Posted on July 26, 2016

Johannesburg Tour Gives Whites a Different Look at Their City

Ryan Lenora Brown, Christian Science Monitor, July 25, 2016

On a ridge high above downtown Johannesburg, tour guide James Manguza turns his back to the jumble of modernist skyscrapers below and begins teaching his crash course in the history of the inner city.

It’s a tale of starry-eyed gold prospectors and roving gangsters, of the testosterone-fueled cosmopolitanism of a 19th-century frontier town, where men of all races were united by a single ambition: money.

But as the story winds through the last century, it grows darker. Mr. Manguza describes the rise of apartheid and the sharp racial lines it drew across a once mixed city, with black families evicted to distant, segregated suburbs, far from the city’s economic heart.

In front of Mr. Manguza, his charges, all of whom are white, begin to nod solemnly. This part of the story, they remember.

Manguza is describing the Johannesburg where they grew up, a city where race dictated everything from the park bench you sat on to the hospital where you were born and the neighborhoods in which you were allowed to live.

That’s a history that still courses through Johannesburg’s present. And it means that although everyone on this tour has lived in the city most of their lives, none of them have been to this part of town in nearly 30 years, since it began its slow drift from a mostly-white residential suburb to a nearly entirely black one.


The tour they’re on focuses on the culinary offerings of this immigrant-heavy neighborhood, Yeoville. “Because of the crime, people live with the paranoia that everyone is out to get them,” he says. “What we’re trying to do is get people out, show them their neighbors.”

Manguza, a Congolese immigrant who has lived in this part of Johannesburg since he was 8, works for a company called Dlala Nje, which offers walking tours of two inner-city Johannesburg neighborhoods–Yeoville and Hillbrow–that have long been considered no-go zones for the city’s tourists and suburbanites alike.


Below their diverse surfaces, these tours have a common theme, says Heather Mason, a Johannesburg-based travel writer and blogger. They give people permission to step into places in this deeply divided city that history, custom, and paranoia have long dictated they stay far away from.

“There’s a specific appeal to these tours in Johannesburg because it’s a city with so many places people still perceive as forbidden,” Ms. Mason says.


For Salma Patel, too, the purpose of taking people on tours of the city is to excavate its painful history, not bury it. Her own tour zig-zags across Fietas, a once racially mixed neighborhood west of the city center that was blighted in the 1970s by one of South Africa’s infamous “forced removals,” which took aim at mixed areas of the city by marking them as slums and scattering their residents to distant, segregated peripheries.

Her own family fought the removal, and today she lives in a house wedged between open lots piled with rubble–sites where homes were destroyed and simply never rebuilt.

“I don’t think of myself as just a tour guide,” she says. “This is my own life. It’s my own journey.”