Traditional African Culture in a Modern African City

Johannesburg is filled with contrasts, contradictions, and colliding worlds. East and west. Rags and riches. Black and white. Life and death.

The area around Diagonal Street, a busy commercial district in the Joburg city centre, is a good illustration of worlds colliding. Stand in the middle of Diagonal Street and look up, and you’ll see this:

The famous “diamond building” at 11 Diagonal Street.

Look down, or rather straight ahead, and you’ll see this:

In fancy Joburg neighborhoods, you often see signs that say “No Hawkers”. On Diagonal Street, hawkers get a discount.

This weekend I participated in a “Traditional African Culture Walk”, led by Ishvara Dhyan. Ishvara does cultural tours all over town; I went on his tour of Joburg’s Ethiopian community last year. I really enjoy Ishvara’s tours. They’re crowded, but Ishvara is exceptionally knowledgeable about Joburg’s history and culture and his quirky wit is worth fighting the crowds for. Tours are only R50 (about $7.50).

Tour guide Ishvara, reflected between creepy child mannequins modelling school uniforms.

Ishavara’s tour group crams into the back of a South African clothing shop.

The area we visited has been a major shopping mecca since Joburg’s earliest days. Some of the area’s first residents were Gujarati traders who emigrated to South Africa in the late 1800s. Descendants of those Gujarati traders are still living and doing business around Diagonal Street today.

Like most traditional shopping districts in African cities, you can buy pretty much anything on Diagonal Street. But the area is best known for its muti and African textile shops. If you don’t know what “muti” means, check out this 2Summers post about the Farraday Muti Market — it prompted a lively debate when it was first published.

One of countless muti shops in and around Diagonal Street. Like many (or perhaps most) of the shops around here, this shop is owned by a South African of Indian descent. Unfortunately the proprietor didn’t want to be photographed so I only got his empty chair.

Colorful muti powders for sale. The significance lies not in what they’re made of, but in what color they are. Different colors are used for different ceremonies or spells. 

The shops in this area are frequented by sangomas — or traditional healers — who go there to buy herbs, beads, clothing, and other materials necessary for their profession.

The most famous muti shop on Diagonal Street is called “The Museum of Man and Science”. I have no idea why it’s called that because it’s not a museum at all. The place obviously does very good business, and it seems to have a regular clientele that is not made up of tourists. Nonetheless, this shop is fascinating enough to be a museum. Everywhere you look are bones, skins, horns, dried plants, and mysterious potions and powders.

In the back of the shop, I saw a man slicing apart a dead snake. He didn’t take kindly to being photographed so I backed away and focused my camera on the front of the store.

Doing business at the counter of the Museum of Man and Science.

 We visited a huge fabric shop, selling brightly colored cloth worn by various Southern African tribes. I bought an awesome piece of neon yellow and pink cloth, which Ishvara says is traditionally worn by the Shangaan people. The cloth, which is large enough to make a long shirt or a short dress, cost R20 (about $2.50). I have a bad habit of buying ethnic cloth and then never doing anything with it. Maybe this time will be different.

None of this African cloth is made in Africa, but the way; it’s manufactured in India.

Sales ladies at the fabric shop.

Above this fabric shop, atop a winding rickety staircase, is a massive bead shop.

Beads.

The history of beads in Africa began with the arrival of Europeans hundreds of years ago. Europeans traded glass beads with African tribes in exchange for food and supplies and all kinds of other things, including (gulp) slaves. Glass beads maintain their spiritual significance in Africa today, and many of the beads are still made in Europe. Apparently the best glass beads are Czech.

The shops were cool, but as usual, the best parts of this tour were the sights and sounds on the street.

Interesting building.

A reminder of South Africa’s bad old days.

There were tons of hawkers like this guy, sitting on stools outside shops and marketing their wares in Zulu. This box contains ant-killer, roach-killer, air freshener (a necessity after using the roach-killer), tooth-whitening powder, corn-remover, and several more items that I’ve now forgotten. I wish I’d shot a close-up of the box. The blue package in the top-right corner was something like, “Dr. Sanjay’s All-Purpose Muti Treatment Cure”.

A nice man who wanted me to photograph him in his Zionist Christian Church cap. I love the “No Trading” sign behind him. Yeah, right.

I’ve said this before but I highly recommend tours like this, which allow you to visit places in Joburg where most (white) people are hesitant to visit alone. You can receive notifications on Ishvara’s tours by becoming a member of his Facebook group.

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73 Comments

  • Reply Mr Bunny Chow February 20, 2012 at 4:50 pm

    fascinating as always 2Summers, I grew up as a White in Africa and wish I’d taken more time to visit the areas everyday people conducted their lives.

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 4:55 pm

      Thanks Mr. Bunny Chow. It will all still be here the next time you come back for a visit 🙂

  • Reply Gary De Beer February 20, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    Great post. (always)
    Pity about the ‘snake’ guy. Would’ve loved to see that.

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 5:05 pm

      Yes, it was quite a sight.

  • Reply Gail February 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    As always a great post, but best of all was meeting you. (The lady with the pink hair)

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm

      Thanks Gail! I will never forget you now, thanks to your hair 🙂

  • Reply Gail February 20, 2012 at 5:24 pm

    As always a great post, but best of all was meeting you. (The lady with the pink hair)

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm

      Thanks Gail! I will never forget you now, thanks to your hair 🙂

  • Reply Lu February 20, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    What a cool tour – I reckon I would run amok through that fabric store 🙂

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      Yes, it’s a fabric-lover’s heaven. They have nice blankets too.

  • Reply Lu February 20, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    What a cool tour – I reckon I would run amok through that fabric store 🙂

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      Yes, it’s a fabric-lover’s heaven. They have nice blankets too.

  • Reply Howlin' Mad Heather February 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    This is awesome, and like I’ve said, the next–best thing to visiting Johannesburg in person. (I think I saw some of these peeps in the background in “District 9!”)

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 5:46 pm

      That’s entirely possible.

  • Reply Howlin' Mad Heather February 20, 2012 at 5:39 pm

    This is awesome, and like I’ve said, the next–best thing to visiting Johannesburg in person. (I think I saw some of these peeps in the background in “District 9!”)

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 5:46 pm

      That’s entirely possible.

  • Reply katarzynapawelczyk February 20, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    I have a whole cupboard full of various cloths i have bought in SA, Zambia and Kenya and the most I have done is to get cushion covers made out of them…

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm

      Well, at least a cushion cover is something. Did you actually put it on a cushion?

  • Reply katarzynapawelczyk February 20, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    I have a whole cupboard full of various cloths i have bought in SA, Zambia and Kenya and the most I have done is to get cushion covers made out of them…

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 5:45 pm

      Well, at least a cushion cover is something. Did you actually put it on a cushion?

  • Reply Sine February 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    There is a Diagonal Street right here in Joburg? I had no idea. And it seems it has more parallels to Diagon Alley than just the name… Please put me on your mailing list for all the other cool tours you’re planning next!

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm

      Ha! I never thought of that parallel before and I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. Cool.

  • Reply Sine February 20, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    There is a Diagonal Street right here in Joburg? I had no idea. And it seems it has more parallels to Diagon Alley than just the name… Please put me on your mailing list for all the other cool tours you’re planning next!

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 6:05 pm

      Ha! I never thought of that parallel before and I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. Cool.

  • Reply Lisa February 20, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    As always this was a great read, i’ve just sent a request to join Ishvara’s facebook group so i can hopefully join you all on some of these tours. By hook or by crook i’m determined to start exploring this city even without a car!!
    Thanks Heather,
    Lisa

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      Thanks Lisa. I haven’t forgotten about you, by the way! Just having a hectic week 🙂

  • Reply Lisa February 20, 2012 at 8:07 pm

    As always this was a great read, i’ve just sent a request to join Ishvara’s facebook group so i can hopefully join you all on some of these tours. By hook or by crook i’m determined to start exploring this city even without a car!!
    Thanks Heather,
    Lisa

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 9:53 pm

      Thanks Lisa. I haven’t forgotten about you, by the way! Just having a hectic week 🙂

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough February 20, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    Sounds like my kind of shopping experience. I would love to get my hands of some of those beads!
    Hugs,
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 10:26 pm

      I’ll bet you would! Lots of potential artist material around Diagonal Street. And the beads are cheap, too 🙂

  • Reply Kathryn McCullough February 20, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    Sounds like my kind of shopping experience. I would love to get my hands of some of those beads!
    Hugs,
    Kathy

    • Reply 2summers February 20, 2012 at 10:26 pm

      I’ll bet you would! Lots of potential artist material around Diagonal Street. And the beads are cheap, too 🙂

  • Reply Spiral Dreamer (Francis) February 20, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Thank you for the guided tour, interesting and so colorful. 🙂

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 7:26 am

      Thanks Francis! Hope you’re well.

  • Reply Spiral Dreamer (Francis) February 20, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Thank you for the guided tour, interesting and so colorful. 🙂

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 7:26 am

      Thanks Francis! Hope you’re well.

  • Reply 1cruzdelsur February 21, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Fastanticas photographs and beautiful, thanks for sharing some of your world

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 7:26 am

      Thank you Cruz, much appreciated.

  • Reply 1cruzdelsur February 21, 2012 at 12:09 am

    Fastanticas photographs and beautiful, thanks for sharing some of your world

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 7:26 am

      Thank you Cruz, much appreciated.

  • Reply Meruschka (@mzansigirl) February 21, 2012 at 9:25 am

    Great post Heather. Really wish I’d come on that walk now!

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 9:30 am

      Thanks, glad you liked it! If you’d like to live vicariously through another blog, Story of Bing did a post about it too.

  • Reply Meruschka (@mzansigirl) February 21, 2012 at 9:25 am

    Great post Heather. Really wish I’d come on that walk now!

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 9:30 am

      Thanks, glad you liked it! If you’d like to live vicariously through another blog, Story of Bing did a post about it too.

  • Reply @injoburg February 21, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    That ‘diamond building’ was designed in 1983 by German-American Helmut Jahn, who also did Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and lots of big buildings in the US. I’ve always wondered how he got to do that despite the general embargo on business with South Africa in the 1980s.

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Very interesting. Thanks for those tidbits of architectural info. Hope you’re doing well.

  • Reply @injoburg February 21, 2012 at 12:10 pm

    That ‘diamond building’ was designed in 1983 by German-American Helmut Jahn, who also did Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz and lots of big buildings in the US. I’ve always wondered how he got to do that despite the general embargo on business with South Africa in the 1980s.

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Very interesting. Thanks for those tidbits of architectural info. Hope you’re doing well.

  • Reply jennavs February 21, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    great post, love this kind of insight into a city.

    the muti trade is also fascinating!

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm

      Thank you! I’m also fascinated by muuti.

  • Reply jennavs February 21, 2012 at 12:14 pm

    great post, love this kind of insight into a city.

    the muti trade is also fascinating!

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 12:50 pm

      Thank you! I’m also fascinated by muuti.

  • Reply catherine February 21, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Heather, thanks for the last 3 posts, I was away and so just got to read them yesterday.Thanks to your very informative reports, my little address book of “places to go to on our next trip” is getting fuller and fuller.Do you happen to remember the name of the fabric shop, or are there so many on Diagonal street?
    As always, looking forward to your next trip…warm regards, Catherine

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Thanks Catherine. I didn’t get the name of the shop but let me see if I can find out.

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 10:31 pm

      Hi Catherine, the fabric shop is Gokal and Sons, 43 Market St. Johannesburg.

      • Reply catherine February 22, 2012 at 6:09 pm

        thank you so much! Heather, if and when you are planning a trip to Venda country, I’ll be pleased to share my address book with you…Keep well, Catherine

  • Reply catherine February 21, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Heather, thanks for the last 3 posts, I was away and so just got to read them yesterday.Thanks to your very informative reports, my little address book of “places to go to on our next trip” is getting fuller and fuller.Do you happen to remember the name of the fabric shop, or are there so many on Diagonal street?
    As always, looking forward to your next trip…warm regards, Catherine

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 12:51 pm

      Thanks Catherine. I didn’t get the name of the shop but let me see if I can find out.

    • Reply 2summers February 21, 2012 at 10:31 pm

      Hi Catherine, the fabric shop is Gokal and Sons, 43 Market St. Johannesburg.

      • Reply catherine February 22, 2012 at 6:09 pm

        thank you so much! Heather, if and when you are planning a trip to Venda country, I’ll be pleased to share my address book with you…Keep well, Catherine

  • Reply nicoleelizabethwordsandworld February 22, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Beautiful pictures, I grew up in Jo’burg but moved to the UK when I was 8. It’s always been a dream for me to go back and these pictures just make me so nostalgic and want to head home!

    • Reply 2summers February 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed. I hope you get to come back soon.

  • Reply nicoleelizabethwordsandworld February 22, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    Beautiful pictures, I grew up in Jo’burg but moved to the UK when I was 8. It’s always been a dream for me to go back and these pictures just make me so nostalgic and want to head home!

    • Reply 2summers February 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed. I hope you get to come back soon.

  • Reply Versindaba » Blog Archive » René Bohnen. In die miernes February 23, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    […] (en gereël) word deur Ishvara Dhyan besoek die Muti-mark (en dan blog van die stappers agterna http://2summers.net/2012/02/20/traditional-african-culture-in-a-modern-african-city/ ) of Fordsburg, Chinatown en Yeoville. Ishvara is ʼn veelberese sjef met ʼn diepe waardering vir […]

  • Reply Versindaba » Blog Archive » René Bohnen. In die miernes February 23, 2012 at 10:05 pm

    […] (en gereël) word deur Ishvara Dhyan besoek die Muti-mark (en dan blog van die stappers agterna http://2summers.net/2012/02/20/traditional-african-culture-in-a-modern-african-city/ ) of Fordsburg, Chinatown en Yeoville. Ishvara is ʼn veelberese sjef met ʼn diepe waardering vir […]

  • Reply ashok March 31, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    A FRIEND , WHO WORKS WITH ME WOULD LIKE TO PURCHASE A TRADITIONAL DRESS FOR A SANGOMA . WHERE WOULD HE BE ABLE TO FIND ONE IN DURBAN – KZN

    • Reply 2summers March 31, 2012 at 1:22 pm

      Sorry, I have no idea. I don’t live in Durban, I live in Jozi 🙂

  • Reply ashok March 31, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    A FRIEND , WHO WORKS WITH ME WOULD LIKE TO PURCHASE A TRADITIONAL DRESS FOR A SANGOMA . WHERE WOULD HE BE ABLE TO FIND ONE IN DURBAN – KZN

    • Reply 2summers March 31, 2012 at 1:22 pm

      Sorry, I have no idea. I don’t live in Durban, I live in Jozi 🙂

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