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.
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.
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.
Outside 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.
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.
Jacob 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.
Killarney: Manhattan Living in Joburg
I’ve always been intrigued by Killarney, whose original owner came (not surprisingly) from Ireland.
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.
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.
Many 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.
I 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.