The Heritage of Johannesburg’s Middle-Class Suburbs

by | Oct 4, 2017 | Arts and Culture, Hidden Joburg, Johannesburg, Museums and Buildings, Tours | 11 comments

The weekend after Heritage Day, the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation has an annual tradition of offering a whole programme of tours at very affordable prices. There are about a dozen tours to choose from over the course of two days and you can do three tours for R150, or about $11. (Read about last year’s Heritage Weekend.)

This year I intentionally chose two walking tours through neighboring Joburg suburbs — one in Forest Town and one in Killarney — because I thought they’d be fun to blog about together.

Walking through Forest Town on Heritage WeekendWalking through Forest Town.

For those of you who don’t live in South Africa, I should explain that the term suburb has a different meaning in South Africa than it does in the U.S. or other places. The city of Joburg is made up of dozens of suburbs, which are more like neighborhoods in American cities. Each suburb has its own identity and often engenders fierce loyalty among its residents. (My love for Melville is a good example.)

Forest Town and Killarney, despite being almost adjacent, are totally different from one another. I loved exploring them both.

Forest Town: Joburg’s English Forest

Forest Town was founded in the first decade of the 1900s, and our tour guide Ed Coogan describes it as Joburg’s first middle-class suburb. (Before that Joburg was basically a sprawling mining camp with one wealthy suburb, Parktown, where all the rich people lived.)

Forest Town was built on the edge of a man-made forest, planted by rich English people who wanted a forest to hunt in. (I kid you not.) All the streets in Forest Town are named after English forests; Sherwood Road is the most recognizable example.

Epping Road in Forest TownEpping Road, another foresty Forest Town street.

Our tour of Forest Town started at the new Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre, which isn’t officially open to the public yet. (UPDATE: I’m told by two readers that the centre is indeed open, but I think it’s best to call in advance just in case.) The museum includes exhibits honoring those killed during the Holocaust of World War II, as well as the victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide CentreOutside the beautiful new museum. Those are actual train tracks running up the wall, representing the plight of the millions of people who were transported to concentration camps by train during the Holocaust.

Inside the Holocaust and Genocide CentreInside the centre.

From the Holocaust and Genocide Centre we embarked on a brisk, five-kilometer walk through leafy Forest Town. We didn’t get to go inside any private houses but Ed did tell us some interesting stories about several of them, including one property that has served (at various times) as both a gay brothel and a temporary home for animals of the Joburg Zoo. We also stood outside a house owned by South African President Jacob Zuma, which was raided before Zuma’s corruption trial in 2005.

House in Forest TownA house in Forest Town. I can’t remember if there is an interesting story behind it but I thought it was cute.

Jacob Zuma's house in Forest TownJacob Zuma’s house. I guess he doesn’t live there currently but I was still really surprised that it seems to have no security, beyond the typical high wall and electric fence.(UPDATE: One reader commented that Jacob Zuma never owned this house but actually rented it. This would make more sense.)

Our last stop in Forest Town was St. Francis in the Forest, a quaint Methodist Church built in 1937. I used to attend a 12-step meeting at St. Francis and had been there dozens of times, but strangely never inside the actual chapel. It’s so beautiful.

Ed Coogan at St. FrancisEd addresses the tour group outside St. Francis.

Inside St. Francis chapelInside the chapel.

Killarney: Manhattan Living in Joburg

I’ve always been intrigued by Killarney, whose original owner came (not surprisingly) from Ireland.

Killarney ParkA taste of Ireland in Africa. Killarney is known for the interesting fonts on its many apartment buildings.

Killarney is unique among Joburg’s older northern suburbs in that it’s populated almost exclusively by low-slung apartment buildings (or “blocks of flats”, as they say here) — there is only one freestanding house in Killarney. I have a few friends who’ve lived in Killarney over the years and I love its spacious, light-filled apartments.

Typical flats in KillarneyA typical building in Killarney.

Killarney was purchased in the 1930s by I.W. Schlesinger, a wealthy American transplant who built Africa’s first film studio on the site of what is now Killarney Mall.

Schlesinger — much like the British founders of Forest Town who wanted their suburb to resemble an English forest — wanted his suburb to resemble a neighborhood in uptown Manhattan, just with smaller and fewer buildings. I suppose he kind of succeeded, although the notable difference between Killarney and Manhattan is Killarney has virtually no shops or restaurants except the ones in the mall.

Daventry Court in KillarneyDaventry Court, built in 1934, is one of the oldest and best examples of Art Deco architecture in Killarney.

Glenhof Gardens in KillarneyGlenhof Gardens. Such a beautiful building.

Mediterranean building in KillarneyOur tour guide, Adam Golding, lives in this building. I love the sea-blue font.

Killarney CourtMany of Killarney’s buildings have been altered over the years, not always for the better. The ugly black font of this building name is a good example. The old retro sign below it is so much prettier.

Gleneagles Court in KillarneyGleneagles Court, another historic Art Deco building. We were able to go inside the lobby, which is stunning.

Post boxes in Gleneagles CourtI was fascinated by these mailboxes, or postboxes as they’re called in South Africa. In addition to being beautiful, the boxes are made in Brooklyn and approved by the U.S. Postmaster General. I suppose it’s another shout-out to Schlesinger’s Manhattan lifestyle.

Thanks to the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation for another great Heritage Weekend. The foundation runs tours all year round, all over Joburg, and there are some really great ones coming up. Follow them on Facebook to stay informed.


  1. Margaret Urban

    So sorry I missed the tours this year (got back from USA last night)…
    I don’t think Jacob Zuma owned that house; I’m pretty sure he rented it when he lived there.

    • 2summers

      Aha! That would explain it. It doesn’t make sense otherwise.

  2. Caitlin Jean Geel

    I always enjoy how you define the South African English language in your blogposts (i.e. block of flats). Recently I had to explain what “holding thumbs” means as I thought everyone knew it to be similar to “fingers crossed”. Figured out that it’s a direct translation from Afrikaans so I guess that’s why the British person was confused.

    • 2summers

      Wow that’s very interesting! I’ve always thought holding thumbs is a really funny expression 🙂

  3. autumnashbough

    Killarney needs a bodega or two to resemble NYC! (Plus the requisite bodega cats.)

    I love the trees in the English forest. Are those native trees or invasive species, though?

    • 2summers

      Killarney could REALLY do with some bodegas and cats.

      The vast majority of the trees in Joburg are non-native species, due in part to the colonial English habit of trying to make every place they live look like England. (Although we have other tree species from all over the world – Australia, South America, etc.) There weren’t many trees in this part of South Africa before the colonialists came.

  4. Lani

    What a gorgeous tour. Another reminder of South Af. rich and layed history. Thanks for bringing us along, as always!

    • 2summers

      Thanks for coming 🙂

    • 2summers

      I love them too!


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