Why you should care
Because you couldn’t possibly make this place up — Ferreirasdorp, Joburg’s oldest suburb.
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As we admire the rotund, cartoonish sculpture of African Nation Congress Youth League co-founder Walter Sisulu and his wife, Albertina, a woman draped in vibrant cotton prints walks past balancing a metal drum containing what look like stones on her head. Except, as tour guide and urban conservationist Jo Buitendach points out, the “stones” are smoldering. I’ve seen William Kentridge and Gerhard Marx’s famous “Firewalker” statue in nearby Newtown, but it’s meant to be a tribute to a forgotten practice. I didn’t know women still lit fires in rustic braziers and carried them into town to roast mielies (corn) on.
The tiny five-street-by-six suburb of Ferreirasdorp in central Johannesburg — a scruffy mix of gorgeous colonial architecture and nondescript 1950s concrete — is that kind of place. Because most of its residents are of Asian descent, but the businesses they own cater predominantly to the Black Africans who have always passed through on their way to and from work, it’s the very definition of a cultural melting pot. And unlike most other ’hoods that have this clichéd term foisted upon them, it’s blessedly untouristy. “I also do a lot of my shopping here,” says Buitendach. “Best tofu in Joburg.”
Swallows Inn on Commissioner Street is purportedly the oldest Chinese restaurant in Jozi.
In July 1886, a tented camp sprung up on gold miner William Ferreira’s land. Within months, canvas had been replaced by bricks and mortar and the City of Gold’s first suburb was born. By the 1900s the area was described in a local newspaper as “synonymous with practically everything that is vile and violent about Johannesburg.” Fifty years later, under apartheid, the Malay community was forcibly removed while Indians (including several important political activists) were allowed to stay. Ferreirasdorp’s proximity to the Magistrate’s Court, and the generosity of some Indian landlords, led prominent Black lawyers to set up their chambers in the area — among them Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela — and the suburb was also home to the ANC’s first headquarters.
But back to the shopping. Scores of Indian-run fabric shops cater to the many African tribes, cultures and religious groups, whose members “wear their own fabrics, blankets or beads,” says Buitendach. There are loads of hole-in-the-wall stores, of which Minty’s — the gray and turquoise edifice on the corner of Ntemi Piliso Street and Albertina Sisulu Road — is the undisputed cathedral. From the intricate geometric patterns of the Shweshwe fabric favored by the Sotho people to the bright floral prints worn by Shangaan women and the plain cloth known as Eden Rose that’s unique to the Pedi, Minty’s has it all.
There aren’t as many Indian restaurants as you’d expect (most folks eat at home), but Food Junxion (forgive the name) does an incredible okra curry and fantastic naan. Swallows Inn on Commissioner Street is purportedly the oldest Chinese restaurant in Jozi (the beef and crispy noodle is to die for), while Sui Hing Hong is a top-notch Chinese supermarket with great staff (we chewed the fat with white-haired Amy) and that tofu.
Everywhere you turn, there’s something to look at. A funny slogan — “You can beat an egg, but you can’t beat Aslam’s prices” — or elaborately detailed Victorian plaster molding. Kick-ass graffiti or a trio of 10-foot-tall “origami” pigeons constructed from steel and covered in 100 percent genuine pigeon shit.
The spirit of Ferreirasdorp comes together in Amandla Muti Shop, where Theo Naidoo — a third-generation Indian who was taught African medicine by his mother — presides over an incredible array of jars, bags and bottles containing everything from dried roots to giant land snails in preserving liquid. “Some people think it’s black magic,” says Naidoo, but he sees himself as a “normal general practitioner who gives advice and helps people get better.”
And like all the best doctors, he practices what he preaches. “There is some stuff that we use at home,” he says. “Of course.”
Go There: FERREIRASDORP
- Vital statistics: Buitendach’s tours last about two hours. Booking in advance is essential; costs start at 1,100 rand ($95) for one to three people.
- Where: Tours start and end at 1 Fox Street — a gentrified hipster enclave of artisanal food, drink and design. Catch an Uber from Sandton for 200 rand ($17).
- Make it your own: Buitendach is truly passionate about Joburg in general and Ferreirasdorp in particular. If you have a special interest in fabric, food, art or muti, she would love to indulge it.
- Safety in numbers: Ferreirasdorp is far safer than it looks (Buitendach has had one “incident” in nine years), but first-time visitors would be foolish to visit alone.