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Built in 1964, the Regina Mundi Catholic Church is located in Soweto, one of the most populous black urban residential areas in the country. Its name means ‘Queen of the World’ in Latin. Under apartheid Regina Mundi was a spiritual haven for thousands of Sowetans, irrespective of their faith, quietly offering its protection to those in need.
Today, Regina Mundi’s peaceful atmosphere belies the tumultuous and often violent sieges endured by the church during the liberation struggle. There is a tranquil park with a fountain, benches and green lawns in front of the church.
Because mass gatherings and political rallies were banned under apartheid, church services and funerals at Regina Mundi often functioned as undercover political meetings. On 16 June 1976, during the Soweto Uprisings, police stormed the church, aiming to flush out protesting students who had fled there for sanctuary. They fired live ammunition into the place of worship.
The broken marble altar, the bullet holes in the ceilings and the damaged figure of Christ are a moving reminder of those terrible times. By contrast, the more modern appointments are a reminder that Regina Mundi has, and always will be, a home to the community of Soweto. These include beautiful stained glass windows (donated by Poland in 1998), artist Lawrence Scully’s renowned Black Madonna, and gleaming new pews.
The iconic status that the church still commands today is evident from the dignitaries that have visited it: Nelson Mandela, Bill and Hilary Clinton and, most recently, US First Lady, Michelle Obama.
By all measures, the speed of growth of the city of Johannesburg has been phenomenal. It’s just more than 120 years since the Australian prospector, George Harrison, found gold at Langlaagte. In the century since then, the ramshackle, gold-rush boom town has become a hi-tech international city of skyscrapers and towers, one of Africa’s economic powerhouses and a mixture of first-world sophistication and third-world colour.
Impatient for change, the face of the city alters constantly. Due to reprocessing for gold, the chain of mine dumps that once lined the south of the city has just about disappeared. Some of that early-day vibe can still be experienced, though, at Gold Reef City, which recreates those heady pioneering days and has the added bonus of bordering another significant attraction critical to understanding Johannesburg, the Apartheid Museum.
The city’s downtown area, the heart of corporate South Africa before the 1980s brought a phase of decentralisation, is in the throes of a second coming. There’s a new appreciation for the Art Deco architecture that predominates in the central business district and large chunks of the inner city are being rejuvenated with a strong African flavour.
First it was Newtown, an industrial area on the north-western edges of the city centre, where old buildings found new uses. The old produce market became a theatre and the home of Museum Africa, an old bus factory converted to an artist studio and a craft market, and the old Electric Workshop became the location of Sci-Bono, a museum dedicated to maths, science and technology. A Workers’ Museum, beer museum (SAB World of Beer), art galleries, dance companies and jazz clubs have set up shop in Newtown, all within in easy distance of the neighbourhood’s central focus, Mary Fitzgerald Square.
More recently, an urban renewal project that aims to provide affordable residential and working space is taking shape on the eastern edge. Called the Maboneng Precinct, development is continuing, but two completed aspects have already made their mark. One is Main Street Life, a transformed industrial building and location of The Bioscope, an independent cinema set to diversify content on the South African movie circuit.
The second is Arts on Main, a hub for the creative community. An old warehouse, Arts on Main is home to artist studios and galleries, retail outlets and a rooftop bar. On Sundays and the first Thursday night of the month, a market is held, drawing Joburgers into the city to browse stalls at which the emphasis is on food and design.
On the subject of markets, perhaps the most unique in Johannesburg is Mai Mai, dedicated to the art of traditional healing. Set on the corner of Anderson and Berea Streets, on offer here are traditional herbs and artefacts and the services of traditional healers.
North of the city is Braamfontein, also currently benefiting from renovation that goes deeper than a lick of paint. The south end of Juta Street has become somewhat of a design centre, with the opening of galleries, furniture and craft shops. Then, perched on the 22nd floor of one of Braamfontein’s office blocks, with a 360-degree view, is a ritzy, new rooftop bar and lounge venue, Randlords.
Much attention is being given to the new Neighbourgoods Market on the corner of Juta and Melle Streets. Situated on two floors of a car park, stall-holders sell organic food and speciality items, which visitors consume in communal fashion on trestle tables and benches.
Braamfontein is also the location of an impressive stop on the heritage route, Constitution Hill, site of the highest court in the land, the Constitutional Court. The University of the Witwatersrand, which stretches into this suburb, has more, such as the technologically advanced Origins Centre, which explores early man, the Planetarium, and the new Wits Art Museum (WAM) set to open in May 2012.
Move a little further north towards suburban Johannesburg, where each neighbourhood has its own attractions, all adding to the city’s rich tourism offering. In Parkview, you’ll find the wonderful Johannesburg Zoo; in Emmarentia are the city’s Botanical Gardens; in Auckland Park there’s the hip 44 Stanley – a centre of restaurants and unusual shopping; Greenside, Norwood, Parktown North and Parkhurst all have main roads that function as restaurant and shopping strips, while Rosebank has the popular Rooftop and African markets.
When to go
Follow the freedom struggle to places such as Constitution Hill, Liliesleaf Farm and the Apartheid Museum.
Newtown is great for nightlife and spaces to hang out until the early hours. The Sci-Bono Centre is a must for kids and Museum Africa is always a treat for a dose of arts and culture.
The Origins Centre is a wonderful eye-opener and one of the most technologically advanced modern museums in the country focusing on prehistoric man. The centre hosts regular exhibitions and screenings.
The revived inner city – with places such as Arts on Main, Main Street Life – is funky and fabulous with a combination of restaurants, galleries and fun shops.
The restaurants of Johannesburg’s ‘Soho’ areas, namely Parktown North, Parkhurst, Norwood and Greenside, are perfect for long, lazy lunches in the sunshine.
The Neighbourgoods Market in Braamfontein. It takes place only on Saturdays but it’s here that you’ll find a trendy mix of people eating, tasting, buying and shopping.
Malls. If shopping is your thing, Jozi has more malls than you’d care to wave a stick at, from Sandton City and Nelson Mandela Square to Hyde Park and Rosebank Mall to Cresta Centre and all the mini-malls in between.
Green Spaces: Emmarentia Dam, Zoo Lake, the Melville Koppies.
The Johannesburg Zoo, one of the finest zoos in Africa and a great place for picnics.
Art galleries abound in the city – including the Goodman Gallery, Circa, Johannesburg Art Gallery, Everard Read, Arts on Main, Gallery Momo and the Kim Sacks Gallery.
Johannesburg is known for its markets, from the Rooftop market in Rosebank, to the well-known food markets, including Jozi Food Market, Bryanston Organic Market, the Market on Main and the African market in Yeoville, which specialises in Congolese goods.
Fun and fascinating museums, including South African Breweries World of Beer, The James Hall Museum of Transport, The Worker’s Museum and the Bensusan Museum of Photography.
Famous drinking holes in the city such as The Rand Club and the Radium Beer Hall.
The flavours, colours, sights and sounds of Fordsburg, including the Oriental Plaza.