about in 2017. Jozi Places I Should Have Blogged About in 2017 1) Urban Backpackers/Kafe Noir (Joburg CBD) Urban Backpackers is a youth hostel smack in the middle of the Joburg CBD, at 98 Anderson Street. The ground floor of Urban Backpackers is Kafe Noir, a funky coffeeshop. The rooftop is a bar and party venue. Chilling on the rooftop of Urban Backpackers after the Hi-Tec #WalkMyCity event. (Photo: Fiver Löcker) Urban Backpackers is owned by Papy Nakuw, a fashion designer who also owns the Urban Zulu clothing label. Papy is impossibly cool. His design workshop is just across the street. Papy at Urban Backpackers. I like the Urban Backpackers because it’s an unexpected place in an unexpected location. Kafe Noir and the rooftop are generally open to the public but […]

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Kota from Winnie's Tuckshop

#Gauteng52, Week 35: Winnie’s Tuckshop in Tembisa

Welcome to Week 35 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit Winnie’s Tuckshop, a kota restaurant in Tembisa. A few weeks ago, my friends Nells and Tebogo posted pictures of the kotas they ate at Winnie’s Tuckshop in Tembisa, a large township northeast of Joburg. The moment I laid eyes on the first picture, I was making my own plan to go. I don’t think I need to say much more than Nells said above. By the way, Nells and the gang at Ofentse Mwase Films make hilarious short films about life in South Africa. Check them out here. A kota is one of those uniquely South African meals that involves bread stuffed with tons of cheap, messy, fattening food that you eat with your hands. It’s similar to a bunny chow or a Gatsby or an AK-47 or a sly wat-wat. A kota, slang for “quarter”, is made from a hollowed-out quarter-loaf of bread and filled with a variety of things. The kotas I’ve had in the past are basic, filled with chips (fries), cheese, and maybe a piece of […]

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Video Town in La Rochelle

#JoziWalks: Exploring Johannesburg’s Forgotten Frontiers

Last weekend the Johannesburg Development Agency sponsored 13 walking tours all over the city as part of an initiative called #JoziWalks. The weekend was meant to encourage Joburgers to get out of their cars and engage with urban communities in ways they might not do otherwise. Kids in the Soweto suburb of Noordgesig.  #JoziWalks was an incredible opportunity for me. I’ve been on many walking tours in Johannesburg but #JoziWalks offered tours in places I’d never been, and the tours were free. The only bad part was most of the tours happened concurrently and I had to make agonizing choices over which ones to participate in. I eventually settled on a Saturday morning tour of La Rochelle, a suburb in the south of Joburg known for its Portuguese culture, and a Sunday tour of Noordgesig, a suburb on the edge of Soweto that played a big role in the anti-apartheid struggle. #JoziWalks La Rochelle Our tour of La Rochelle was led by Judith Muindisi of Tsica Heritage Consultants and Calvin Montgomery of the Southern Suburbs Heritage Society. La Rochelle, just south of the city center, is best known for Parreirinha, Joburg’s most famous Portuguese restaurant. I myself had only been to […]

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The Box Shop exterior

#Gauteng52, Week 11: A New Take on Vilakazi Street

Welcome to Week 11 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I will visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit the Box Shop, a shopping center and coffee shop on Vilakazi Street in Soweto. A few weeks ago I met up with my friend Andile, a.k.a. @may_i_take_apicture, to talk about a new project he’s working on called Imagine Soweto. Andile is cycling 150 kilometers around Soweto and taking 150 pictures — about four pictures for each of Soweto’s 38 townships. Andile Bhala, a.k.a. the Man With the Red Bag, in his home township of Orlando West. Andile was looking for some advice on blogging for his Imagine Soweto project. I agreed to give him some in exchange for an introduction to a new place in Soweto for my #Gauteng52 project. We wound up having coffee at the Box Shop, a relatively new development built from shipping containers on Vilakazi Street in Orlando West. The Box Shop on Vilakazi Street. Vilakazi Street is legendary as the only street in the world where two Nobel Prize winners (President Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu) lived at the same time. Vilakazi is one of […]

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Moving Feast meal in Alexandra Township

Discovering South African Food in Alexandra Township

If you browse through the food-related posts on this blog, you’ll notice that most of them are written about food from places other than South Africa: French, American, Mexican, Indian, German, Chinese. But what about South African food? Traditional South African food can be hard to find if you don’t know where to look. Colonialism and apartheid are to blame for this. I think even most South Africans would struggle to describe South African food, just as I do when people ask me about it. My usual answer is, “…South Africans love meat.” (Cape Malay cuisine, mostly found in Cape Town, is an exception to this rule. Read about Cape Malay food here and here.) Anyway, my perceptions of South African food widened last Friday when I participated in the Alex Culinary Tour by Tour2.0. We ate our way through Alexandra Township, starting with the humblest street food and working our way up to serious fine dining. A takeaway shop in Alexandra Township, otherwise known as Alex. Our first stop was Mbopha’s Café, a takeaway joint on 3rd Avenue in Alex. Eating a Sly Vat-Vat “Sly” is a slang term for a slice of bread. “What-what”, or “vat-vat”, are filler words to replace something that is […]

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Mohan Hira at Tolstoy Farm

#Gauteng52, Week 3: Communing with Gandhi at Tolstoy Farm

Welcome to Week 3 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I will visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit Tolstoy Farm, where Gandhi lived in the early 20th century, near the far-flung township of Lenasia. Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa for more than 20 years, from 1893 to 1914, and he founded the Satyagraha (passive resistance) movement here. Gandhi spent much of those two decades in Johannesburg and there are monuments all over the place — in Gandhi Square, at Constitution Hill, and at the Gandhi museum in Satyagraha House. I’ve visited most of them but I’d never visited Tolstoy Farm. I couldn’t figure out where it was. The entrance to Tolstoy Farm as it appears today. The land is owned by a brick company, Corobrik, which explains the nice brick wall. Gandhi lived at Tolstoy Farm (named for Russian author Leo Tolstoy) from 1910 to 1913. The land was purchased by Hermann Kallenbach, a close friend and follower of Gandhi’s, and they ran a commune of sorts on the farm. The farm is located near modern-day Lenasia, the township 30 minutes south of Joburg where the apartheid government forcibly removed the city’s Indian […]

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Pulane storytelling during Katlehong Stories session

Katlehong Stories: Storytelling in a Johannesburg Township

Pulane Malatja sits straight-backed, ankles crossed, wearing a short black dress and a red plaid head wrap. A gauzy scarf covers her knees and a notepad sits in her lap. Pulane apologizes as she puts on her reading glasses. She’s just had an asthma attack, she explains, and might not be able to speak as clearly as last time. Pulane raises the notepad and begins to read. I’m trying to take pictures and listen at the same time, so I don’t hear it all. Pulane writes about a phone call she received from a man she loves. “His skin grows darker when he’s drunk,” she reads. I don’t hear every word, but I hear what Pulane means. I know just what she means. Pulane reads a draft of her creative writing piece to the Katlehong Stories group. Pulane shares her thoughts with the group after completing her reading. Among other things, Pulane’s piece explores her experiences as a child watching her father abuse her mother. She says she’d never talked about these experiences until she joined this group. Pulane is a participant in Katlehong Stories, a group of aspiring creative writers and volunteer teachers who meet every second Saturday in a high school classroom in Katlehong Township. […]

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The Orlando cooling towers in Soweto

Soweto, the Adrenaline-Seekers’ Capital of South Africa

I was in a speeding car with three other people, careening toward the Orlando Towers — a decommissioned-power-station-turned-entertainment/adventure-center — in Soweto. “I wonder if they’re going to make us bungee?” someone asked. “There’s no way I’m doing that,” said Meruschka, as she wove in and out of traffic in our Volkswagen rental. “Me neither,” said Jenna. “I don’t want to do it,” said Paul. I sat in the back seat, trying not to feel carsick, only half paying attention to the conversation. “I’ll do it,” I said, not really thinking I’d have to. The Orlando cooling towers in May 2014. I didn’t have time to take proper photos during my most recent visit. (Read about the history of the Orlando Power Station.) View from the top of the Orlando Towers in September 2015, when I took photos with a group of bloggers during the Soweto Wine Festival. (We didn’t jump that day.) The narrow walkway in the middle is the part that you bungee from. Looking down from the top of the tower, also shot in September 2015. Meruschka had invited me and two other friends to participate in an Amazing-Race-type treasure hunt around Joburg called KnowJozi, sponsored by Bidvest Car Rental. There were […]

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