Last Saturday was Heritage Day, a South African public holiday celebrating the nation’s heritage. This holiday is interesting because “heritage” can mean so many things. South Africa has 11 official languages and dozens of distinct cultural groups, each with its own heritage. There’s also historical heritage, architectural heritage, artistic heritage, archeological heritage…Pretty much anything can be heritage.
On top of that, South Africa’s big-brand advertising industry has rebranded Heritage Day as “Braai Day” (braai means barbecue in South African), in an effort to convince South Africans — as if they need convincing — to consume piles of meat and gallons of beer on this holiday.
All this means that there are dozens of different Heritage Day activities to choose from in Joburg, especially when the day falls on a weekend. I was overwhelmed by all the options, but settled on a full weekend of historical tours with the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation.
Holy Family College, opened as the Parktown Convent in 1905, where the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tours started and ended. How cool is that intricate latticework?
The Heritage Foundation set up headquarters at the historic Holy Family College in Killarney and ran walking and bus tours from there all weekend. The tours were affordable — one cost R70 ($5) but you could book three tours for R150 ($11). I went for three tours, of course. Here are the three I chose.
1) Motortown and Music
This walking tour explored a part of the CBD around One Eloff Street, which was the historic center of South Africa’s automotive industry, among other things. I’ve spent lots of time in this area but Saturday’s tour gave me a whole new perspective.
Our first stop was a complex of buildings across the street from One Eloff, which was the Bantu Men’s Social Centre in pre-democracy times.
The Bantu Men’s Social Centre, opened in 1924, was a place where black people in Johannesburg (mostly men but women too) went for recreation during a time when people of color weren’t permitted to move freely about the city. There were sports fields, a gymnasium, a stage, and a library. Many of South Africa’s most famous athletes, musicians, and artists spent time at the Bantu Men’s Social Centre, making it a perfect place to discover on Heritage Day.
Next door to the centre is a building called Dorkay House. Dorkay House was home to the African Music & Drama Association in the late 1950s, and music legends Hugh Masakela and Miriam Makeba rehearsed there. Nelson and Winnie Mandela reportedly met at Dorkay House.
The ground floor of Dorkay House is now occupied by an interesting row of muti shops. (Read more about muti and the Faraday Muti Market, which is around the corner from Dorkay House, in this old post.)
“Tokoloshe salts”, a type of muti. It’s colored salt that you sprinkle in your home to keep out evil spirits called tokoloshe. To learn more about tokoloshe, read this hilarious article in the Daily Sun (South Africa’s version of the American National Enquirer).
The upper floors of Dorkay House are a well maintained residential apartment complex. We were lucky to get inside for a short visit.
After Dorkay House we walked past Atkinson House, formerly Chrysler House, one of Joburg’s first skyscrapers. The ground floor used to be a huge Chrysler car showroom but now houses a furniture store, and the upper floors have quality affordable housing.
We hung a right at the old Chrysler House and proceeded a couple of blocks to the magnificent Central Fire Station, which I was especially excited to see.
This was my favorite tour of the weekend. I learned so much. Thanks to tour guides David Gurney and Flo Bird for taking us into this Jozi time warp.
2) Sunset at Northwards
On Saturday evening I took a sunset tour of Northwards, a Parktown mansion designed by architect Herbert Baker in 1904.
The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation was originally called the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust, and tours of houses like Northwards are what the Foundation is best known for. This tour didn’t disappoint. I won’t say too much about the house because everything you need to know is in this great article on the Joburg City website.
The massive drawing room at Northwards. The life-size portrait on the left depicts Josephine Dale Lace, the original mistress of Northwards. Rumor has it that Mrs. Lace haunts the house, and her portrait often moves of its own accord.
Northwards is wonderfully preserved but not normally open to the public. The best way to see the house is on a Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tour: Follow the group on Facebook to keep up on the tour schedule.
3) The Brow on the Hill
“Angel of the North”, an iconic sculpture by Winston Luthuli standing just below Constitution Hill in Hillbrow.
This tour introduced me to the “Governor’s House”, built in 1908 for the governor of the infamous Old Fort Prison on what is now Constitution Hill. (The Governor’s House is next door to the old prison.) As with many of the buildings in this post, I’ve passed the Governor’s House many times before but never noticed it.
After an informative lesson in the history of Constitution Hill and the nearby Wits Medical School, we crossed over to the Braamfontein Civic Centre, where many of the City’s administrative offices are housed.
The Civic Centre was built in the 1960s and opened in 1971, at the height of South Africa’s apartheid regime. The Civic Centre is a prime example of brutalist architecture, which is appropriate given the brutal nature of the government that built it.
Most Joburgers think the Civic Centre is hideous, and I always have too. But there was something pretty about it on Sunday afternoon. Teenagers and young adults were scattered about, peering at their smartphones and taking advantage of the free wi-fi that’s been implemented throughout Braamfontein. The big cement floor tiles creaked as we walked across them, almost lyrically. It was more peaceful than brutal.
We finished the tour on Ameshoff Street in Braamfontein, in front of an Edoardo Villa sculpture called “Last to Arrive”.
The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tours are fantastic — they seem to get more interesting and innovative all the time — and the organization does great preservation work and is run completely by volunteers. I highly recommend following the Foundation on Facebook, signing up for some tours, and even consider joining as a member. (Members receive a discount on all tours.)
Thanks to the Heritage Foundation for a great weekend.