A couple of weeks ago I attended the book launch for Master Mansions. Master Mansions is the eighth in a ten-book series called “Wake Up, This is Joburg”: written by Tanya Zack, photographed by Mark Lewis, and published by Fourthwall Books.
My precious copy of Master Mansions. Just a side note about the “Wake Up This is Joburg” books: If you attend the launch of one of the books, then buy the book and impatiently rip it out of the plastic right away, please do not do so while eating canapés. You’ll risk putting greasy fingerprints on the delicate, un-laminated cover of the book. (I photoshopped my fingerprint out of the picture above.)
The “Wake Up This is Joburg” series is fantastic. I learned about it late, after the first five books had already sold out, so I only have numbers six, seven, and eight. (Nine and ten haven’t been released yet.) The narrative in these books — which are more like fancy pamphlets, covered with thick, matte paper and bound with staples — is exceptional and the photography is inspiring. The short stories are required reading for anyone who appreciates Joburg’s beautiful oddity.
At the book launch my friend Gail approached Harshad Bhikha Master, one of the owners of Master Mansions, and asked if he’d be willing to show us around the building. Mr. Master, who prefers to be called Grandfather, graciously agreed. The following week I visited Master Mansions with Gail and my other friend Marie-Lais.
I’ve walked and driven past Master Mansions 100 times and always wondered about it. It turns out the the building’s history is more tantalizing than I imagined.
I can’t recount it all here, and I don’t want to anyway because I won’t do as good a job as Tanya and Mark. If you’re really interested I highly recommend ordering a copy of Master Mansions immediately, as the “Wake Up, This Is Joburg” print runs are very small. As of now — 9:00 p.m. South African time on 4 June 2017 — there are still copies available on the Fourthwall website. There might also be copies at independent bookstores around town. (Check Bridge Books and David Krut Bookstore.) But not for long.
Inside Master Mansions
Master Mansions is on the west side of downtown Joburg in an area called Ferreirasdorp, on the edge of the original city limits.
This mosaic outside Master Mansions, by Joburg artist Andrew Lindsay, reads: “RANDJESLAAGTE TRIANGLE: This site marks the eastern boundary of the Ransjeslaagte Triangle, where Johannesburg was founded in 1886. Randjeslaagte was a piece of uitvalgrond — land left over from the farms surveyed around it.”
Here is a truncated description of the history of Master Mansions:
In 1895, Uka Prema Prajapati came to Johannesburg from Gujarat in India. Uka Prema made a living as a fruit and vegetable seller and eventually expanded his business. Uka Prema’s son, Bhikha Uka Prajapati, was an even more successful businessman and master bookkeeper. He changed his surname to Master to match his profession, and started a hat business with two of his cousins. The business was called Master Brothers, shortened to Mabro. Bhikha and his partners became evermore successful, purchased land in western Johannesburg, and built Master Mansions on the site in 1941.
Master Mansions housed Mabro Hats and multiple generations of the Master family. Mabro Hats was in a good spot; the Johannesburg Magistrates Court was a block away and hats were required dress code for anyone appearing in court.
During apartheid, when most Indians in Joburg were forcibly removed to Lenasia, Master Mansions became a stopping place for Indians who had nowhere to stay in the city. The Masters built a small, hexagonal-shaped Hindu temple on the roof of the building, where Bhikha’s wife Jyotsna prayed every day along with visiting gurus and swamis.
The Mabro Hat staff designed and produced hats for countless prominent South Africans, including the hat that Winnie Mandela wore to her husband’s inauguration.
Eventually Mabro Hats could no longer compete with cheap imports from China. The hat business closed in 2007. Harshad Master (Grandfather), youngest son of Bhikha, was the last Master to manage Mabro Hats. Today Grandfather runs a Malaysian traditional medicine business in the building next door, called SHM Distributors.
The Masters still maintain a warehouse full of haberdashery, felt, hat moulds, and other supplies. Local hatmakers continue to purchase those supplies from the Masters.
The old hat factory is still there, although it’s locked up, and the Master Mansions building is occupied by a mix of Indian, Pakistani, and African residents. The Hindu Temple looks the same as it did 50 years ago.
Grandfather led us up seven flights of stairs (the elevator doesn’t work) to the well-kept flat at the top. The entrance to the temple is inside the flat, surrounded by beveled glass.
Grandfather unlocked the temple doors. We removed our shoes and stepped inside.
After we visited the temple, Grandfather took us to the warehouse.
As we wandered the dimly lit aisles, I spotted a shiny bit of red and purple satin sitting alone on a shelf. I picked up the hat and put it on.
“That hat was made for you,” said Marie-Lais. “You can’t leave without it.”
I turned to Grandfather. “How much for this?” I asked.
“It’s a sign from God,” Grandfather said. “You must take it.”
Grandfather was right.
Thank you to Tanya Zack, Mark Lewis, Gail Wilson, and Grandfather for inspiring this post.