This seems to be my year for inadvertently discovering Gandhi's footprint on South African history, as it's the third time in as many months that I've stumbled across him on my travels - first in Pietermaritzburg, then in Durban and now in Johannesburg.
It comes as a surprise to many visitors that South Africa has any link to Gandhi at all, as the first two decades of his working life which he spent here as an immigrant lawyer are largely overshadowed by the more high profile legacy of his latter years in India. Yet South Africa was the setting for his first act of civil disobedience (when he refused to relocate from a first class train carriage when a fellow passenger objected to sharing with a 'coolie'), which ultimately evolved into his revolutionary principle of 'Satyagraha', which is celebrated in an interesting but sadly dogeared exhibit at the top of the Carlton Centre.
This unusual and rather excellent statue is a relatively recent addition to the CBD landscape and was erected in 2003 following the revamp and renaming of the Gandhi Square bus terminus in his honour.
Ghandhi practiced law from offices on the nearby corner of Anderson and Rissik Streets for seven years between 1903 and 1910, and defended Indian and Chinese clients who were accused of non-violent resistance to racially discriminatory legislation. Gandhi himself was tried and found guilty for such offences in 1908, leading to the first of several spells in prison. It is not hard to imagine him dashing from his offices to the law courts that were originally located on this square (then known as Government Square), his lawyer's robes billowing around him.
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.
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!
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.
The Mystery Ghost Bus is a fabulous, fun event, especially for large crowds of people. I have attended the Johannesburg one three times now. Conducted by a registered tour guide, Deanna Kirby, the crowd is sussed out and the tour tailored to suit the majority, giving it as much “whooooooooo” as the crowd allows.
The first time I attended there was lively discussion at the pub, Pound and Penny at the Sunnyside Hotel even before the tour started and the atmosphere was truly good. Ms Kirby gave plenty of information about Johannesburg generally as we drove past various places. The second time the crowd were just a bunch of drunk employees getting increasingly drunker at the expense of their boss. Not nearly as much fun. I felt sorry for the guide and for the four or six sober people on the tour. Well, at least the drunk people did not have to drive. The tour bus is luxurious. The girl I did the tour with the second time is English and she had previously done a London Ghost Bus Tour and despite my disappointment after the first time she thought the Joburg Ghost Bus Tour was infinitely better than the London one. She did point out that London has better quality ghosts, though. The third time I did the tour it was back to the pleasant atmosphere of the first time, but with a less lively crowd, so there was somewhat less interaction with Ms Kirby than the first time, but more than the second time. Once again we really enjoyed ourselves.
After an introductory talk we head to the bus. There we listen to a recording of some spine-tingling South African Ghost tales read to us by Jamie Barlett, award winning actor. One of these stories is about South Africa's most famous ghost, the Uniondale Hitchhiker. Between the stories we are taken past various interesting places where paranormal activity has been recorded. The hair on my arms rises at Jeppe Boys where I know there is a ghost (in one of the hostels), the Kensington Sanitorium, some of the houses along Roberts Avenue, but my body hair is remarkably unperturbed by the Kensington Castle (built in 1911) which is also reputed to be haunted. Maybe it is because we don't go in - but we didn't go in to any of the other places.
There are four points at which we get off the bus. The first is at Mike's Kitchen in Parktown. The official name of this building is “Eikelaan”. Here we get drinks and talk about the different types of presences. Our guide assures us that the ghost here is benign. I know the venue well because our Toastmasters Club used to meet there. I never liked to venture upstairs alone. As one goes up and down the stairs there is a point at which there is a chill which cannot be explained by the architecture of the building.
We pass by the War Memorial, the Old Women's Goal and Johannesburg Fort, hearing stories of Daisy De Melcker, South Africa's famous female serial poisoner, en route. We pass by the old Johannesburg General Hospital, the new Johannesburg Hospital, the City Morgue and Arcadia.
The second point at which we get off the bus is at Zoo Lake where we do dowsing. We learn to use dowsing sticks as lie detectors. They are remarkably accurate. Yes, this is inexplicable, but valid nevertheless. The stop is at Moyo's at Zoo Lake and it is not intended as a drinks stop. The drunks didn't mind that and drank while we dowsed.
The third point at which we get off the bus is at the Troyeville Hotel. This is a no-frills, very reasonably priced place to get superb Portuguese cuisine. It is pre-ordered so that it is ready for us when we get there. Locals can always go back and enjoy a greater variety of this food at another time.
Our fourth and final disembarking takes place at the Braamfontein Cemetery where we get to do a little cross country walk down to the various points at which get told interesting snippets of history.
One of them relates to the Asiatic Law Amendment Ordinance of 1906 which said that Indians and Chinese were to register their presence and carry passes. Protestors got together and were addressed by Gandhi on the theme “violence begets violence', which was the speech that gave birth to passive resistance. One young Chinese man, Chow Kwai For, went and registered under the new law, unaware of the protest. When he realised what he had done he felt honour-bound to commit suicide. He was only 24 years old. We visit at his grave where his letter of apology is engraved, in Mandarin on the headstone.
We hear about the grave of Enoch Sontonga but don't go past it. We end with another activity before walking back to the bus where we return to the starting point.
This is a fun-filled evening and is largely what the party, not the guide, makes of it. If everyone enters into the, pardon the pun, “spirit” of things, then it will be a marvellous success. If one has crass and drunken local tourists then, unfortunately, the event will be somewhat less inspiring.
It is NOT suitable for children and only those over 18 should attend. At R295.00 per person plus drinks, plus meal it is not a cheap evening, but it is a worthwhile one and it makes a fabulous team-building or year-end social activity. If one dresses up for the event, so much the better. Wear sensible shoes though.
Visit the website www.mysteryghostbus.co.za or book on Computicket 0861 915 8000. Private group tours will be arranged for groups larger than 30. Public tours are on the last weekend of the month in Cape Town, Pretoria and Johannesburg. Rain just adds to the chilling atmosphere of the event. Meet at 19:00, have drinks, depart at 20:00 return shortly after midnight.
The ubiquitous African power symbol, the AK-47, is one of the subjects in this art exhibition.
Michael MacGarry is the Standard Bank Young Artist (Visual Art) for 2011. He is known to me because of his work with the Avant Car Guard, a Johannesburg-based, three-member visual art collective, exhibiting and authoring as a singular artist. They are Zander Blom, Jan-Henri Booyens and Michael MacGarry, all individual artists in their own right.
“End Game” is a solo exhibition currently being exhibited at the Standard Bank Galler from 26 October to 3 December 2011.
Michael MacGarry says: 'My work investigates the ongoing ramifications of imperialism on the African continent, coupled with the analysis and parody of the socio-political and economic role of political elites within this context as well as the increasingly complicated dynamics attendant on the extraction of natural resources – particularly oil – in African nation-states post-independence.' Hmm. In simpler words, a look at African leaders and the use/abuse of power, position and resources that almost inevitably follows their election or self appointment to the position.
The exhibition features short films, sculptures and an installation. I realise that it is not the function of an artist to necessarily produce work which I, specifically, like, but I found the films mostly incomprehensible and/or meaningless to me in the format in which they were displayed. The static stuff was much more accessible to me.
One of the works is a depiction of an AK-47 titled “Fetish” . The catalogue provides a comprehensive discussion of this work. “The AK47 stands for Avtomat Kalashnikova model 1947, designed by Mikhail Kalashnikov while wounded in hospital during World War II. Capable of firing up to 600 rounds a minute, this incredibly reliable weapon has been produced in greater numbers than any other 20th Century assault rifle, with an estimated 70-100 million units currently being used around the world. The average cost of an AK-47 in many African countries is around $30, and it is in this context that it has had its most insidious and destructive presence. It is difficult not to find rural peoples of central, northern and southern African regions not in possession of AK-47 rifles. As a fetish object, form of currency, power symbol and instrument of both aggression and self-determination, the AK-47 has become synonymous with the African continent. Without mechanised infantry, tank support or air power, the problem with regional conflicts, civil wars and criminal activities rife throughout Africa, is that these wars, skirmishes and killings continue for decades without resolve. This is the end-user scenario of the small arms trade, an industry that annually sells 8 million guns, adding to the estimated 650 million light arms already in global circulation. It is estimated that 60 per cent of small arms in the world are currently in civilian hands. Behind this deluge of munitions are the world's richest nations. From manufacturers, the guns are sold to governments and exporters, and on to warlords and rebel armies – ultimately reaching the rural poor, who own these weapons simply because everyone else does. “
“Nkondi or Nkonde nail fetish, primarily from the Congo, are protective figurative sculptures used by individuals, families, or whole communities to destroy or weaken evil spirits, prevent or cure illnesses, repel bad deeds, solemnize contracts or oath-taking, and decide arguments. A diviner or holy person would activate the statue, using magical substances. Fetishes gained power and were effective, principally because people believed in them. With the process of activating these objects being provoked by having gunpowder exploded in front of them, and by hammering nails into them. They were also used to literally “hammer out” agreements, with clear implications as to what would happen to people who broke said agreements. The practice is said to have been introduced indirectly by the Portuguese as early as the end of the fifteenth century, through the diffusion of crucifixes in area of what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo. The theme of lower Congo fetishes has been studied by all Congolese art specialists, whereby a figurine was ordered from a particular sculptor, who left its completion to the fetish priest, or Nganga; the latter made the carving active by placing magical materials in one or more receptacles made by the sculptor. Sometimes the Nganga ignored the carver's provisions for these materials and thus altered the morphology of the object. In the case of a Nkonde fetish, a further alteration is effected by the introduction of nails and blades. The sculpture is thus an assemblage of different materials, put together by different people. “
“The inherent binary logic of marrying the devastating legacy of the AK-47 to the spiritual, social and ideological role of the traditional Nkonde fetish object intends to comment on the degree to which violence, corruption and civil destruction are now an intrinsically institutional pandemic on the African continent, to the extent that this has diseased even its spiritual character.”
This was very thought provoking … and not just a little frightening.
The catalogue to “End Game” is published by “All theory, no practice”.
“End Game” by Michael MacGarry will be exhibited at The Standard Bank Gallery, Simmonds Street, Johannesburg until 3 December 2011 . Telephone 011 631 4467. There is safe underground parking by arrangement.
GRAT BARGAINS TO BE HAD AT THE NEW CAR BOOT SALE HELD EVERY SATURDAY FROM 9AM AT PARADISE NURSERIES IN CEDAR ROAD. WE FOUND A VAST ARRAY OF ITEMS FOR SALE ALL PRICED VERY REASONABLY. THE MARKET CLOSES AT 1PM SO YOU HAVE TO ARRIVE EARLY TO FIND BARGAIN AMONGST ALL THE COLLECTIBLES AND ANTIQUES FOR SALE.
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.
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.
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.
www.kulula.co.za is a local airline with many cheap flights. At their website you can find many things to do around the major urban centres, the direct link currently is https://www.kulula.co.za/(S(52l51g55fm1dae45oxza1w45))/Default.aspx but if the page gets moved just visit www.kulula.com click the Kicks link then choose your destination city. As a Joburger I really didn't realise there was actually so much going on around here. You can book online for any of the activities.
Also look here for some must see shops and things to do: http://www.joburg.org.za/december/shops.stm
The Johannesburg skyline is dominated by not one, but two communications towers: the iconic Hillbrow Tower and the Brixton Tower, which evokes much less interest and precious little affection.
The Brixton Tower is located in an inner western suburb close to the headquarters of the South African Broadcasting Company. Sometimes known as the Sentech Tower, it's an unlovely structure with no obvious redeeming features that i can identify. It was opened in 1961 (at which point it was known as the Albert Herzog tower) and, at 237m high, was at that time the highest building in Africa, until it was overtaken by the Hillbrow Tower in 1971
It does have a viewing platform at the top, which might have redeemed it in terms of touristic value, but this has been shut since 1982, when the fear of this communication facility being bombed by anti-apartheid insurgents was deemed too great.
Without wishing to be too harsh, its major value to tourists is probably as a navigational check to orient yourself when you're in the CBD: the Brixton Tower it to the west, whereas the Hillbrow Tower is to the east.