Discovering Secret Johannesburg

By Stef Terblanche


All great cities around the world have an everyday, general face known to their regular local inhabitants; another face that highlights its best attractions for tourists and other visitors; and a somewhat secret, less-known face known only to those who deliberately set out to discover it. Johannesburg is no exception.

It’s a city that goes by many names – Johannesburg, Jo’burg, Jozi, Egoli, Goudstad, Joeys or City of Gold. All are terms of endearment. Founded in 1886, the city that gold built is a youthful city at the age of only 134 years compared to other great world cities. Yet, when delving below the surface and the obvious, Johannesburg has all the hallmarks of much older cities, exposing itself as a city of many characters, faces, facades, hidden chambers, contrasts, influences and flavours.


It’s hard to imagine that where this great sprawling city stands today, a mere 134 years ago there was nothing but grass, bush and rocky ridges. In its short life the city has sprung up from the open African veld after gold was discovered to become the metropolis of today. At first no more than a shanties-and-tents mining camp, its CBD soon started taking shape.


Impressive European or American-style buildings, shops, hotels, brothels and bars, and government offices, sprung up everywhere. Fashionably dressed ladies and gentlemen contrasted with shabbily dressed workers on the wide streets and avenues, and everywhere trams, horse-drawn carts, the first motorcars and an assortment of other traffic rushed around.


In the early days, the Randlords – as the mining moguls were known – displayed their wealth with the mansions of the new neighbourhoods on the north side, centred around Parktown; the white working-class was confined to semi-detached redbrick or corrugated-iron and tin-roofed homes to the east, west and south and in villages around the many newly emerging mines; and the African labourers to shanties and hostels on the outer edges. Today the city strives hard to become more integrated, but the legacy of its early segregation can still be seen, while new economic and influx dynamics have created new “separate” communities.

Cosmopolitan with an African heartbeat


Despite this, today Johannesburg is a truly cosmopolitan city with an African heartbeat, and the most important commercial hub on the continent. It could also be said that Johannesburg resembles something of a cross between London and New York on the one hand, and Nairobi, Kinshasa or Lagos on the other.


Perhaps some of the pulsating, fast-paced appearance of a New York or London because of the high-rise buildings, the financial and commercial power houses, the streets filled with honking cars, the mixture of steel and concrete and of old and new, the fashionable shopping malls, the super-fast and shiny Gautrain, and the descendants of Asian and European immigrants that make up much of its population.


Or perhaps more Lagos, Nairobi or Kinshasa because of its vibrant and colourful African population, the street vendors and mini-bus taxis, the African hairstyles advertised by sidewalk barbers, the African eateries, big mamas selling pap and wors to pedestrians, a shop window sign advertising muti that can win you big  money and cure all diseases, or the sounds of kwaito, hip-hop and jazz blaring out loudly from shops.


The blend of contrasts is further amplified by the city’s plush, leafy suburbs where old and new mansions exude luxury and wealth, now gated and guarded by armed men; the high-rise rundown inner city apartments with broken windows and washing strung out on the balconies, while garbage piles up on the sidewalks; the neat suburban housing developments and gated neighbourhoods on the fringes where malls have replaced churches as the community’s central focal point; the rows upon rows of identical state-sponsored working-class houses in the townships where ribbons of public transport take the workers to and from the factories, city offices, wealthy homes and the mines; and the shacks of the informal settlements that creep into every available space left in and around the city, where life can be cheap, the air is polluted from many small fires, the stench of scattered trash is strong, and clean running water is an absolute luxury, but where people still congregate, laugh and have time for each other.


And in-between all of this, around 300 huge whitish-yellowish spoil heaps or mine dumps used to stand as testimony to the city’s foundation of gold. Some remain, while others have been flattened and their footprints redeveloped. One such a dump on the edge of central Johannesburg used to have drive-in movie theatre on top, called the Top Star Drive-In and was a very popular entertainment venue in the Sixties and Seventies.


But Johannesburg really is a city like no other with a character and a pulse all of its own, and not some hybrid fusion of others. And then there is that other hidden, secret Johannesburg, the city not many have ever seen. I lived and worked in Johannesburg for a number of years, and although I came to know some of the remnants from its celebrated past and some other lesser known aspects of the city, it was really two fairly recent events that opened my eyes to much more and made me realise there was another Jo’burg within the known Jo’burg just waiting to be explored.

A maze of underground tunnels


The first event was the unexpected discovery of a network of tunnels that run underneath central Johannesburg, that nobody seemed to know about. A few years ago, workers busy constructing a new transport hub in Newtown – part of the inner city – near Park Station, came across an opening while excavating. When they entered the unknown that lay beyond the opening, they found a neatly constructed, but obviously abandoned concrete tunnel. They followed the tunnel for about a kilometre before it became filled with water and they had to turn back.


It was later established that it was part of a tunnel system of about 3km long, or possibly more, that had been constructed in the 1930s to connect Johannesburg’s main postal depot, its underground mail sorting facility in Loveday Street, the old Rissik Street headquarters of the erstwhile SA Railways, and the city’s post offices for the easy and swift movement of mail between these points. There was even a bullion safe built underneath Park Station in which gold bars were stored before being transported by rail. Another tunnel connected the system to the Rotunda, a terminal for coaches to the airport that transported the mail.


The Rissik Street tunnel was the first section to be built in the 1930s and post was transported in small, motorised carts and by a conveyor belt from the post office to the mail sorting room, from where it would travel through the different tunnels to the various destination platforms at Park Station. There are still sections of an old conveyer belt. In 1956 the tunnels were shut down for unknown reasons, closed up, abandoned and forgotten. Until now. There have been plans to develop the tunnels into an underground attraction for local and tourists, but so far they remain unused.

The grand old post offices


Apart from the historic old or original Park Station (a new one was built later and is still in use), two of the post offices connected to the network of tunnels – Rissik Street Post Office and Jeppe Street Post Office – are historic attractions in their own right… part of that bygone, other or hidden Johannesburg.


The beautiful red-bricked Rissik Street Post Office with its lovely clock tower was built in 1897 during the time of Paul Kruger, President of the South African Republic (also known as the Transvaal). At the time this beautiful building, designed by Kruger’s architect Sytze Wierda, was the tallest building in Johannesburg. It remained operational until 1996 when the Post Office abandoned it, and it was gutted by fire in 2009.


Restoration work estimated to cost R147 million is being carried out, and it is hoped that it will eventually house a museum or art gallery or be used as a venue for events such as concerts. Nonetheless, in the meantime a visit to the post office is worthwhile, if only to see its beautiful exterior. A walk around the area will also reward visitors with many other old historical buildings and sites, including the iconic Rand Club and the grand old City Hall that is now the site of the provincial government.


A few street blocks to the northeast on the old Jeppe Street, now called Rahima Moosa Street, stands the great grey hulk of the Jeppe Street Post Office, now redeveloped and housing a mall and apartments. The main post office hall – now part of the mall – boasted a huge clock above the entrance lobby, marble counters, murals and art deco adornments and style, with much of this heritage having been preserved.  So too the vast façade, adorned by a keystone in the form of Mercury with relief panels depicting travel by land and sea.

More tunnels and an old mining village


The post office tunnels are not the only ones underneath Johannesburg. More than 6,000 mines have been abandoned in South Africa over the years, the majority of them along the Main Reef – once one of the richest gold-bearing reefs in the world –  that runs from east to west under Johannesburg. Left behind are the shafts and tunnels of these mines, a labyrinth of some 150km of tunnels criss-crossing the bowels of the city. Many are filing up with water, threatening the foundations of city buildings; others are being mined by illegal miners who create even more tunnels and live underground as they search for gold.


However, to experience what it is like to descend down such a mine shaft and walk along the tunnels where mining teams once drilled and blasted to extract the gold-carrying ore, you can visit the Gold Reef City Theme Park just south of the city. Here you can join a guided tour down the erstwhile number 14 gold mine shaft of Crown Mines which produced 1.4 million kilograms of gold before closing in the 1970s. The shaft was opened in 1897, a mere 11 years after Johannesburg was founded.


Within the theme park you can also walk around the streets or go on a guided tour of a meticulously recreated old mining town of the late 1800s that will give you the feel of what Johannesburg was like in its infant days during the Gold Rush. Depicted here in their original state are a jail, hotel, saloon and other buildings that once graced Johannesburg. While here, you can also visit the nearby Apartheid Museum.

More ‘Hidden Johannesburg’


The second event that triggered my curiosity about the unknown, secret Johannesburg, happened in 2016 when Struik Lifestyle – an imprint of Random House Struik – published an extraordinary book authored by Paul Duncan and illustrated with the beautiful photography of Alain Proust, titled Hidden Johannesburg.


This book, for the first time, provided the general public, the citizens of Johannesburg and the visitors from near and far, or anyone with an interest in the city and such things, with a remarkable insight into that other Johannesburg, known to so few these days.


You can use the book to explore the secret, often invisible Johannesburg as an arm-chair tourist without ever setting foot on the streets. Or it serves as a very handy guide for doing some actual exploring, either by yourself, or with a tourist guide, or in a tour group. Whichever you prefer, it will open your eyes to a city you probably did not know existed. Underneath the grimy, fast-paced, noisy and often dangerous city, you’ll find one with a lot of charm and elegance. However, because many of these places are not accessible to the public, this book will remain an invaluable window – perhaps the only one – onto much of this secret, hidden or bygone world.

Some of the remaining heritage treasures


With the help of Duncan and Proust’s book, and the beautiful photographs in it, there are a great many lesser known or even completely unknown buildings one can view around Johannesburg. As the publishers put it, this book offers a snapshot of 28 notable buildings. From the stately mansions of the Randlords to their downtown headquarters, the clubs where they socialised and the churches where they worshipped, the architecture of early Johannesburg lives on in sandstone, granite, marble and slate.


Contained in the book are the Anglo American head office (44 Main Street), Anstey’s Building, Bedford Court (St Andrew’s School for Girls), Cathedral of Christ the King, City Hall, Corner House, Freemason’s Hall, Gleneagles, Glenshiel, Greek Orthodox Church, House Edoardo Villa where the artist lived, Lion’s Shul, L. Ron Hubbard House where the founder of the Church of Scientology once lived, Nelson Mandela House (Vilakazi Street) where Mandela lived as a young man, the fabulous Nizamiye Masjid, Northwards, the old Park Station, Radium Beer Hall, Rand Club, Satyagraha House (Gandhi House), St Charles Borromeo Catholic Church, St George’s Anglican Church, St John’s College, St Michael and All Angels, The Old Fort (once a prison), The View, Villa Arcadia, and Whitehall Court.