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The gorgeous golden rhino of Mapungubwe!
One of the most exciting sculptures to be established in the Jo'burg CBD in the last couple of years is a replica of the gold rhino of Mapungubwe, which is located on Fox Street, just opposite the Hollard Street pedestrian mall. As it is mounted on a plinth at about head height, so it can be surprisingly easy to overlook.
The Mapungubwe rhino is arguably one of the most significant artifacts ever discovered in South Africa and is a figure created by draping thinly beaten gold metal around a wooden frame and securing the gold using tiny nails. It was discovered in 1933 and was found at what is now the Mapungubwe World Heritage Site in Limpopo province (close to the corner where South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe meet).
The rhino is estimated to be about 800 years old, and is a relic of the Mapungubwe society, which existed between about 1220 and 1290 A.D. It is a particularly interesting culture as, unlike the Bantu cultures that predate it, it is believed to be the first South African society to exhibit a rigid social hierarchy. The king occupied a hilltop fortress - supported by his subjects who occupied the surrounding lowland where they raised crops and livestock. A characteristic of Mapungubwe society was its sophisticated metalwork (both in gold and iron) and beautiful pottery, and items unearthed on the site indicate that Mapungubwe society actively traded with a number of other societies, including the Chinese, the Indians and the Arabs.
The rhino is made of fibreglass but treated to appear as though it is metallic. It is hugely upscaled, as the original is only 12cm (about 4") long and about 6cm high.
Don't miss the gorgeous 'Stampede' fountain!
This statue - officially known as The Stampede - has been part of my life for the best part of twenty years, and I love it as much - or even more - now then when I first caught sight of it all those years ago.
This beautiful bronze fountain is located outside Anglo American's offices at 45 Main Street, where I worked for a number of years. It is executed in a distinctly Art Deco style and depicts a herd of seventeen impala leaping in an elegant arc spanning 8.5m. The sense of grace and movement is quite extraordinary, and this ranks among my favourite sculptures in the world.
The artist was Herman Wald, who had this to say about his inspiration:
"The Stampede was my first impression in this country, nature’s most graceful charge that competes with any man-made efforts, unconditionally acclaimed by child or adult, by amateur or connoisseur, unbound by time, fashion or ‘isms’." (H.Wald)
The statue was commissioned by the much loved mining magnate Sir Harry Oppenheimer as a gift to the City of Johannesburg to commemorate his equally titanic father, Sir Ernest, and was unveiled in the Oppenheimer Gardens in 1960. Sadly, in the late 90s, it was stolen by thieves seeking to sell it for its scrap metal value, and after restoration by the artist's son, was moved to its more secure present location in 2002.
This westernmost section of Main Street is now a pedestrian precinct which has undergone significant gentrification in recent years These days, the Angloids can eat their lunches on a shady terrace overlooking the fountain and it's all very genteel - a far cry from its more grimy appearance in the late 1990s when I had a car stolen from almost this exact spot (at that time, the statue stood over the road outside Anglo's Head Office at 44 Main Street)!
Who'd have thought that something so beautiful would be lurking in the much maligned downtown of Big, Bad Johannesburg!
If you like this work as much as I do, then you will probably also love Wald's other major commission for the Oppenheimer family, the amazing Diamond Diggers Memorial in Kimberley. Wald (who was himself a Hungarian Jewish emigre) was also responsible for the Monument to the Martyred European Jewry (colloquially known as the Six Million Memorial) in West Park cemetery, next to which he is buried.
Diagonal Street: the way things were
Diagonal Street - not to be confused with Diagon Alley (that's Harry Potter) - was for years the home of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the hub of commercial activity in sub Saharan Africa.
Diagonal Street is so named because it was the only departure from the rigid north-south and east-west grid system of streets in central Johannesburg and trends in a wayward south east-north west direction. During the Gold Rush, it was known as Jubilee Street, but had already settled on its present name by 1897.
In Johannesburg's early days, Diagonal Street formed the one of the boundaries of the city, and the area to the west was considered to be 'open land' on which immigrant Indians, Chinese and Coloureds settled. Indian traders bought buildings on Diagonal Street using white proxies and established stores and for many years, it continued to be a racially mixed area until the implementation of the notorious Group Areas Act in 1950, after which the area was declared as being 'white'.
Diagonal Street's financial credentials were reinforced when the Johannesburg Stock Exchange moved from Hollard Street into a purpose designed building at 17 Diagonal Street in 1978 (the fourth premises that it had occupied). However, inner city decay and increasing concerns about security caused the JSE relocated to its current premises in Sandton in 2000.
Today, the most recognisable building on this street is the iconic 'diamond' building at 11 Diagonal. This forms an interesting counterpoint to the adjacent Victorian terraces of what is arguably one of the best preserved Victorian era streets in Johannesburg, with shops on the ground floor and accommodation on the upper floor, complete with verandahs trimmed with 'broekie lace' (a term for delicate filigree cast ironwork, derived from the Afrikaans term for ladies' underwear).
The sadly run down Jo'burg Magistrate's Court
In many places in the Johannesburg CBD, there are encouraging signs of urban renewal, but unfortunately this does not hold for the neglected and dilapidated Johannesburg Magistrates' Court on the western edge of the CBD.
The building was located in Ferrierasdorp, close to the site of Ferriera's Camp, which was one of the earliest gold mines in Johannesburg (one of the underground stopes of this mine can still be seen in the small but interesting Mine Shaft exhibit of the Standard Bank building). It was completed in 1941 to replace the ageing Magistrates' Court building on Government (now Gandhi Square) and is a fine sandstone building which blends harmoniously with the monumental architectural style of the Anglo American offices just over the road at 44 and 45 Main Street. It was designed around a central courtyard and incorporates 16 criminal courts and 12 civil courts as well as holding cells and administrative offices. And, in true apartheid style, the building was designed to include "native concourses" connecting to the southern entrance (which was the only entrance that blacks were permitted to use).
The Courts contain several impressive works of art by South African artists including Pierneef and Coert Steynberg, but their appeal is not enough to counter the pervasive air of neglect which is in sharp contrast to the revitalised Main Street precinct which it overlooks.
The Magistrates Court was bombed in 1987 by Hein Grosskopf, a member of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe who had ironically served a term as Johannesburg's junior mayor. Security was tightened considerably in the wake of the bombing, and the use of the Magistrates' Court as the venue for high profile trials has necessitated the erection on unsightly security fencing which makes it hard to appreciate the building's elegant facade.
Sadly, my strongest memory of this building (which I worked opposite for several years in the mid 1990s) is of a dejected line of women queuing outside the Family Court section of the building on certain mornings to collect maintenance payments owed by defaulting former spouses.
Chancellor House: Mandela and Tambo's law office
As part of encouraging ongoing efforts to uplife the Jo'burg CBD, I am happy to report the completed renovation of the Chancellor House building.
This small, unprepossessing office building on a street corner opposite the Magistrate's Court is of major historical significance because it housed the offices of the law practice that Nelson Mandela operated with his friend and fellow struggle icon, Oliver Tambo, an arrangement which Mandela himself describes as the first black-owned business in South Africa. The building was purchased by the Essas, an Indian family from the then Northern Transvaal in 1943, and was let to Tambo and Mandela between 1952 and 1960 - quite a risk at the time, since it was technically illegal to rent to Africans in this area (and, Mandela concedes, their rent was sometimes not paid on time).
For years, the Essa family refused to sell Chancellor House, and by the 1990s, the building had decayed to a derelict shell occupied by squatters. In 1997, the Essas proposed that the site be redeveloped as a car park, and the building was hastily given provisional monument status. The Johannesburg municipality subsequently stepped in, and expropriated the building, restoring it to its original design using original photos.
The building will house a library and office space. An exhibit which details the building's history and links to both Mandela and Tambo is displayed in the windows facing out onto the street.
To South Africans, the term 'Chancellor House' has a somewhat more murky meaning. A Google search will bring up a bland description of a "South African group of companies active in the mining, engineering, energy and information technology sectors". What is not immediately apparent is that Chancellor House is the investment vehicle for the African National Congress (ANC), whose specific mandate is to invest funds donated to the ANC to generate income for the ruling party. Since its inception, Chancellor House has been embroiled in a number of scandals which, at best, challenge the principles of good governance, including its involvement as a major beneficiary of the largest contract ever let by Eskom, South Africa's power generation parastatal.
The headframe that echoes Jo'burg's mining past
Of all the efforts have been made to upgrade the Jo'burg CBD in recent years, probably the most successful from a tourism point of view have been the creation of the Hollard Street and Main Street precincts, which celebrate Jo'burg's rich mining heritage.
Jo'burg experienced serious inner city decay in the 1990s, but the Marshalltown area in the south eastern corner of the CBD - adjacent to Ferreirasdorp where the first large scale mining took place in Jo'burg - fared better than most. This was principally due to the dogged determination of major companies such as Anglo American, BHP Billiton and Standard Bank who refused to vacate their traditional head offices and follow their peers to the perceived safety of Sandton. Instead of joining the exodus, these companies chose to participate in the upliftment of this area and worked closely with government to improve security. The first phase of the project saw the introduction of an extensive CCTV network and visible policing - which has resulted in a security guard per block - and as a result, crime levels in the area dropped immediately. The security initiatives were coupled with programmes to combat litter and develop amenities and tourist infrastructure.
The most imposing new addition to this area has been the mine head frame that now stands on the western side of the corner of Sauer and Main Streets. These structures are constructed over the entrance to the mine shaft, and allow the winching of men and materials between surface and underground. This particular head frame was relocated from Langlaagte, a few kilometres west of the CBD, which was close to George Harrison's original gold find that triggered the start of the Gold Rush in 1886.
At the base of this head frame is a memorial to the Struben brothers, which discovered the Main Reef Group in the late 1880s. This has proved to be the richest gold seam in the entire Witwatersrand gold deposit, which is itself the richest and most extensive gold field yet discovered anywhere in the world. In their time, Harry and Fred Struben were a formidable team, with Fred prospecting for gold-bearing reefs, whilst Harry handled the commercial and financial aspects of the business, and have the distinction of having had a suburb - Struben's Valley - named in their honour.
Holland Street Mall: Johannesburg's mining history
In tandem with the adjacent Main Street precinct, the Hollard Street precinct (between Fox and Main Streets) is part of the highly successful urban renewal project that has been undertaken to celebrate Johannesburg's extraordinary mining history.
The Marshalltown and adjacent Ferreirasdorp areas - now part of the Jo'burg CBD - were key to the development of the Witwatersrand gold mining industry and still house the South African headquarters of several international mining houses. Companies such as Anglo American and BHP Billiton were founded in South Africa and have used their South African assets as a springboard to develop truly international portfolios. Virtually all of the major South African mining houses are now listed on international stock exchanges as well as the local Johannesburg Securities Exchange (JSE) which used to be located in Diagonal Street, but which sadly joined the exodus of companies to the perceived safety of the Sandton CBD in 2000.
Hollard Street was named after an Austrian-born lawyer who settled in Pretoria. It is extremely short and houses only two buildings with stunning Art Deco credentials: the BHP Billiton headquarters and the Chamber of Mines building, which forms the backdrop to this photo.
This piece of equipment is a stamp mill, which was steam driven and used to crush the rock as the first step in extracting the gold. The stamp mills were imported and transported to the Witwatersrand by ox cart, and within a few years of the first gold find, over 10,000 were operating across the region. This particular stamp mill was commissioned in 1886 at the Robinson Mill at Langlaagte and was one of the earliest on the Rand. It was displayed at the Empire Show in 1939, and was subsequently donated to the City of Johannesburg.
The Hollard Street precinct extends over onto the northern side of Fox Street, where you'll find an interesting collection of mine locomotives and cocoa pans (used to move men and materials underground) as well as the gorgeous replica of the Mapungubwe rhino.
BHP Billiton building's Art Deco frieze
The BHP Billiton building occupies a small city block and from its flanks on the Fox Street and Marshall Street, it is an unremarkable structure, somewhat precariously topped by a helipad. But take a few steps around the corner into the Hollard Street Mall and the building presents a whole different perspective.
It's certainly an unexpected place to come across a massive Art Deco bas relief which gives a potted version of South Africa's history from the arrival of the first white settlers. The tale casts Afrikaners and the mining industry in a starring role in South Africa's development. This is not surprising because BHP Billiton's precursors - General Mining and Federale Mynbou, which merged to form Gencor - were companies whose establishment was intended to counter what was perceived as the English speaking stranglehold on the South African mining industry established by the likes of the Oppenheimer family, who controlled Anglo American and De Beers.
In 2003, this building was awarded the Colosseum award by the Johannesburg Heritage Trust in recognition of its sensitive restoration and heritage conservation.
Oh yes, this is yet another on the list of Johannesburg buildings that I have worked in - only this time, on a visiting basis, when I was worked in one of Gencor's regional offices and was only summoned up to The Temple of Doom on high days and holidays!
Explore bohemian Art on Main
Art on Main is a warehouse redevelopment project on the corner of Main and Nugget Streets, a particularly unloved - and unlovely area - that has not so much been overlooked as forgotten completely. It is notable in that it's the first major urban renewal project that I know of that's taken place east of the CBD: the Hollard Street and Main Street pedestrian precincts, Newtown and Turbine Square are all located on the western fringe of the CBD, and Braamfontein with Constitution Hill - hosting the Constitutional Court, Women's Prison, No.4 prison and the Nelson Mandela Theatre complex are on its northern fringe).
The complex comprises a New York style redesign of a series of warehouses into an attractive and original series of design studios and boutique shops. However, its main attraction is the fact that on Sundays and the first Thursday night of the month, Arts on Main hosts a food market, showcasing gourmet food from local producers. It is a splendid place to graze, first sampling the produce from the stalls and finally plumping for the one that grabs your fancy. And if you're hungry for something more substantial, there's even a restaurant on the perimeter of the complex where you can sample a strong contender for South Africa's national dish: nyoma chomo (barbecued goat)!
Art on Main's Thursday night cocktails and Sunday in the City are fast becoming an institution, and if you're looking for that new York boho vibe, then this is the place to be. Grab a Mojito and lounge amid the olive and lemon trees hidden away in the trendy converted warehouse environment, smugly relishing that inner city vibe whilst the more conventional classes retreat to their staid suburbans refuges!
Just a word of warning: street parking is at a premium, and the parking in surrounding warehouses is overpriced. Be prepared to have to park a couple of blocks away, in which case, don't pay the (self appointed) parking attendant in advance, and rather incentivise him by telling him that you'll give him a 'good bonsela' (bonus) if your car is still OK on your return.
Walking tours of Jo'burg - yes, you read right!
Jo’burg is not a city that is usually associated with either culture or walking. So it’s particularly refreshing to highlight the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Society, which organises guided walks around historic areas of the city a couple of times a month, usually on a weekend. The name of the society is derived from two of Johannesburg’s more upmarket inner northern suburbs, but the scope of the society extends to other historic suburbs (such as Braamfontein, Kensington and Troyeville) depending on the focus of the tour.
Tours are lead either by historians or heritage architects and the range of offerings is surprisingly varied: in recent months, events have ranged from a costumed Victorian high tea in a historic mansion to a tour of the Art Deco buildings in the CBD (which I would love to have done and am hoping that they repeat soon). This is a great way to familiarise yourself with a little-appreciated aspect of a city that which does have a rich (if poorly publicised) historical heritage – as well as a chance to stretch your legs after that long haul flight!
From a security point of view, the walks take place in a group and are guided by people familiar with the area: I have never heard any suggestion that participants’ safety has been compromised. Let's be realistic: given the subject matter, it's no surprise that most of the participants are well heeled, middle aged Northern Suburbanites with an interest in local history and/or architecture, but it does give you a chance to meet some locals and get their perspective on their city
Some forthcoming offerings (taken from their website):
"Braamfontein Cemetery Pioneers and Heroes of Johannesburg' (Saturday 19 June 2010):
This is Johannesburg’s oldest public cemetery where some of our most colourful early citizens await our visit - from the diminutive boxing champion to the Father of Johannesburg. Amongst the heroes is a young man who won a Victoria Cross and another who died because he refused to be subject to the Asiatic Registration Act. Enoch Sontonga who wrote our National Anthem lies perhaps a hundred metres from Cornelius Broeksma who was executed for sending out information on the Concentration Camps"
"Westcliff Walk Up the Stairs and Down the Stairs (Saturday 26 June 2010): Winter is the right time to explore the stone stairways of Westcliff and, since most trees will have shed their leaves, we’ll get better views of the houses which disappear in summertime. Westcliff’s range of Twentieth Century architecture is most impressive. Starting with Edwardian eclecticism and a Herbert Baker mansion, the Arts and Crafts Cape Dutch revival, then through the Modern Movement homes of the Thirties and ending with Post Modernism of the Eighties and Nineties. Wonderful views and some very special personalities"
Prices are very reasonable, ranging from R55 for a three hour walk to the more expensive bus tours and catered events. Book via Computicket on www.computicket.co.za (which also publicises the events)
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
The challenging art of the Standard Bank Gallery
Oh my, was this an eyeopener on the rarified world of contemporary art!
I have been meaning to visit the Standard Bank Gallery forever, but only managed to get there this morning when other plans fell through and my friend and I found ourselves in the Jo'burg CBD too late to connect with a tour we'd intended to do. Since we were already there, it seemed a heavenset opportunity to tick off the two 'touristy' things that I've wanted to do in the Standard bank complex: the art gallery and the Mineshaft Museum.
The Standard Bank gallery is located on the northern corner of Standard Bank City complex, on the southern perimeter of the Johannesburg CBD. It is a small gallery which hosts short term temporary exhibits, and admission is free.
When we visited, there were two exhibits: an inspirational photographic study on women living with HIV/AIDS and a bewildering display of petrified impractical clothing fashioned from Nguni (native cattle) hide suspended in mid air. The relevance of the latter in the greater scheme of things was quite beyond us and the equally inexplicable video of the (female) artist clad in matador garb and fighting an imaginary bull in a deserted bull ring was the final straw that reduced us to fits of girly giggles. By the time we reached the exit and were gravely presented by the security guard with an expensive bound book of the artist's work AND been offered free posters of the artwork as well, we were almost hysterical with laughter (and exited as quickly as possible lest he offered us a piece of the artwork to take home as well ...)
Well, each to their own, as they say, and having previously waxed evangelically about an entire exhibition of folk art forged out of gingerbread in Tallinn, I suppose I shouldn't be criticising other people's original take on art. All I can say is that it's an absolute pleasure to be able to visit an art gallery in Jo'burg in the first place (especially when it's free), and as the exhibits are temporary, by the time you visit, the material on offer may be more to your taste than this one was to mine ...
From a tourist's point of view, this is conveniently located only two blocks south of the recently gentrified Main Street precinct with its rich mining heritage, including the BHP Billiton building and the Hollard Street mall, the Mapungubwe rhino, Anglo American buildings at 44 Main and 45 Main, the impala fountain and the mine headframe.
Whimsical memorial to Walter and Albertina Sisulu
As I have mentioned elsewhere, one of the most positive developments in the Johannesburg CBD over the last decade has been the proliferation of public art. It's symptomatic of the urban renewal that has taken place in recent years, and whilst I may have my beefs with service delivery on the part of the Johannesburg Municipality, I am full of praise for what they've done on this count.
This whimsical statue of Walter and Albertina Sisulu is an excellent case in point. Located in a little wedge-shaped piece of ground at the bustling end of Diagonal Street that was previously wasteland, this statue forms the centrepiece of a small park which also features some notice boards outlining the history of this area.
Although they don't receive as much publicity as the higher profile Mandelas, it is impossible to overstate the contribution that the Sisulus made to South Africa's liberation struggle.
Sisulu is a particularly interesting figure in the ANC leadership because unusually, he was Coloured rather than Black, being the illegitimate son of a (black) Xhosa woman and a white foreman. Not only were he and Mandela close friends - Mandela served as best man at the Sisulu's wedding - but he was also related to Mandela by marriage through Mandela's first wife.
Walter held several influential positions in the ANC (including party secretary, and later, deputy President) and played an important role in determining the military strategy of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe ('The Spear of the Nation'). He was one of the Rivonia treason trialists and - like Mandela - was sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.
Albertina Sisulu is an equally - if not possibly even more interesting - figure than her husband. She was universally known as 'Ma Sisulu' as a mark of respect for her kind and motherly nature and although Winnie Mandela was at pains to depict herself as the 'Mother of the Nation', in truth Ma Sisulu was much more deserving of the title.
Albertina was also of Xhosa stock, and was forced to leave her home village in the Eastern Cape at an early age in order to support her younger brothers and sisters. She trained as a nurse, and served as a midwife in the townships, where she met and married Walter. She was a political activist in her own right and holds the dubious distinction of being the first women imprisoned under the General Laws Amendment Act of 1963, which allowed the apartheid government to hold prisoners in detention without being charged. She was in and out of the Johannesburg Women's Prison on a regular basis in subsequent years, spending long periods in solitary confinement, and using her nursing skills to provide medical care to fellow inmates (including Winnie Mandela who was imprisoned and threatened to miscarry during her first pregnancy).
She served a term as an Member of Parliament in South Africa's first democratic government, and devoted herself in 'retirement' (which seems to have been a relative term in her case) to a range of community projects. As a mark of respect, the section of highway from Johannesburg to O.R. Tambo Airport was renamed in her honour, and she died in 2011, eight years after her husband.
Unlike the Mandelas, whose children and grandchildren have been dogged with controversy, the Sisulus founded a dynasty of political achievers. At the time of writing, their son Max Sisulu was speaker in the National Assembly, their daughters Lindiwe and Beryl were Minister of Defence and the African Ambassador to Norway respectively, their son Zwelakhe Sisulu was a successful businessman and Max's wife Elinor Sisulu was a celebrated human rights activist and author.
Above all, I love the naive charm of the statue, which depicts these two titans of the anti apartheid struggle as a devoted elderly couple who delighted in each other's company - all that seems to be missing is tea and biscuits!
Anderson Street: an abrupt end to the high rise
The CBDs of South Africa's cities were extensively remodelled during the 1960s and 70s, and the blight of hideous concrete structures is unfortunately an enduring legacy of that period.
As evidence, I offer 20 Anderson Street, a building with zero redeeming architectural features which has particular significance for me, as I worked on its 17th floor for my first two and a half years in Johannesburg. And yet when I visited this area for the first time in about a year, I noted encouraging signs of urban renewal, with the neighbouring buildings being progressively converted into upmarket inner city apartments, and a very snazzy cafe on the opposite corner.
Anderson Street is the southernmost street in the Johannesburg CBD that has highrise development: to the south, development is exclusively low rise, and the break between the two is dramatic and easily visible from both the M1 and M2 highways as you drive past the CBD. There is a very good reason for this: further south, the historical underground mine workings extend too close to surface to allow the construction of foundations capable of supporting tall buildings, and this is one of the very few planning restrictions that has been strictly enforced throughout Johannesburg's history. In fact, the workings come so close to surface beneath in the nearby Standard Bank building one block eastwards that it is possible to look directly into the old mine stopes from a section of the basement!
The unexpected mosque on Kerk Street
As the observant will have noticed, the title to this tip is a play on words, as 'kerk' in Afrikaans means 'church', so a mosque is obviously an unexpected addition!
This striking mosque is located towards the western margin of the Jo'burg CBD, and sits on the corner of Kerk and Sauer Streets. It has particular significance for me, as it is the first mosque that I ever recall seeing in one of Johannesburg's historically 'white' areas, and I find the contrast between the beautifully delicate Islamic architecture and the stark modernism of the adjacent mirrored glass building to be particularly pleasing.
In researching this tip, I was surprised to discover that this is in fact the third mosque to be located on this site, the first of which was built in 1906. This was replaced in 1918 by a larger structure, but by the late 1980s, the Muslim community had outgrown the mosque and decided to build a larger building on the same site. Interestingly, the municipality opposed the demolition of what was considered to be a historic building, and the Muslim community had to lobby for permission to undertake the demolition on the basis that, "In Islam the purpose of buildings are their need and not historic, monumental or aesthetic splendour."
Designing the mosque within the constraints of Jo'burg's rigid north-south and east-west grid system of streets posed a particular problem for the architects, as mosques are required to be oriented towards Mecca. This challenge was neatly solved by orienting the interior walls at 11 degrees east of north, which means that the thickness of the walls varies considerably. The sharp eyed will be able to identify this based on the varying width of the windowsills, which widen going north.
The muti shop on Diagonal Street
When I worked in the distinctive 'diamond building' at 11 Diagonal Street, I interacted with a lot of overseas visitors, most of whom were terrified at the prospect of being attacked on the mean streets of Big Bad Johannesburg. Nonetheless, even the most fearful could usually be persuaded to at least take a short stroll down Diagonal Street, historically the commercial centre of Johannesburg, and home to some of the best preserved (and most tastefully restored) historic buildings from the turn of the 20th century.
The shops on Diagonal Street are usually Indian run and sell a range of goods aimed at lower income earners - blankets and luridly coloured plastic bowls made in China seem to feature particularly prominently. The notable exception is this little shop on the eastern side of the street, which is a muti (traditional medicine) shop.
'Muti' is a catch all phrase which refers to traditional medicine from both plant and animal sources. The African population still place enormous faith in its efficacy, and many would use muti in addition to - and often in preference of - conventional Western medicine.
Venturing inside the store is like stepping into a different world. To start with, it's dimly lit, and it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust to the gloom. The smell is musty and unfamiliar - the combined aroma of mummified animal parts and indigenous plants. And although it's initially hard to distinguish what the brown wizened objects might be, once you start to look harder, you start to recognise dessicated bulbs, bark, paws, skins, internal organs and other assorted body parts of unfortunate animals which have been collected from all over Southern Africa and transported to Johannesburg for sale.
The muti on display is the cheaper stuff which is usually used to cure more common ailments. If you want the more expensive muti - such as vulture's heads, which are believed to help people win the lottery (because of the belief that vultures fly so high, they can see into the future) - you'll have to ask for it, which I've never been brave enough to do. There is also a sangoma (a traditional healer - often incorrectly known as a witch doctor) in residence should you wish to consult him in a professional capacity.
The centre of the muti trade in Johannesburg is the huge Faraday Market, which I have been trying for ages to visit with a former colleague of mine who did her PhD thesis on the impact of the muti trade on biodiversity. Sadly there is strong evidence to indicate that overexploitation by the muti trade is threatening the continued existence of various rare and endangered species of plants and animals.
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