My Seven Day Inner City Creativity & Care Walk: I’ve accepted my own invitation to highlight inner city entrepreneurs and organisations who in true Jozi style push the boundaries and care for others by keeping people employed and feeding hungry families during the COVID-19 pandemic. One worthwhile Joburg initiative per day for seven days, with each day some background on why this cause is close to my heart. I invite everyone to read, donate, share or contribute in any way that works for you.
- Day 1: Colourful face masks
- Day 2: The once exclusive Rand Club cares for the homeless
- Day 3: Streetlight Schools continue to shine their light
- Day 4: Joburg Places – passionate guide to the city’s past, present & future
- Day 5: Books & The City: Johannesburg Literary District
- Day 6: Dlala Nje: Tower of hope & opportunity
- Day 7: From Jozi to the world
Whenever I felt overwhelmed or stuck these past seven years, I would go for a walk in the inner city to gain some perspective on my situation. I would always discover examples of creativity, resilience and care in the midst of all the contradictions that are such an integral part of this fascinating city of migrants. Over time these walks have inspired the founding of my company Flying Cows of Jozi in 2017.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt more overwhelmed or powerless than I have these past weeks, confined to the relative comfort of my flat while the consequences of the lockdown are becoming more contradictory and concerning everyday. Although we seem successful in flattening the curve, millions of people in South Africa have lost their income and with that the ability to feed and care for their dependants. The fact that schools are closed doesn’t only have dire implications for the ongoing education of many, many learners but over 8 million out of the close to 12,5 million learners in our country no longer get the daily meals that the government provides to schools, putting an additional strain on their families.
The enormity of these mounting problems not far from my own doorstep paralysed me, I did not know what to do or where to begin to contribute to easing the need of so many people. Until I decided to take another walk in town, online this time, past the businesses and organisations that I’ve come to know over the years. Seeing what they are doing here and now, dealing with the need that’s right in front of them, filled me with hope and sparked ideas for action.
Sharing these initiatives with you is a first step and I’m sure the more I walk the more I’ll get inspired to contribute in my very own way.
Day 1: Colourful face masks
I kick of this 7 day series by calling on everyone to buy as many colourful face masks as you can: different ones for different days of the week or to match your different outfits and then buy some more to hand out to those who can’t afford their own. By wearing them we don’t only show we care for each other’s safety and the income of people making these masks but we also give some colour to these extraordinary and challenging days.
Johannesburg In Your Pocket City Guide has created a very useful overview of where in Johannesburg the most beautifully designed face masks can be bought and how you could make your own.
Day 2: The Rand Club cares for the homeless
One of the regular stops on my walks is the Rand Club in Loveday Street, one of the oldest institutions in the city. It was founded as a gentlemen’s club by Cecil John Rhodes and Dr Hans Sauer just one year after Johannesburg was established in 1886 following the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand. Its large sandcastle-coloured building, stretching across the block between Commissioner and Fox Street, for a long time felt like a bastion of exclusion to me. It took the Club until the early 1990s to open its membership to all races, genders and creeds. I also often had to beg for entry to show off its impressive interior, including the grand staircase and stained glass dome, to the people walking with me.
For a few years fresh winds have been blowing in the Rand Club and its doors are wide open, inviting everyone to come in and have lunch or drinks in what is reputedly the longest bar in Africa. And although you can still catch the occasional whiff of mould, renovations have given the Club a fresh look and some of its more offensive statues, like the one of Cecil Rhodes raising his arm in a questionable gesture, no longer occupy their once prominent position. A number of city entrepreneurs have been invited to run their business from the Rand Club premises including Micro Adventure Tours, James Findlay Collectable Books and Antique Maps that now operates from a beautiful space in the basement and Bridge Books which is situated on the outside of the building on Commissioner Street.
Just before lockdown the Rand Club had appointed a team of eight young people responsible for hospitality in the bar and other Club venues. With the Club closed for lockdown, a Staff Fund has been established so that the Club is able to keep paying their salaries. With no members or guests to look after, the team now comes in to prepare food parcels for over 3 000 inner city families and daily serve hot meals to some 50 homeless people who stay in the streets around the Club. Please support this wonderful Rand Club outreach project caring for people in the inner city by donating to their Staff Fund mentioning ‘Food Programme’. Please click on the link to find out how: https://gogetfunding.com/rand-club-staff-fund/.
Day 3: Streetlight Schools continue to shine their light
My immense love of reading brought me to the beautiful Johannesburg City Library on Beyers Naudé Square quite soon after I moved to town in 2013. The children’s section of the Library is housed in a wonderful light and playful space on the ground floor of the building and is managed by a team of passionate librarians. Over the years I’ve joined them occasionally for the story telling sessions they organised either in the library or at one of the inner city schools they reach out to. Outside schools hours they also provide a safe space for children to do their homework and extra reading lessons over the school holidays. I fondly remember sitting with a group of naughty young boys who were not at all interested in the spelling test I tried to take with them but who were masters at recounting the stories from the books around us. Through the team at the Library I became much more aware of the many South African and immigrant children staying in the inner city and of the different schools that attend to their educational needs.
The South African education system is made up of over 23,000 public schools and close to 2,000 private schools. Visiting schools in town I realised that the private school sector doesn’t only consist of expensive academies in affluent areas but also of much more affordable schools that have been established out of a dire need, because access to public schools is not easy for everyone, or out of a conviction that a different, more innovative education model than the one offered by the public sector is needed.
I’m excited that some of the most innovative schools are based in the inner city. SPARK Schools for example, where learning is personalised for each individual learner, operates a school in Maboneng to the east of the city. Curro Schools also recently opened a DigiEd school in Jewel City, the new development close to Maboneng. Their high school e-learning model has a focus on 21st-century skills and offers a project-based learning programme that emphasises Science, Mathematics, and Technology.
I’d like to shine a special light on the Streetlight Schools in Jeppe Park, a primary school that has developed an innovative model of education that has allowed their learners to achieve international standards on Numeracy and Literacy and prioritises the development of happy, healthy, confident young people. With schools closed and many of the families in their community without an income Streetlight Schools has started a donation drive to provide food parcels to these families and also offer them data to continue learning and contacting their teachers on WhatsApp. Please follow this link to learn more about this wonderful school and make a donation so they can keep being the caring centre of their community: http://www.streetlightschools.org/donate.
Day 4: Joburg Places – passionate guide to the city’s past, present & future
No walk past passionate Joburg entrepreneurs is complete without a stop at Gerald Garner of Joburg Places who keeps finding new ways to share his love for and impressive knowledge of Johannesburg.
Gerald has been instrumental in opening the doors to the inner city for me; joining him on his walking tours sparked my desire to live in town. When I moved here in 2013 and discovered the joy of wandering the city streets on my own, Gerald’s book Spaces & Places 2.0 – Joburg Places was my bible. It provided me with a great overview of the urban landmarks with photos and easy maps, helping me to plot my route and get back on track when I got lost.
Over the years Gerald has been an outspoken driving force behind a number of inner city developments, transforming old industrial sites into exciting places for people to hang out in town, enjoying food, drink and music. From opening The Sheds at 1 Fox in 2013 to Hangout Jozi in the former parking garage at 1 Eloff Street a couple of years later, he now operates The Thunderwalker from Somerset House, a former bank building, on Gandhi Square. From this home base he and associate Charlie Moyo offer tourists and locals diverse opportunities to discover Jozi’s vibrant heart. I’ve spent many pleasant hours in their intimate Zwipi Underground bar in the basement, enjoying a romantic dinner for two in one of the bank vaults, a beautifully catered birthday party or just a quick drink and my favourite baked camembert from chef Bulelwa Mbonambi at the bar. Charlie and Gerald host the Migrant Storytelling dinners in this space offering their guests an exciting meal inspired by Jozi migrant cuisine and sharing stories of the various waves of migrants that came to this fascinating city that was rebuilt six times in just 130 years!
Right from the start of the lockdown Gerald showed his enormous entrepreneurial drive and creativity to come up with new ways to generate revenue to keep his staff employed and pay his suppliers. People can buy vouchers for future tours and dinners and book special events. He and Charlie also host Virtual Storytelling Dinners where guests from all over the world can book a seat at their Zoom table to let themselves be transported back in time and get a taste of what the city might look like in the future.
Even more exciting is that Gerald has decided to use this time to write the long awaited sequel to his Joburg – Places book. In ‘Johannesburg 2020 and Ahead’ Gerald writes about Johannesburg post-COVID-19, envisioning a people-centred city that is more fun to live in.
Please support one of Joburg’s biggest ambassadors and book your spot at a Virtual Storytelling Dinner, pre-order a copy of his book or simply make a donation! You can read more on the options available on the Joburg Places website or contact Gerald directly at email@example.com or 082 894 5216.
Day 5: Books & The City: Johannesburg Literary District
One of the many contradictions I experience living in inner city Joburg is that I feel much more part of a community than I ever did living in the suburbs. Instead of the anonymity you might expect in such a big city, with the many familiar faces and friendly chats I encounter on my walks it often feels more like living in a village. I’m also fascinated how my Jozi community connects to the wider community out there: When I wrote the story that Hemant Vallabh, the current owner of Gelvan’s Pharmacy, shared about the inspirational founder of his business, we never could have expected that just a few weeks later Mr Vallabh would be in a heart-warming Zoom call with Mr Gelvan’s children, grandchildren and great grandchildren who live in Canada!
Joining the Johannesburg Literary District connected me to a community of people who share my love for the city and for books. Despite the worrying statistics around literacy and reading in our country, once again the inner city shows to be contradictory by offering a huge, vibrant market for religious, self-help and business books and romance novels. In the relatively small but busy area between the Joburg City Library and Park Station you can find about 1 million books and over 70 booksellers.
The Joburg Literary District is the brainchild of Griffin Shea, inner city entrepreneur and book lover, who runs the Bridge Books stores in Commissioner Street and Maboneng. He is on a mission to make the downtown book market accessible and attractive to many more people and offers the hugely popular Underground Booksellers Tour. For the Literary District he has brought together people and organisations that share his interest in celebrating the city’s literary wealth in a clean, safe and walkable neighbourhood. Plans to achieve this include the programming of weekly storytelling and other literary events in public spaces like the Ernst Oppenheimer Park and the creation of a network of Street Libraries. These libraries will not just house free books, but also provide maps and street signs to guide people to the booksellers and the Johannesburg City Library.
The Johannesburg Development Agency has already come on board to fund the physical infrastructure of Street Libraries and signage. Some of the local businesses and residents have committed to a monthly contribution to hire the cleaners that will supplement the work of the municipal workers in the neighbourhood. This team will also be the Literary District’s eyes and ears in the streets to make the community aware of uncovered manholes and other tricky situations.
Due to the pandemic and lockdown it is not clear when the literary events or the installation of the street libraries can begin but the cleaners have already started their work and the District looks all the better for it! The community now looks to crowdfund to make the exciting literary events happen and for the immediate term to keep the cleaners employed so they can continue their valuable work while being able to care for their families in these very tough times. Do you share our love for the city, for books or both? Please join our community and donate via this page: https://thundafund.com/project/abt.
Day 6: Dlala Nje: Tower of hope & opportunity
I often call Jozi my City of Wander, City of Wonder, because the more I wander its streets the more I wonder about life’s contradictions many of which I see reflected and condensed on just a few square kilometres – the city where you can drink your rooftop champagne with a view of overcrowded migrant hostels. Over time I’ve come to realise that it probably has a lot to do with the fact that the origin of the city is a contradiction in itself. William Kentridge described it best for me in his Vertical Thinking: A Johannesburg Biography, in which he explains that most large cities in the world have a geographic logic, being on a river at the coast or on a trade route close to a mountain pass, but Johannesburg has an entirely geological justification: the thin seam of gold that runs a couple of kilometres underground.
From 1886 the discovery of gold brought many hopefuls to Johannesburg: the ones with the financial means to exploit the mines as well the ones who were needed to do the actual hard work of excavating. That this contributed to our unequal society with a horrible history when it comes to respecting human rights becomes painfully clear when on the same short walk around Ferreirasdorp, where the gold was first found, you can trace the activist footsteps of both Gandhi and Mandela and will have to crane your neck to take in the opulence of the Anglo American building on Main Street.
The closest I have been to experiencing what it feels like being underground in a mine is when in 2014 artist and theatre designer Thando Lobese invited me to her installation “What It Is”. I had to crawl through dark tunnels under painted fabrics and threads which made me feel first claustrophobic and then sad when in the few spaces where I felt I could breathe I was confronted by some personal mementos that miners would have brought to remind them of their families and lives they’d left behind hundreds of metres overhead. I heard the clucking of chickens and saw a pair of neatly polished shoes.
The highest I’ve been in the city is in an apartment on the 51st floor of Ponte Tower where I felt dizzy looking down its hollow interior into the court yard but which looking outside offered the most amazing views of wider Johannesburg. At 173m Ponte Tower is one of the highest buildings in Johannesburg. This cylindrical building was completed in 1976 and like the city itself has gone through phases of progress and decline, starting out as a much sought after luxurious apartment building to a hotbed of gangsterism and crime in the early 1990s to the well-run residential building it is today.
Ponte towers high in a city that till this day attracts migrants from all over the country and the continent, each with their own dreams of finding wealth and good fortune. I sometimes imagine those dreams as beautiful African Nguni cows flying between the city’s high-rises during the night. Being a migrant myself, I recognise traits of the migrant condition in Jozi’s vertical contradiction; you sometimes have to dig very deep to excavate your own resources that allow you to rise up and make the most of the challenging circumstances you find yourself in.
Ponte Tower is the home base of DlalaNje, Just Play in isiZulu, an organisation that challenges perceptions and creates opportunities by offering locals and tourists excursions and events in the building and its surrounding Yeoville and Berea neighbourhoods. From the proceeds Dlala Nje has established two community centres to offer a safe space for the children and youth from the area and has provided employment for their 23 team members including tour guides, creatives and community developers. Over its 8 years of existence the organisation has supported many small businesses and individuals in the community.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic Dlala Nje has had to suspend all their revenue generating activities and now asks for your contributions to keep paying salaries that support the families of their employees. Please visit the Dlala Nje crowdfunding page to read more about the great work they do and help the organisation to survive the current crisis and continue creating opportunities going forward: https://www.backabuddy.co.za/charity/profile/dlala-nje
Day 7: From Jozi to the world
I’ve been dragging my feet on this last day of my 7 Day Inner City Creativity & Care Walk. I felt stuck. First I thought it was the same paralysis that I felt before I started the Walk but actually I didn’t want the experience to end.
I’ve so enjoyed the past week, waking up in the morning with a sense of purpose deciding which cause I wanted to highlight that day, checking facts and delving into my memory, my photo collection and journals to figure out how these causes link to my personal Jozi experience. From the outline that I drafted in my mind I would then sit down and start writing. Some days the words would flow and other days I had to work a bit harder but I was always fully engaged so the time just flew by.
But this morning I began to doubt the criteria I set for myself. Why did I choose entrepreneurs, and why not artists or frontline workers, why only the ones with an online presence, what about the multitude of small shops that can only be found in the streets, why just the inner city and not all of Johannesburg?
Reflecting on these questions and the past week I remembered my personal motto for Jozi: Being present in this city of extremes and its humanity in between grows my heart and my horizon.
Witnessing the creativity and care that I’ve highlighted this week has definitely opened my heart. Once again I realised how much Johannesburg condenses and reflects the contradictions we find in the country and the world today, but in the same vein it is also a microcosm of the humanity and compassion we find worldwide.
So on this last day I would like to zoom out and widen my horizon:
Beyond the inner city to wider Johannesburg please visit Johannesburg in Your Pocket City Guide which I find the most comprehensive guide to Johannesburg for locals and tourists alike and which in these Corona times offers up-to-date Joburg lockdown information, entertaining posts on how to cook or what to read while at home and a wide selection of organisations you can support by buying vouchers for their services.
Beyond Johannesburg to the rest of the country please support Gift of the Givers to do their national and international relief work. I still remember the efficiency and kindness with which they handed homeless people hot meals and blankets from The Star building next door on a cold winter’s night a few years ago.
Beyond this country to the rest of the world please visit the KarunaVirus website. Karuna is the Sanskrit word for compassion and on this volunteer-run website you’ll find inspirational stories of courageous kindness all over the world. I was particularly impressed by the story about Irish people setting up a GoFundMe campaign for the Navajo Nation and Hopi reservation to return the kindness shown to them by Native Americans from the Choctaw nation some 170 years earlier during the Great Potato Famine.
Thank you so much for being on this journey with me and as the huge advertisement on the Randlords building in Braamfontein reminds me every morning: Keep Walking!
Josine Overdevest 11-17 May 2020