Free Nelson Mandela’s legacy

#173. Take a walk through Ferrreirasdorp in Johannesburg’s Central Business District. I did this on Saturday to get a feel for this city as a mining camp. According to The Joburg Book: A guide to the city’s history, people and places (edited by Nechama Brodie) Ferreirasdorp was the first mining camp to be established some time between the discovery of a new gold reef on the “vetvattersrand” in July 1886 – promises of plentiful water were to go unfulfilled – and Paul Kruger’s proclamation that opened the area up to public diggings in September of that year. This was the start of “modern Johannesburg”.

The walk was led by the Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust’s Flo Bird. Short and solidly built, her gray hair efficiently tied back in a ponytail and wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words: “one city’s urban terrorist is another city’s freedom fighter” Bird is a crusader for architectural and heritage justice.

The walk took in the Magistrate’s court on Fox Street with its imposing stonework structure, a place that once held one of SA’s most famous literary heroes Herman Charles Bosman (he was sentenced to death here) and across the road Chancellor House, the first office of two famous lawyers who started their practice and partnership there (More of that later). From there we moved to St Albans Anglican Church that served a predominantly coloured congregation when it was first established in 1898 until the imposition of The Group Areas Act in the 50s cruelly made their presence in the city unlawful and forced their removal more than 30 miles away to the short-on-romance suburb of Ennerdale. The church is beautifully constructed in brick and teak with huge cathedral windows making it a place of light. In design it resembles a great basilica. Interestingly its pews carry the Star of David on them, having been given to the church by Hollard Insurance Company after they took possession of Villa Arcadia, once home to Johnnesburg’s Jewish orphanage, and lovingly transformed it into their headquarters.

St Alban’s history is also rich – one of its famous occupants was a Nobel laureate; when Desmond Tutu became Bishop of Johannesburg he used the church as his base.

The melodious voices of a male choir rang out as we stood outside the building under the city’s leaden sky. The beautiful church is in need of funds to maintain its architectural splendour and the current community does its best with very little. A friendly church man welcomed us and when asked about a collection plate said good-humouredly that they had long removed it from the church – I think it might have removed itself after catching a glimpse of the area alongside the church with its derelict buildings, broken and overgrown pavements and litter from the nearby taxi rank.

From there we moved on to Main Street to the headquarters of the Oppenheimer family’s Anglo American with its exquisitely carved stone block insets of elephants and lions and other wildlife, it’s flawlessly manicured gardens and magnificent bronze doors. Outside 44 Main Street is the home of the leaping impalas, relocated and restored from another part of the city after having had their legs cut off for scrap.

Impala Stampede, in memory of Ernest Oppenheimer

Impala Stampede, in memory of Ernest Oppenheimer

It struck me along the walk that it is as if this city is ashamed of its own beauty, ashamed of the attention it might attract for that reason. It is also a city that cannot find peace with its past, or even accommodation with it. The evidence for this is in the decaying landmarks, the neglect and disrepair of some of its finest buildings, its streets, its public spaces. And this leads me back to Chancellor House and its famous occupants.

“MANDELA AND TAMBO said the brass plate on our office door. We practised as attorneys-at-law in Johannesburg in a shabby building across the street from the Magistrates’ Court. Chancellor House in Fox Street was one of the few buildings in which African tenants could hire offices: it was owned by Indians. This was before the axe of the Group Areas Act fell to declare the area “white” and landlords were themselves prosecuted if they did not evict the Africans. MANDELA AND TAMBO was written huge across the frosted window panes on the second floor, and the letters stood out like a challenge. To white South Africa it was bad enough that two men with black skins should practise as lawyers, but it was indescribably worse that the letters also spelled out our political partnership.” – From “Nelson Mandela 1965. This item by Oliver Tambo was published as the introduction to the book No Easy Walk to Freedom by Ruth First”.

Today Chancellor House is not shabby; it’s a hellhole.

The site of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo's law practise in Johannesburg

The site of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo's law practise in Johannesburg

Its first floor is a burnt-out shell, and its many tenants live among the graffitti and the garbage piles. There is no trace of its illustrious history and its previous tenants who would go on to change the course of a country, and a build a new nation.

Like a child accustomed only to abuse, it’s as if Joburg doesn’t think it deserves better.

After struggling with how to end this post, and not usually prone to JO-pessimism, I consulted the nearest 8-year-old who advised: “just say and they all lived happily ever after blah blah blah” so here it is, my wish for 2010.

* The Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust offers a number of guided walks through the city and surrounds. For more information go to their website.

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