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.


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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