Browsing Tag

history

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. What I saw when I first walked into Somerset House, sometime in 2015. The Fox Street entrance is behind me. The building’s staircase is somewhere behind those metal grates. 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 […]

Continue Reading

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 […]

Continue Reading

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. […]

Continue Reading

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 […]

Continue Reading

Robert Sobukwe sculpture at Long March to Freedom National Historic Monument

The Long March to Freedom National Heritage Monument

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 well over 100, all marching in the same direction — some with fists raised, one on horseback, one astride a bull, some carrying books or briefcases and others wielding rifles or spears — I get it. Walter and Albertina Sisulu, leading the charge. […]

Continue Reading

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 […]

Continue Reading

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 […]

Continue Reading

Church in Cullinan

#Gauteng52, Week 44: 9 Things to Do in Quirky Cullinan

Welcome to Week 44 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit Cullinan, a historic diamond-mining town northeast of Pretoria. Cullinan is a classic day trip destination. It’s a quaint little town about an hour-and-a-half from Joburg (significantly less from Pretoria) with just about enough to see and do in a day — maybe two days for hardcore history buffs. Marie-Lais and I were there from about 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and experienced quite a lot. Train tracks in Cullinan. Diamonds are Cullinan’s claim to fame: Sir Thomas Cullinan discovered diamonds there in 1898 and later founded the Premier Diamond Mine. In 1905, Frederick George Stanley Wells found the 3100-carat Cullinan Diamond, the largest diamond in the world. The Cullinan Diamond went on to become part of the British Crown Jewels. I’m not particularly interested in diamonds, nor is Marie-Lais. So we didn’t do the diamond mine tour, which I think is the main thing most tourists go to Cullinan for. I was, however, interested to learn that the diamond mines in Cullinan are still active and all the land in the […]

Continue Reading

Man walking through Killarney during Johannesburg Heritage Foundation tour

The Heritage of Johannesburg’s Middle-Class Suburbs

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. 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, […]

Continue Reading

Inside the Prison Museum in Pretoria

#Gauteng52, Week 31: Pretoria’s Prison Museum

Welcome to Week 31 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit the Correctional Services Museum, or Prison Museum for short, in Pretoria. In another #Gauteng52 episode of “I Almost Didn’t Write About This Because It’s So Freaking Weird,” I bring you the Prison Museum. The entrance hall of the Prison Museum. When my friend Ted told me he was going to visit South Africa’s Prison Museum, on the grounds of an actual prison, curiosity got the better of me. I became even more excited when I googled the place and found an article saying museum-goers must walk through the visitors’ area of the prison to get to the museum. Ted and I drove to the Kgosi Mampuru Prison, formerly Pretoria Central Prison, not far from downtown Pretoria. We pulled up at the gate and drove through after a cursory search of Ted’s trunk. The Prison Museum building is just inside the prison grounds, to the left of the front gate. The museum, which used to be the prison manager’s house, has its own parking lot. Next to that parking lot is a small […]

Continue Reading

Elizabeth and Vincent in Sophiatown

#Gauteng52, Week 29: Sophiatown The Mix

Welcome to Week 29 of my #Gauteng52 challenge, for which I will visit and blog about a new place in Gauteng Province every week for 52 straight weeks. This week I visit Sophiatown The Mix. The point of the #Gauteng52 challenge is for me to visit 52 places in Gauteng where I’ve never been before. However, I have been to Sophiatown many times. I’ve done walking tours of the suburb (see here and here) and listened to jazz in the Sophiatown Heritage Centre. But Sophiatown The Mix — a new multipurpose center next to the old Heritage Centre, which offers many new and exciting events and services — had escaped my awareness until two months ago. So I think this still counts as new. Sophiatown The Mix, part of the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre nonprofit. Some background on Sophiatown: Similar to Cape Town’s District Six, Sophiatown was a multiracial, richly cultural neighborhood that was destroyed under apartheid. During the 1950s, Sophiatown’s black, colored, and Asian residents were rounded up by police and forcibly removed to townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The apartheid government razed Sophiatown to the ground — only three buildings survived — then rebuilt the suburb into an […]

Continue Reading

Mark1 Mandela street art piece

Street Art and Cape Town’s District Six

Last month I spent a couple of days in Cape Town on either end of my weeklong stay in Stellenbosch. I was reminded yet again of what a lovely city Cape Town is. At some point I really need to stay for longer than three days at a time. I’m a Joburg girl, now and forever. But I must confess Cape Town is really freaking beautiful. I managed to do quite a few cool things during my short time in Cape Town, the best of which was a street art tour in District Six and surrounding areas with Juma’s Tours. The History of District Six The history of District Six is tragic and makes no sense, except in the non-sensical context of apartheid South Africa. Similar to Sophiatown in Joburg, District Six was a culturally vibrant area — located close to the center of Cape Town — populated by mostly non-white South Africans of various races. Following the Group Areas Act (enacted in various forms in 1950, 1957, and 1966), which legally mandated South Africa’s racial groups to live separately, the apartheid government forcibly removed District Six’s 60,000 residents to the Cape Flats and other townships during the 1970s. Of all the enraging aspects of apartheid, there […]

Continue Reading