Wanderlust: Historical Joburg
by Samantha van der Merwe
With the development of Newtown and Braamfontein in the west and Maboneng in the East, Johannesburg CBD has seen an incredible renaissance in the last decade. What many visitors to the city may miss as they bustle along the gentrified streets are the old buildings that still stand as sentinels to the City of Gold’s 134-year history.
Experience the old and new with a slow drive, red bus tour or a walk through these historical spots in Joburg:
Constitution Hill is arguably a non-negotiable for city visits. Not only is it the home of the South African Constitutional Court, but it was used as a fort and prison from 1893 to 1987. Initially built to protect Joburg from British invasion during the South African War (1899 – 1902), the fort was later expanded to become a prison. Over the years the prison became known for the inhumane treatment and torture of prisoners who fought against both colonial and Apartheid rule. A walking tour through the prison is an emotional experience as you read the accounts of inmates who survived their incarceration despite multiple accounts of physical and mental abuse. Historically significant inmates include Mahatma Gandhi, Winnie Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela.
The beauty of Constitution Hill is the way it connects and reconciles past and present through the construction of the Constitutional Court. The court was thoughtfully built using salvaged bricks from the old awaiting-trial block and incorporates symbols of transparency, fairness, equality and independence in its design. The court building is also home to the Constitutional Court Art Collection, a unique collection of over 600 predominantly South African artworks that focus on themes of social justice, human rights, South African history and reconciliation.
Finally, Constitution Hill also provides an incredible vantage point to see the surrounding city, watch the sunset and host events.
Take a modern sho’t left to: The Orbit, Neighbourgoods Market and surrounds.
Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG)
Built in 1915 and extended in 1940, JAG is the largest art gallery in Southern Africa and houses one of the greatest art collections on the continent. The building itself is an architectural artwork, a maze of 15 exhibition halls, high ceilings and barrel vaults, all designed to protect the artworks and visually connect the gallery to neighbouring Joubert Park.
The gallery’s collection features artworks from the 1400s to the present and includes artworks from artists such as Picasso, Rodin, Sekoto and Pierneef. The current primary curatorial focus is on contemporary African and South African artworks.
During the closure as a result of lockdown and to celebrate International Museum Week, the JAG team digitised parts of their collection but nothing beats a walk through the halls.
Rissik Street Post Office and Johannesburg City Hall Complex (The Gauteng Legislature)
Once the tallest building in the city, The Rissik Street Post Office has gone through a lot since it was built in 1897. After being deserted in 1996, the building was completely stripped and vandalised, including the removal of the bells and arms of the iconic coronation clock tower. The building then faced two fires in 2009 and 2010, leaving only the basic structure behind. Since 2016, the building has been under renovation to restore what is left of this historic landmark so it is once again fit for public use. Interest in the abandoned underground postal tunnels that link the Rissik Street Post Office, Jeppe Street Post Office and Park Station has increased in recent years.
The City Hall Complex is across the road from Rissik Street Post Office. Built in 1914 on what was the largest market square in South Africa and refurbished in 2011, the building has been the site of protest meetings, bomb blasts and significant decisions such as the referendum by former president F.W de Kerk to end Apartheid. The complex is now used and owned by The Gauteng Legislature.
Chancellor House: Mandela and Tambo Attorneys Office
Across the road from the Johannesburg Magistrate Court, you’ll find Chancellor House, where Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo ran the first black legal firm in South Africa from 1952 to 1960. After being arrested for high treason, Tambo left the country while Mandela faced a five-year trial. After being acquitted in 1960, the practice was forced to move to the home of Ahmed Kathrada. In 2010, the building was refurbished and turned into a museum dedicated to the work of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo.
Take a Modern sho’t left to: 1 Fox (The Sheds, Mad Giant Brewery, The Good Luck Bar and more)
The largest of three steam-powered stations built in Newtown in 1927. Turbine Hall was built to keep up with the demand for electricity as the city rapidly grew. Despite allegedly using a train of coal a day, the power station struggled to keep up with demand, resulting in regular power outages. Turbine Hall was replaced with a power station in Soweto in 1942 and closed in 1961. It was redeveloped in 2005 and used as the international office of AngloGold Ashanti since 2009. Parts of the building are regularly used for trendy events and private functions.
Take a modern sho’t left to: Sci-Bono Discovery Centre.
Originally the fresh produce market building, Museum Africa began in 1933 in the Johannesburg Public Library and was moved to the market building in 1994. The museum building is a huge four-floor, barrel-vault building that explores the history and culture of Johannesburg through geology, archaeology and photography. Entrance to the museum is free and worth the walk up and down the stairs and through corridors filled with historical trinkets.
Take a sho’t left to: The Station (Johannesburg’s original train station built in 1897, later relocated to its current location)
A short walk around the corner from Museum Africa you’ll find The Market Theatre, housed in the old Indian Fruit Market. An iconic site of anti-apartheid activism since opening in 1976, the theatre was an openly non-racial space during Apartheid and has won several awards for anti-Apartheid “struggle theatre” plays. Performances are still regularly done at the theatre.
Tip: Park at Newtown Junction Shopping Centre to get easy walking access around to The Market Theatre, Museum Africa, Kippie’s Venue and Mary Fitzgerald Square.
There are so many old and new gems to explore in the city, this list will hopefully be a starting point to finding or rediscovering a favourite place in the city of gold.
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