There are sections of downtown Joburg where things are so chaotic and colorful and slightly scary that I find it hard to focus on any one thing. Such is the case at the corner of Jeppe and Kruis Streets, home of the Jeppe Post Office.
Look here — a clothes shop entrance lined with dozens of curvy mannequin legs in tight-fitting jeans, packed so close together there’s hardly space to walk through. Look there — the hood of a car spread with 100 pairs of colorful flip-flops.
Look here — a trolley piled high with oranges selling for a rand each. Look there — a man pushing a shopping cart full of bloody cow heads.
Look here — a highjacked apartment building spilling garbage from every window. Look there — a newly restored, gleaming white office block with shiny black glass windows.
Spaza shops, hair salons, honking taxis, muscular police vans, and a hundred people squatting, standing, walking every which way.
My eyes dart from one thing and one person to another and my brain considers what or who I should or shouldn’t photograph, or whether I should even take my camera out of its bag at all. I have a million thoughts at once. Hence, I miss things.
I’m on this corner with a bunch of journalists and tourism professionals and university media students, on a tour organized by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) and Laurice from the Johannesburg In Your Pocket Guide. I’m standing on this corner because we’re about to visit the Jeppe Post Office, about which I’ve been brimming with excitement for days. But even though I’m standing in front of the post office, a hulking behemoth of a building, I barely see it amidst the chaos.
Inside the Jeppe Post Office
I never knew the Jeppe Post Office existed before this tour, which is crazy. Unlike the older and more famous Rissik Street Post Office, which has been closed for years, the Jeppe Post Office is still operating. The post office will continue to operate into the future, as I understand it, although Afhco has purchased the building and the upper floors are set to be redeveloped into residential apartments.
The Jeppe Post Office is filled with beautiful and weird Art Deco fonts and fixtures and frescoes. And it’s huge. This post office has 15,000 PO boxes (only a few thousand of which are currently occupied), including one box that is reportedly still used by the Oppenheimer family.
Lastly, get this: The Jeppe Post Office, which served as the main Joburg postal depot after it was built in 1935, has a now-defunct conveyor belt system that moved mail through underground tunnels linking it to Park Station and other post offices around the city. Those tunnels still exist, and the JDA is working on a plan to redevelop them for pedestrian use.
Basically, this building is freaking incredible and I’m going to show you the all the pictures.
An actual person getting mail! Apparently people still do this in South Africa, although I stopped trying long ago. My local branch doesn’t have the Jeppe branch’s staying power; the Melville Post Office closed without notice more than a year ago and never reopened.
Underground at the Jeppe Post Office
Finally, our tour group had the chance to go downstairs and see the mysterious postal tunnel we’d been hearing about. The post office’s basement is pretty interesting in itself.
The tunnel, complete with creepy person-with-cellphone shadow. Note the tree roots growing through the ceiling. There wasn’t much to see in the tunnel and it only extends about 50 feet before being blocked off by a brick wall. Nonetheless, it was cool to go in and imagine what these tunnels might eventually develop into over the next several years.
It will be interesting to watch how the Jeppe Post Office transforms as Afhco and JDA proceed with their plans. In the meantime, if you find yourself on Jeppe Street I recommend popping in to check out the Art Deco signs and creepy frescoes, and maybe also to send some mail because it seems that mail miraculously still works here.
Thanks to Nomalizo from JDA, Johann from Afhco, and Laurice from Johannesburg In Your Pocket for this illuminating tour.