Johannesburg, like all great cities, is a multifarious mix of history, intrigue, disruption, metamorphosis, and rebirth. And the deeper you delve, the more fascinating Jozi becomes. In collaborating with the amazing Gautrain on our City chapter in Issue #1 of JAN the Journal, I had the opportunity to see a part of Joburg I had never experienced before.
I found the city’s beating heart in Fordsburg, where I walked in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps – wondering what it must have been like to forge a career in this place against all odds – and immersed myself in the area’s exotic yet undeniably South African culinary scene. And what a discovery it was!
In the early 1950s, some seriously resilient Indian merchants negotiated a way to keep their businesses in Fordsburg, which was prime property at the time due to its central location. To this day, the Oriental Plaza in Johannesburg is a symbol South Africa’s cultural diversity and rich history.
A TASTE OF FREEDOM
In 1952, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo – two of the country’s best-known freedom fighters from the era – were only in their thirties when they opened South Africa’s first black-owned and operated law firm, Mandela and Tambo Attorneys, on the corner of Fox and Becker Street (now Gerard Sekoto). Their niche was to offer free or low-cost legal advice to those who needed it in a time when many were fighting oppression and injustice.
They were often seen at the Delhi Palace sampling a staggering array of Indian food. The Oriental Plaza has remained one of the most authentic experiences of Indian cuisine in Johannesburg, with many homesick immigrants from the subcontinent finding refuge in its fragrant streets and vibrant markets.
HEART AND SOUL
To most Joburgers, talking about the traffic is a necessary pastime, much like the weather is to the English. Even driving on the N1 in the small hours of the morning, though much less congested, is rarely without incident.
But what I found most surprising was that you could make the journey from OR Tambo International Airport to Fordsburg on the Gautrain network in just under an hour. With the introduction of a world-class public transport system, it suddenly became possible to zip seamlessly between worlds, while at the same time really connecting with the sights, the sounds, smells and soul of it all at every step. I couldn’t help thinking that, just a decade ago, there was nothing. No trains, no interconnecting buses, but now the Gautrain – like a network of arteries – has become so vital to the city’s existence that it’s hard to imagine that Jozi ever existed without it.
AN EPICUREAN JAUNT
Walking the streets of Fordsburg, I felt such a strong surge of pride in being able to call myself South African. There I was – camera in hand – a boerseun who grew up on mealiepap and the flavours of my dear mother and grandmothers, perusing a market that felt so exotic but that was also an inseparable part of my culture. I realised in that moment that, despite how separate we once lived as a nation, we were much more bound to each other through the food we ate than we realised.
The smells and tastes around me reconnected me with fragments of my past. The discoloured mealies roasting above coal-fuelled flames took me back to Sunday braais, the misshapen vegetables reminded me of simpler times before everything had to look so perfect to be deemed suitable for human consumption, and everywhere I turned the air was fumed with an abundance of spices. I was in culinary heaven!
I suddenly understood the importance of this place. Fordsburg has endured great change over the course of its history, for which it has become a symbol of freedom – not only because of Madiba’s seminal work in the time that he and Tambo had their law practice here – but because it allows you to be exactly who you are. To me, there are few things in this world that bring people together quite like food.
But paying such a well-overdue visit to Joburg’s inner city reveals other gems that many South Africans – even Joburgers – are completely unaware of. One such gem is Black Forest Bakery in Braamfontein, a business that has been in German hands for over eighty years. The smell of freshly-baked bread permeates the air surrounding the building – it’s simply amazing! Like me, they also look to their heritage for inspiration. And when in doubt, they keep it simple and go back to basics.
The business started as a German-owned coffee shop in the 1930s and was only sold forty years later to another German family, who turned it into a cake and confectionery café. Soon, they introduced German-style rye bread, which they baked and displayed on site. Black Forest Bakery became such a success that it survived the mass migration of businesses from the CBD to the suburbs in the 1980s. They even diversified their offering while remaining quintessentially German. Today, Maike and Chris – the current owners – still bake everything from scratch and by hand.
My meander through the City of Gold also took me on a detour to Linden, where I discovered a butchery the likes of which I hadn’t seen since I was a child growing up on our farm in rural Mpumalanga. Rembrandt Butchery prides itself on stocking only one grade of meat – THE BEST. And as a critical carnivore, I have to say, I was not disappointed! They specialise in biltong, dry wors, spare ribs, sosaties, whole meats ideal for a spit braai, and even cheese and rusks.
I didn’t grow up in the city, so I was always very aware of the effect it had on me every time I saw the Jozi skyline approaching. There’s something electric in the air that I find really inspiring, like a surge of energy brought on by all these people creating a life by building something together. Around every corner, there’s something that plants the seed for a new idea – a recipe, a beautiful photograph, a story.
Madiba endured many hardships in his life, but he never lost his spirit. Exploring these streets that he once called his own, I was reminded of the magic of the everyday – those simple moments that captivate and change us when we least expect it – and that inspire decisions that change the course of history forever.
The best way to visit Fordsburg and to sample the delicious street food is on foot. Take the Gautrain to Park Station. Hop on the Gautrain bus headed for the CBD and get off at the Standard Bank Art Gallery. From there, it’s about a 25-minute walk or a short Uber ride to the Oriental Plaza. Plan your route online with Gautrain.
In the City chapter of Issue #1 of the Journal – thanks to Gautrain – we explored an array of butcheries, bakeries and groweries in and around the City of Gold. Get your copy of JAN the Journal online at www.janthejournal.com or at select Woolworths stores.