Daouda Fashions shop in China City, downtown Joburg, visited during the JoburgPlaces "Of Origins and Migration" tour

Musings on Migration in Joburg

JoburgPlaces, a downtown tour company that I’ve written about many times, recently introduced a couple of different city experiences that center around the concept of migration.

The JoburgPlaces Migrant Cuisines Storytelling Dinner is an epic evening at the Thunderwalker (formerly Somerset House) on Gandhi Square, in which JoburgPlaces guide Charlie Moyo explains the history of Johannesburg in terms of the multiple and overlapping waves of migration that have been happening since the city was founded 133 years ago. The historical overview is accompanied by a series of migrant-inspired food dishes cooked up by in-house chef Princess Bulelwa Mbonambi.

Zwipi Underground Bar in the Thunderwalker in Gandhi Square
The Thunderwalker’s busy Zwipi Underground Bar on the night of the Migrant Cuisines Storytelling Dinner.
Mozambican fish served during the JoburgPlaces Migrant Storytelling Dinner.
Mozambican-style carapau — one of the courses served during the Migrant Cuisines dinner.

The Of Origins and and Migration Tour is a walking tour mainly around Troyeville, Ellis Park, and Doornfontein, exploring some migrant communities in that part of Joburg as Charlie explains the city’s history. The tour begins and ends at Thunderwalker.

Shop in the China City centre.
Blankets, wigs, purses, backpacks, hats, sweaters, toys: It’s all for sale at China City in Doornfontein, which we visited during the tour.
Daouda Fashions shop in China City, downtown Joburg, visited during the JoburgPlaces "Of Origins and Migration" tour
A typical shoe shop inside the China City shopping complex. Daouda, according to my googling, is the name of a singer from the Ivory Coast.
Shireen, Cape Malay cook in China City
Shireen, a Cape Malay lady from Cape Town who sells samoosas and curry from a stall in China City.
Blanket sales lady at China City
Immaculate sells blankets at China City.
Casa di Arbiter, a shoe shop in a historic building in Doornfontein. Unfortunately the shop was closed that day but apparently it’s one of the most expensive shoe stores in town, selling Italian leather shoes to a primarily immigrant clientele.
Invented Mythologies sculpture, by  Doung Jahangeer, outside Ellis Park in downtown Johannesburg.
The iconic “Invented Mythologies” sculpture, by Doung Jahangeer, outside Ellis Park. The sculpture, erected in 2009 as part of a commission by the Johannesburg Development Agency, is culturally significant in ways that are too complicated for me to explain in this post. You’ll have to go on the tour and hear the story from Charlie himself.

Thoughts on Migration

Charlie taught me a lot of interesting facts about the migrant history of Joburg. For example, I never knew “New Canada”, just north of Soweto, was so named because that’s where all the Canadians settled during the Joburg gold rush. I never knew Chinese and Indians — not blacks — were the first people required to carry passbooks. (Passbooks were a precursor to what eventually became the apartheid system.) I had never even been to China City before and had no idea what an interesting place it is.

Mainly though, these experiences made me rethink a series of topics I ponder frequently anyway: migration, xenophobia, racism (xenophobia’s evil twin), and why we humans can’t seem to learn from our past mistakes.

This city didn’t exist 150 years ago, and neither did this country as we know it today. Virtually every person currently living in Johannesburg is either a migrant or descended from migrants. Whether you’re Zulu or Afrikaans, Sotho or English, Zimbabwean or Malawian or Somali or Ethiopian, Cameroonian or American or Swazi or Xhosa or Nigerian or Congoloese, Portuguese or Lithuanian or Tswana or Italian or Indian or Chinese — your people came originally from somewhere else.

The xenophobic rhetoric floating around this country lately makes my hair stand on end. I’m shocked by the things I read on Twitter, and by the things people say right to my face about foreigners ruining this country. They often seem to forget that I myself am a foreigner who, like so many others with far fewer resources than me, is fighting to make a life in South Africa.

And of course this rhetoric isn’t limited to South Africa. Xenophobia is everywhere, most notably in my own country of origin.

I really don’t get it. I love diversity — the more of it the better. The more cultures, the more languages, the more religions, the more foods, the more colors — the better. Joburg’s diversity is what I love most about it.

I love living in a place where I can have three boxing coaches from three different countries and they all teach me to box in a different way. I love living in a city where I can easily find South African pap and vleis, Lebanese shawarma, Indian curry, Cameroonian grilled fish, Chinese dumplings, Portuguese prego sandwiches, Nigerian jollof rice, and a dozen other cuisines. I love looking at colorful fabrics from all over Africa. I love learning from people who are different from me.

Why do we spend so much time hating each other — attacking each other, stealing from each other, even killing each other — when we’re really just hating ourselves?

Call me idealistic but I often ponder how much nicer the world would be if there were no passports and no borders and everyone in the world could literally go wherever the hell they want. I know I sound like John Lennon but seriously, people: Imagine it.

I guess I’d miss the passport stamps. But otherwise I love the idea.

Thanks to Charlie, Gerald, and Bulelwa from JoburgPlaces for reminding me, and for working so hard to remind the rest of South Africa and the world, that migration is beautiful.

Charlie, Bulelwa and Gerald of JoburgPlaces
This photo didn’t turn out exactly as I wanted it to but I think it still does the trick.

My tours with JoburgPlaces were complimentary. Opinions are mine.

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12 Comments

  • Reply Leigh Colombick August 28, 2019 at 4:48 pm

    Well said Heather. I know economics and put past history goes a long way towards the waves of Xenophobia that we experience, and I guess that education also plays a large factor in this sort of ‘hatred’. It does feel incomprehensible to someone like me (who has by birth led a more privileged life ) why a city like Johannesburg or neighbouring cities would participate in this sort of racist behaviour. It’s really sad especially in such a colourful and seemingly integrated city like Jozi. My partner is Cameroonian and its a source of great stress everytime we get wind of Xenaphobic uprisings. I love SA and Johannebsurg particularly and totally prescribe to your idealism. Thanks for all your wonderful posts.

    • Reply 2summers August 28, 2019 at 4:51 pm

      Thanks for the comment Leigh. I also have African friends who are terrified. The whole world is so fucking scary!

  • Reply dizzylexa August 28, 2019 at 5:05 pm

    I too don’t get this whole Xenophobia thing when as you said we all come from somewhere else. I too love the diversity it brings when we all live together in the same place. I hope each day for a more peaceful world. Great blog Heather.

  • Reply Nikki Brighton August 28, 2019 at 5:38 pm

    Oooh, I simply HAVE to do a tour with Joburg Places. An intriguing post. Thanks.

  • Reply AutumnAshbough August 28, 2019 at 5:42 pm

    I’m with you. I’m listening to various U.S. Presidential candidates and realizing that even the most liberal of them will not espouse open borders. I am all for open borders (documenting everyone and checking for disease, etc.) and it makes me angry that we can’t even live up to our own poem on the Statue of Liberty.

    • Reply 2summers August 28, 2019 at 5:47 pm

      Yes. In so many places it feels like so much time and effort goes into keeping people out, or just hating and resenting them once they’re in. Which is a total waste because people are going to find a way to go where they want/need to go no matter how hard you try to stop them. Because people are programmed to migrate and have been so ever since the dawn of humanity.

  • Reply Momo Street August 28, 2019 at 6:09 pm

    My children are SA/Canadian citizens and have a mishmash of Japanese, Zulu, Scottish and a whole bunch of other African ancestry in their blood. I certainly hope they can navigate through this world without fear of hatred and Xenophobia.

  • Reply violetonlineisonline August 30, 2019 at 4:13 pm

    Xenopobia in SA. An important topic that we need to discuss more and more and really get our police force and government to tackle it, rather than be a part of it.
    Excellent post.

    • Reply 2summers August 30, 2019 at 4:14 pm

      Amen, especially to that last part.

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