A few months ago, I briefly referred to a place in Brixton called the Roving Bantu Kitchen.
In December I wrote a short review of the Roving Bantu Kitchen for JHBLive, but I held off on writing about it on my own blog because I wanted to get to know it better first. But now the day has come. If you’re really interested in the Roving Bantu Kitchen though, please read the JHBLive review first because I won’t repeat all of it here.
The Roving Bantu Kitchen was founded a few months ago on a street corner in Brixton, by Sifiso Ntuli and his partner Ashley Heron. Joburg music fans might already know Sifiso and Ashley as the former owners of the House of Nsako, another legendary venue in Brixton that closed a few years ago.
The Roving Bantu Kitchen
The Roving Bantu Kitchen is a tiny, quirky restaurant/pub/community gathering place/concert space/events venue that, in my mind, epitomizes what Joburg is about.
Over the last few months I’ve been to the Roving Bantu for film documentaries and meals, and even for my friend Fiver’s book launch.
Fiver launched her book, Looking for Africa, at the Roving Bantu Kitchen two weeks ago. (Click this link to learn where/how to buy the book.)
But before writing this post, I had to take a Roving Bantu Tour.
Sifiso is the self-proclaimed Roving Bantu: He was born in Mpumalanga, spent his youth in Soweto and Johannesburg, then roamed the rest of Africa and the world as a political exile before returning to Joburg and settling in Brixton after apartheid ended. Sifiso has a unique outlook on South African history and he shares that outlook on his Roving Bantu Tours, when he takes guests by foot, car, and tuk-tuk on wide-ranging historical journeys through Joburg.
The Roving Bantu Tour
The Roving Bantu Tour is unique because of the interesting way that Sfi has lived through the history of this city, and this country. There is nothing objective about the Roving Bantu Tour; Sfi’s perspectives are personal and political and painfully honest. He will tell you things that you might not be prepared to hear.
Also, Sfi takes his guests to rarely visited, forgotten parts of Joburg with strange names like Cottesloe and Jan Hofmeyer and Vrededorp. I had never been to most of these places, despite the fact that they’re important historical sites and close to where I live.
I won’t try to recount all the anecdotes and stories and facts that Sifiso told us during the tour, as that would require a 15,000-word essay rather than a blog post. But I’ll hit a few highlights.
We started at the Roving Bantu Kitchen and set out on foot around Brixton.
Brixton is what real estate agents in the United States would call a “transitional neighborhood”. When I first met Sifiso he referred to Brixton as “the asshole of Johannesburg”, because everyone has to pass through it whether they want to or not. Brixton sits close to the geographical center of the city and bridges the historical divide between white and non-white, rich and poor, old and new. Brixton still straddles these lines today. The neighborhood is edgy and mutlicultural, comfortable and unsettling at the same time.
Playground equipment in Brixton’s Kingston Frost Park. The Brixton community is working to preserve this lovely, historic park, but according to Sfi it’s an uphill battle against government corruption and apathy.
From Brixton, we hopped into Sifiso’s car and headed to a jumble of neighborhoods just to the south. Our first stop was Cottesloe, a tiny suburb I’d never heard of that’s mostly inhabited by a group referred to in South Africa as “poor whites”.
We parked at the bottom of a grassy hill, near a quaint, country-style church with the downtown Joburg skyline looming behind it.
This small church played a pivotal role in the history of apartheid, the Sharpeville Massacre (which occurred exactly 56 years ago today), and the life of anti-apartheid activist Beyers Naudé. It’s too complicated to explain in this post but you can read about it here.
Not far from the church, on a little hill strewn with garbage and human feces, is a stone monument to Afrikaans soldiers who died in the Anglo-Boer War.
In Cottesloe, we also ran into a cute cat that looks like Hitler.
We passed through Fietas (also known as Vrededorp/Pageview), which, like Sophiatown, was the site of brutal forced removals during the apartheid era. Many of Fietas’ homes and shops were bulldozed in the 1970s, when the area’s Indian residents were moved to the far-flung township of Lenasia and their businesses relocated to the nearby Oriental Plaza. Today, Fietas’ formerly bustling 14th Street is a wasteland, with a small plaque commemorating the street’s former glory.
Plaque commemorating 14th Street, with a few street vendors and informal recyclers in the background. Part of the plaque reads: “People lived and traded here for generations but were uprooted by the Group Areas Act of apartheid that summarily declared Vrededorp/Pageview a white residential area. Despite a protracted battle since 1968 and fierce resistance towards the end, all the traders of Fietas were finally evicted in 1977 to the Oriental Plaza in neighboring Fordsburg. Many lost their livelihood.” Across the street is a mosque that survived bulldozing after the forced removals.
From Fietas we moved on to the historic Braamfontein Cemetery. Braamfontein Cemetery, similar to the nearby Brixton Cemetery, is filled with elaborate, intricately carved gravestones dating back to the late 1800s.
But there is a lot more to Braamfontein Cemetery than these large, expensive gravestones that mark the resting places of mostly rich, mostly white South Africans. Sifiso led us to a different part of the cemetery, a flat, smooth expanse of green grass, which houses what used to be called the “Native Christian section”. There are no gravestones there — all of the graves were destroyed at some point in the past — but there is a large, beautiful new monument marking the grave of Enoch Sontonga.
Enoch Sontonga wrote Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika (God Bless Africa), which became an official anthem of the ANC and later was incorporated into the South African national anthem. Sontonga died in 1905 at the age of 32, but his grave wasn’t discovered in Braamfontein Cemetery until the early 1990s. The monument was dedicated in 1996 by President Mandela.
We visited a bunch of other cool things in Braamfontein Cemetery, including the Indian/Chinese portion of the cemetery and a section dedicated to British Empire soldiers who died in the Anglo-Boer War. But I think the Enoch Sontonga memorial is a good place to wrap up this post.
After a quick trip to Constitution Hill, where Sifiso himself was once incarcerated at the Old Fort Prison’s notorious “Number Four”, we drove back to the Roving Bantu Kitchen for a late lunch. I can’t recommend the Roving Bantu’s food, most of which Sfi cooks himself, highly enough. We feasted on samoosas, spicy butterbean curry and rotis, washed down by Black Label beer.
If you want to schedule a Roving Bantu Tour, contact Sifiso and Ashley through the Roving Bantu Facebook page or call Sifiso on 072 223 2648. Sisifo has some interesting plans in the works, including a big tour around Joburg on 30 April (details to come on the Facebook page). The Facebook page also has information about other Roving Bantu events, including documentary (which Sfi calls “DarkieMentary”) screenings and special meals. The Kitchen is open for business from Thursday to Sunday, 5:00 p.m. to midnight.