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history

Restored wall at Rand Steam Laundries shopping centre

The Dramatic Story of Rand Steam Laundries

Once upon a time, about 130 years ago, a group of Zulu men called the AmaWasha ran a business washing clothes beside a stream, on the outskirts of a ramshackle mining town called Johannesburg. The water in this stream was particularly good for clothes-washing. Soon a bustling laundry called Rand Steam mushroomed on the spot, displacing the AmaWasha. South Africans hotels shipped their linens from from as far away as Cape Town to be washed at Rand Steam. The laundry closed many decades later but the original buildings — some of the oldest industrial structures in Joburg — received protected heritage status from the city. The buildings remained until the early 2000s, when a company called Imperial Holdings — to the rage and dismay of heritage activists and other onlookers — illegally tore down the Rand Steam Laundries to build a car dealership. Enter the heroes of this story: the formidable Flo Bird and her colleagues at the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, who organized a resistance, picketed the site, raised a ruckus with the city government, and ultimately blocked the car dealership from being built. There wasn’t much left of Rand Steam save a few discarded elements of the buildings and […]

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Loretta Chamberlain, owner of Yukon House in Bezuidenhout Valley

Afternoon Tea in Bezuidenhout Valley

Bezuidenhout Valley, aka Bez Valley, feels like a forgotten suburb. Once home to wealthy Johannesburg socialites, the area has declined in recent decades. Many of Bez Valley’s stately old houses have been abandoned or fallen into disrepair. But Bez Valley maintains its sense of history. You can feel it while driving or walking its tree-shaded streets. Johannesburg’s oldest house is here and a few other historical landmarks remain. Yukon House is one of them. Yukon House was built between 1906 and 1911 and was home to two Johannesburg mayors in the early 20th century. The house suffered periods of neglect as it changed ownership over the years (read this article about the theft of its priceless stained glass windows) but its current owners, Loretta and Henry Chamberlain, have lovingly restored the mansion back to its original glory. I’ve been meaning to visit Yukon House forever but it’s not open to the public all the time. So when I heard Kennedy of Micro-adventure Tours was hosting a historical tour there — including afternoon tea, my favorite meal — I jumped right on board. Tour and Tea at Yukon House This isn’t your average historical house tour. Loretta and Henry live at […]

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Madiba statue at Long March to Freedom in Maropeng

Join the Long March to Freedom Art Walk

UPDATE: The Long March to Freedom Art Walk is fully booked. Hopefully we can organize another one soon. Last January I visited the Long March to Freedom National Heritage Monument in Fountains Valley, Pretoria. I was enchanted by this glorious phalanx of 100 bronze South African freedom fighters, all marching in the same direction. But the Long March to Freedom was hidden in Fountains Valley. No one would ever come upon it without actively looking. A year later, the monument has moved to a much better location at Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind. Maropeng is one of Gauteng province’s top tourist attractions, and the Long March to Freedom is prominently placed right at the entrance. Now thousands of people will get to see the monument every month, which is exactly the attention it deserves. I took a trip out to Maropeng a couple of weeks ago. Not all the sculptures had been moved yet, but there were enough. The army of heroes marched across the open grassland, on this site where humankind was born, in their quest for freedom. The Long March to Freedom Art Walk Maropeng is about an hour north of central Joburg and I encourage everyone […]

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Cathedral of Christ the King

5 Beautiful, Secret Places in Downtown Joburg

I was on a walking tour today, talking to someone about Joburg. It suddenly occurred to me there are so many insanely beautiful places in downtown Joburg that Joburgers either: a) don’t know about because the places are really hidden; or b) are afraid to visit, or would never consider visiting because they think the place is too dangerous or too trashed or just not worth the trouble. I talk about some of these places until I’m blue in the face, but I still get the same responses: a) blank looks; or b) questions like, “But is it really safe to go there?” So I thought I’d write an article like this, with a really click-baity title, to get your attention. Here are my five favorite beautiful, secret places in downtown Joburg. If you like beautiful, secret things (and who doesn’t?) you should visit them all. 1) Cathedral of Christ the King Yes, it’s in Hillbrow and Hillbrow can be a little daunting. But the Cathedral of Christ the King has a parking lot with 24-hour security and it’s really not very hard to drive to. Inside, the cathedral is pristine and it’s without a doubt the most beautiful church […]

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Transwerke building in Hillbrow

Transwerke: Artists Bring a Crumbling Building to Life

In Hillbrow, at the corner of Joubert and Sam Hancock Streets, is a striking Art Deco building with a strange, ominous-sounding name: Transwerke. Transwerke, and the many buildings like it in Joburg, are a perfect illustration of this city’s strange, fascinating, maddening contradictions. Outside the building appears dilapidated and forlorn. It smells like pee. But Transwerke is also majestic, unlike any building I’ve seen before. It has graceful, oval-shaped balconies jutting out in all directions. Google doesn’t seem to know what “Transwerke” means and no one in the building could tell me either. Do you know?  An interior courtyard. Behind the building. Transwerke was designed in 1939 by acclaimed architect Gordon Leith. Back then it was the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital — a place where women gave birth and also a residence for midwives. The hospital sits just below the Old Fort Prison, now Constitution Hill. Under apartheid, the midwives living at Transwerke were sent to deliver babies in the women’s prison. The building closed in 1983 and Transwerke sat vacant. In September 2017, Transwerke received a “black plaque” from the Gauteng Heritage Action Group. Black plaques are meant to shame heritage building owners into stopping rampant decay in buildings […]

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Somerset House, Fox Street entrance

JoburgPlaces and the Restoration of Somerset House

About three years ago, I was roaming around downtown Joburg on a drizzly Sunday afternoon with some photographer friends. As we walked along Fox Street near the corner of Rissik Street, just behind Gandhi Square, we noticed an open doorway and walked inside. I didn’t know it then but this doorway led to Somerset House. I had no idea what I was looking at but I could tell this building was special. My eyes went immediately to the dazzling black-and-white checkered floor and the bright green tiles along the walls. I looked up; the building was three stories tall and the two stories above were painted in various shades of red and blue, with ornate wood and iron railings lining the balconies overlooking the atrium. I now know the vaulted ceiling is made of glass, but the ceiling was covered in metal sheeting back then so I couldn’t see it. One end of the building was closed off so I didn’t know Somerset House was actually an arcade, with one side opening onto Fox Street and the other onto historic Gandhi Square. We didn’t stay in the building for long. We weren’t really supposed to be there, and my friends […]

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Oldest house in Johannesburg in Bezuidenhout Valley Park

The Oldest House in Johannesburg

A few weeks ago I visited the oldest existing house in Johannesburg. I’m a little confused as to exactly how old the house is. The house standing beside the oldest house was built in 1852. At least that’s what the historical plaque on the house says; this article by the City of Joburg says it was built in 1863. This second house (not the oldest one, but the one standing beside it) is referred to as the Bezuidenhout Farmhouse. It was built by the Viljoen family and later taken over by the Bezuidenhout family when a Viljoen married a Bezuidenhout. The Bezuidenhout Farmhouse, built in 1852 (I think) and currently used as a Rotary Club office. Blue plaque on the Bezuidenhout Farmhouse. But the actual oldest house, which the Viljoens presumably lived in before building the larger house next door, doesn’t have a plaque. Isabella Pingle, the heritage activist who showed the houses to my friend Marie-Lais and me, says it was built around 1850 — more than 35 years before Johannesburg itself became a city. The oldest house in Johannesburg, built sometime around 1850.  The most interesting thing about this house, to me at least, is that there are a bunch of regular people living […]

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Lascaux rock art painting at Sci-Bono

The Wonders of Rock Art: Now at Sci-Bono

The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre is a science museum in Newtown, in the middle of the Joburg CBD. The museum is housed in a cavernous, 110-year-old former electrical workshop. Somehow I’ve never blogged about it before but last week I received a perfect opportunity when I was invited to the launch of Sci-Bono’s “Wonders of Rock Art: Lascaux Cave and Africa” exhibition. The Sci-Bono Discovery Centre during the opening of the Wonders of Rock Art exhibition. The Wonders of Rock Art The Wonders of Rock Art is a collaboration between Sci-Bono, Wits University, the French Embassy in South Africa, and the French Institute of South Africa. There is a lot going on in this exhibition and I can’t begin to explain it all. But in short, there is a life-sized reproduction of France’s Lascaux Cave, which has been nicknamed “the Sistine Chapel of Prehistory”. The Lascaux Cave was discovered in 1940 (by a bunch of teenagers chasing a dog) and is filled with one of the world’s most stunning displays of prehistoric rock art. A reproduction of Lascaux’s “Panel of the Black Cow”. The reproduction was painstakingly created using the same materials the original Cro-Magnon artists used 17,000 years ago. Reproducing the reproduction. […]

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Culture section of National Museum of African American History

From Africa to America: The National Museum of African American History and Culture

I’ve just returned to Joburg after two weeks in the United States. I spent most of the trip trying to stay warm (this was my first dose of American East Coast winter since 2010), running errands, and spending time with family and close friends. I didn’t have much time for cultural pursuits, but I did achieve one major Washington D.C. tourism goal — a visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. The National Museum of African American History and Culture (I’ll call it the African American Museum for short), located prominently on Constitution Avenue right beside the Washington Monument. The museum opened in September 2016. Read more about the museum’s award-winning architecture here. I feel it’s important for me to write a post about this museum, as it links the two halves of my life together in a couple of ways. First, the African American Museum was designed by acclaimed British-Ghanaian architect David Adjaye, who also designed the Hallmark House building in downtown Johannesburg. I stood in the same room with David at the Hallmark House media launch a few years ago but was too shy to talk to him. I regret that now, as I’d like […]

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Robert Sobukwe sculpture at Long March to Freedom National Historic Monument

The Long March to Freedom National Heritage Monument

UPDATE (JANUARY 2019): The Long March to Freedom National Heritage Monument has moved, from the Fountains Valley Resort to Maropeng in the Cradle of Humankind. Read about my visit to the new location. In Pretoria, just off the highway in a local park called Fountains Valley, is an army of life-sized bronze men and women walking toward freedom. This hidden bronze army, made up of heroes who fought in the South African struggle for democracy over the past four centuries, is the Long March to Freedom National Heritage Monument. A bronze of Robert Sobukwe, made by artists Louis Olivier and Nkhensani Rihlampfu, on the Long March to Freedom. The woman to Sobukwe’s left is Helen Suzman.  I first encountered these sculptures in 2015, when about eight or ten of them went up in Walter Sisulu Square in Kliptown. I was disappointed when the sculptures later disappeared from Kliptown and someone told me they’d been moved to a field in Pretoria. That didn’t make sense. It took me a couple of years to get to the sculptures’ new home in Fountains Valley. Now that I’ve been there, and seen not ten sculptures but 100, all marching in the same direction — some with […]

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Groot Marico Visitors Centre

Adventures in North West Province: Whacky Groot Marico

A few weeks ago I spent a weekend in Groot Marico, on a writing retreat with three friends. Welkom (Welcome) to Groot Marico. Groot Marico, a funky town in North West Province, is best known for its association with Herman Charles Bosman. Bosman was an acclaimed South African author who lived in Groot Marico in the 1920s and wrote a few collections of short stories based on the town. A bust of Herman Charles Bosman at the Groot Marico Visitors’ Centre. I fully intended to read some Bosman short stories before writing this post. But alas, it hasn’t happened. Bosman, who was like the Edgar Allen Poe of South Africa, is all over Groot Marico. Everyone waxes lyrical about him and there was even a Bosman literary festival in Groot Marico the week before we were there. Yet I recently learned Bosman only lived in Groot Marico for a few months, when he worked as a village teacher there for one semester in 1926. Bosman’s time as a teacher in Groot Marico was cut short because he went home to Joburg for winter break and murdered his stepbrother. So instead of going back to Groot Marico, he went to Pretoria […]

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Jacob Zuma arrest memorial

Adventures in North West Province: The Jacob Zuma Site of Arrest

Last week I had some adventures in North West Province (one of South Africa’s lesser known provinces). It was a fascinating trip on many levels. I can’t possibly recount all my North West adventures in a single post, so I’m starting with the adventure that I think will garner the most excitement among my South African readers: a visit to the President Jacob Zuma Site of Arrest. Site of Arrest. I’ll preface this narrative by saying I generally avoid blogging about South African politics, especially President Zuma. The last time I blogged about Zuma, during “The Spear” controversy at the Goodman Gallery, the post garnered quite a bit of strenuous debate. I’m really not looking to get into any political debates this time. But I just happened to find myself at the brand-new Zuma Site of Arrest and the experience was too good not to blog about. For those of you who don’t know Jacob Zuma: He is the third president of South Africa, currently serving the ninth year of his ten-year, two-term presidency. I’m not going out on a limb when I say Zuma is…controversial. In many ways Jacob Zuma is the Donald Trump of South Africa. I’m sure […]

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