Johannesburg has a scary reputation. If you google it you’ll most likely first come across scary forums and murder statistics, stories of smash and grabs and home invasions. And it is true that we must have a healthy respect for the crime here and take some precautions that would seem absurd in a lot of other cities. But after living most recently in New York City and Berlin, Jozi is becoming my favorite home. The weather, the people, the history, the fact that it is so under-rated, the passion people have for their city, these are the reasons I love it. One such example of a Jozi-en’s passion is something called Main Street Walks. It was started by Gregory Solik, his goal being to bring people back into the heart of the city and show them that not only is it not scary, but a beautiful and interesting place. I signed us up for one of their events called Picnic in the Sky since I love a) a picnic and b) a good view.
You meet at Arts on Main, which was great since that is a normal Sunday activity for us and get your adorable picnic basket and one of the best cooler bags full of things like utensils and drinks, and bread. You walk around and buy some delicious items for your basket from the stalls, then meet everyone outside for your tour. The best part is when everybody in the group introduces themselves. Usually, I just HATE group introductions as people love to go on and on about themselves. What was great about this was that the majority of the group said something like “I’ve lived here for 40 years in XX suburb, and make it a point to avoid the city because it terrifies me.” So right there in the beginning you could see that this tour was a accomplishing its mission, which is to help people rediscover the inner city. It was also nice to have some diversity, not in the traditional sense of the word, but P and I don’t usually hang out with suburban families who stay out of the city.
You then get into a big van that takes you to the Carlton Centre which is touted as the tallest building in Africa. At the top, you can see Jozi in all its glory. You can see the city center, buildings that were once full of offices and apartments and now abandoned, and beyond the city, the urban sprawl of Jozi’s electric fenced-armed-guarded-high-security-walled neighborhoods. You learn that after apartheid many landlords abandoned their buildings during the soaring crime and now ownership is unknown or disputed, the buildings long since overtaken by squatters. You see the past glory (is glory the right word, since it is stained by apartheid?) of Johannesburg central business district, and since you are accompanied by lifelong Joburgers who are just returning to it now after many years, on a tour being led by confident young Jozien art students of all different colors you can also see the potential and maybe the future of this magnificent city.
The highlight of the experience for me was one of our tour guides, Bongani aka ‘Bones.’ Bones is a poet. He’s from Soweto and, according to him, he knows this city like the back of his hand. After we were done with our picnic we were treated to three poems. All of them were performed from memory, metered differently at different points, his voice rising and falling with the stories he was telling. My favorite was his last poem about the origin of electricity, according to him. If you go hopefully you’ll have the pleasure of Bones on your tour.
If you are interested, Main Street Walks does Picnic in the Sky and a few other CBD tours which all start at Arts on Main. The Picnic is currently really popular so sign up early since there is a waiting list (or was when I signed up). They are getting an online booking system in January so that the email sign up won’t be so hectic. They also have plans to expand into tours of other parts of the city, like the townships. I especially recommend this tour to new Joburgers, or life long Joburgers who have until now kept away from the city center. It is a good thing to take your parents or other visitors, or maybe just a friend that is usually jittery in the CBD.