Why you should care
Because after the history lesson, a bellyful of good food awaits.
As a white person who grew up in South Africa during apartheid, I’m always open to opportunities to disrobe any unexamined prejudice lurking under my skin. Which is part of the reason I was drawn to a peri-urban trek in a tumbledown Johannesburg suburb that begins and ends at an edgy mom-and-pop restaurant and jazz club. Honestly, though, I was hooked by the promise of the “Afro-soul food” waiting at the end of the tour.
Hosted by Sifiso Ntuli — who calls himself, his restaurant and the tour the Roving Bantu — the Sunday morning adventure walks visitors through some of Johannesburg’s most notorious and colorful neighborhoods, painting a picture of life during apartheid.
But first: Bantu refers to hundreds of ethnic groups who speak languages belonging to the Niger-Congo family. During the nationalist Afrikaner regime, the word was frequently used to disparage black South Africans. Ntuli isn’t dissing himself — the Roving Bantu moniker relays how apartheid forced him into a state of almost constant nomadism. He and wife, Ashley Heron, have called Brixton home for the last 20 years, but prior to that he was exiled in Canada and the U.S. As a child, he scuttled between Soweto and Swaziland. Now he’s a fixture. And he has a lot to say.
Before the tour starts, coffee and vetkoek are served at the restaurant, followed by a quick introduction to Ntuli, F-bombs and all.
For starters, he hopes to forge a new national “personality,” re-examining historic districts scarred by the past and sharing food and music (jazz being a symbol of freedom, he says). Now 2 years old with a vibe that is instantly comfortable, Roving Bantu Kitchen is lined with apartheid-era posters and newspaper articles, along with colorful Afro-chic furniture.
Before the tour starts, coffee and vetkoek (deep-fried dough or “fat cake” in Afrikaans) are served at the restaurant, followed by a quick introduction to Ntuli, F-bombs and all. (Some may be offended. I found it real and refreshing.) Then outside, Ntuli describes the contributions made by several respected icons — memorialized on the exterior wall — to dismantle apartheid and heal South African society. Each tour, which is about 4 miles long, can be different, tracing obscure heritage sites that only a local would know: a swastika covered up with graffiti, a World War I statue, a gutted monument to Irish fighters who fought for the Boers, graveyards.
We walk through areas some might consider dodgy, but I feel safe with our crowd of 13. Near the end, outside the Braamfontein Cemetery, a woman complains about these “dangerous” areas. But Stephanie Nikolaidis, a Belgian national who works for the Goethe-Institut in Senegal, agrees that we were perfectly safe. Besides, she says she prefers not to shield herself from reality.
As for the three-course meal at the end? It’s definitely not delicate or dolled up with a side of parsley. But it’s delicious. Prepared homestyle with local ingredients in a rudimentary kitchen, it’s served on simple enamel plates. Nikolaidis starts with samosas, and I choose a hearty butternut squash soup. We both hit the chicken curry with pap (like grits, but thicker). She finishes with a sensible plate of watermelon, and I opt for a deep-fried doughy dessert called koeksisters. “An amalgamation of South African cuisine,” as Ntuli explains it.
The six-hour tour and lunch will go by quickly, and you might find yourself wanting more one-on-one time with Ntuli and his wife. As a team, they provide a taste of what South Africa can be when we embrace diversity.
- Location: 125 Caroline St., in Brixton, Johannesburg, on the corner of Esher Street.
- Walking tour: Meet at 10 a.m. for tea and coffee. The tour and the meal costs R400 ($34).
- Restaurant hours: The kitchen is open Wednesdays to Sundays from noon to 9 p.m. On Fridays and Saturdays, music starts at about 7:30 p.m.and ends around 11 p.m.
- Pro tip: Don’t be stupid like me. For the walking tour, bring a bottle of water. And a hat. And sunscreen