Last weekend the Johannesburg Development Agency sponsored 13 walking tours all over the city as part of an initiative called #JoziWalks. The weekend was meant to encourage Joburgers to get out of their cars and engage with urban communities in ways they might not do otherwise.
#JoziWalks was an incredible opportunity for me. I’ve been on many walking tours in Johannesburg but #JoziWalks offered tours in places I’d never been, and the tours were free. The only bad part was most of the tours happened concurrently and I had to make agonizing choices over which ones to participate in.
I eventually settled on a Saturday morning tour of La Rochelle, a suburb in the south of Joburg known for its Portuguese culture, and a Sunday tour of Noordgesig, a suburb on the edge of Soweto that played a big role in the anti-apartheid struggle.
#JoziWalks La Rochelle
Our tour of La Rochelle was led by Judith Muindisi of Tsica Heritage Consultants and Calvin Montgomery of the Southern Suburbs Heritage Society.
La Rochelle, just south of the city center, is best known for Parreirinha, Joburg’s most famous Portuguese restaurant. I myself had only been to La Rochelle once before, to eat dinner at Parreirinha. (Incidentally La Rochelle is right next to Turffontein, where I recently visited the Turffontein Racecourse.)
La Rochelle, together with neighboring Rosettenville, has always been a gritty, working-class neighborhood populated by immigrants — Irish, then Portuguese, then a mix of African immigrants including Nigerians and Mozambicans.
The La Rochelle of today has taken “grittiness” to a new level. As we walked along La Rochelle’s main drag, Johannesburg Road, and the adjacent Dias Street, I felt I was in a forgotten place. There are ubiquitous piles of trash (Judith says waste removal is sporadic), broken windows, smoldering street fires, and a general feeling of lawlessness.
But like the other “forgotten” Jozi neighborhoods I’ve visited, La Rochelle has a lot worth remembering: delectable Portuguese pastries, funky shop names, crazy churches, elaborately painted tiles, and quirky architecture. I loved every minute of this walk.
Custard tarts from Portugal Bakery and Confectionery on Johannesburg Road. I brought one of these home for Ray and he nearly died of gratitude. We might have to make another pilgrimage soon: Portugal Bakery and Confectionery deserves a post of its own.
Our tour concluded at the Faraday Taxi Association across from St. Patrick’s church, where we enjoyed a Pan-African lunch with Nigerian, Zimbabwean, and Portuguese dishes.
The Noordgesig tour was led by heritage consultant Jaques Stoltz, together with a group of community leaders.
A half-dismantled mine dump looms behind a street in Noordgesig. Mine dumps are giant piles of waste generated from Joburg’s gold mines, which were used to separate white-only Johannesburg from non-white areas on the fringes of the city. Today, the mine dumps are slowly shrinking as companies re-process the waste in search of traces of gold.
Not only had I never been to Noordgesig before this tour, I had never even heard of it. (I also didn’t have a clue how to pronounce it. I still don’t.) In many ways Noordgesig is also a forgotten place.
Noordgesig was founded in the 1930s as a “coloured” township, and eventually became part of Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnships) when Soweto was officially formed in the 1960s.
I use the South African spelling of “coloured”, in quotation marks, because this word has a uniquely South African context. Historically, “coloured” in South Africa refers to a mixed-race person — someone who cannot be classified as “black”, “white”, “Indian”, or any of the other racial classifications so important to apartheid and pre-apartheid South Africa. (Never mind that it’s usually impossible to identify a “coloured” person simply by looking at him/her. But it goes without saying that South African racial classifications never made sense.) The word “coloured” continues to be used in South Africa today, although many people historically classified as such have shunned it.
I provided this clumsy explanation because the history of South Africa’s “coloured” communities is complicated and often overlooked. This is probably part of the reason why the existence of Noordgesig — which is right next to Orlando, Soweto’s most famous township — had passed me by until now.
Unfortunately I got the time wrong and arrived in Noordgesig an hour late, a bit frazzled. So I didn’t absorb everything. But here’s a quick rundown of what happened:
1) We walked past the homes of several prominent anti-apartheid activists, many of whom played a role in the 1976 Soweto Uprisings, as community members provided historical context.
2) There was a marching band!
3) The group participated in a ceremony honoring late great South African flyweight boxer Jake Tuli, who lived in Noordgesig for much of his life.
Guys. I LOVE MARCHING BANDS.
Boxing memorabilia inside Jake Tuli’s house. I love boxing almost as much as I love marching bands so this part of the day was also really exciting for me.
I’m thrilled to have been part of this exciting Jozi weekend. Thanks to the Johannesburg Development Agency, the Johannesburg In Your Pocket Guide, and all the tour guides and participants who made it happen. I hope you do it again, and maybe spread the tours out over several weekends so I can do all of them rather than just two.
If you missed the #JoziWalks, I have good news: There are great walking tours happening nearly every day in Johannesburg. To get yourself started, check out my posts on JoburgPlaces, Past Experiences, MainStreetWalks, Dlala Nje, and Roving Bantu Tours.