CI Bell and Lisa Johnston have done well in presenting a wide variety of interesting places and things to see in dynamic Johannesburg, says the writer. Picture: SUPPLIED
CI Bell and Lisa Johnston have done well in presenting a wide variety of interesting places and things to see in dynamic Johannesburg, says the writer. Picture: SUPPLIED

Secret Johannesburg
CI Bell and Lisa Johnston
Jonglez Publishing

What is history, if not a fable agreed upon? Whether this delightfully acerbic piece of cynicism was first noted by Napoleon Bonaparte or Voltaire, or in 1728 by Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, is a moot point that does not detract from the power of the question.

Mounted on the rocky slopes just outside the bustle of central  Johannesburg are magnificent mansions packed with forgotten Victorian and war memorabilia, tucked beneath giant oaks that cast shade long before the Hillbrow Tower was imagined or Ponte flickered in the semi-dark night.

A few minutes from the order and decorum of stained glass and imported timber is the vibrancy of a pan-African city, or semi-ruins from an abandoned heyday, depending, of course, on the tint of your gaze.

Secret Johannesburg is a fascinating guide for people who wish to discover the hidden face of one of Africa’s biggest cities. The book is small, so it is easy to carry while uncovering the gems the authors share.

It is a guide, not a literary masterpiece. So it is quite possible to ignore the odd spelling and syntax mistake — they add to the incongruence of the city they set out to bring to life.

This book should be on everyone’s bookshelf. It draws out nostalgia, amazement and curiosity. It entertains with quirky character. It presents a fable that hopefully everyone agrees upon — Johannesburg is an enigma.

CI Bell and Lisa Johnston have done well in presenting a wide variety of interesting places and things to see, and most of their entries include anecdotes that are not available elsewhere. With that they have achieved something special — the koppie in Lonehill will no longer be merely a landmark for the well-heeled. It will instead be a historic site of iron-age furnaces.

Who would have thought that a natural spring with drinkable water bubbles out of the earth in Alberts Farm behind Montgomery Park, or that magnetic rocks in Observatory signify an ancient sea?

It’s not only nature that’s documented, though for most of SA’s history, nature and the land(scape) has been a recurring theme — look no further than the two Pierneefs hanging in the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court. Worth tens of millions of rands, thieves who broke in walked straight past them and helped themselves to computers, worthless in comparison.

Cosmo City, a post-apartheid suburb, was partly built on the expropriated farm of a Boer nationalist. His grave is just behind the KFC.

The guide draws a haunting thread between one man’s treasured history and the symbol of another’s oppression. It tells of the Sons of England wooden cross, carved from an oak tree in a battlefield in France where South Africans laid down their lives in World War 1. It used to be on display in Orange Grove and Paterson Park. Then, one cold winter’s night, it was rescued from a bonfire keeping homeless people warm. Today it is locked away in Norwood.

Thrilling as it may be to read about a house in Parktown that boasts a pair of Queen Victoria’s undergarments, one is sobered when contemplating the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct, or the anti-xenophobia sculptures in Diepkloof.

The authors take readers from a dilapidated Victorian greenhouse once full of exotic flowers and now growing vegetables for the urban hungry to a Masonic masterpiece in Bezuidenhout Valley.

The highlight has to be an entry about Corner House, once a symbol of wealth — a shrine to capitalism, if you will — with its coloured glass cupola in the foyer off Simmonds Street. Built into the cupola is Tyche, or Fortuna, the Greek goddess of fortune and prosperity.

She was often depicted standing opposite Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and revenge. Nemesis is not present on this cupola, but as history and karma have contrived, her modern incarnation is on the second floor in the EFF’s offices. Do the red berets know, or even care?

A Turkish masterpiece has become a plumbing supply warehouse, a wacky docking station for space ships still adorns an art deco building. Have you ever seen the once-famous lighthouse atop a skyscraper no longer shining political enlightenment?

Symbols that divide — such as the original Bartholomew Diaz cross that survived the angry Rhodes Must Fall protests, or the burnt oak cross — scratch at the contentious question of whether history should be remembered and presented in its raw form, if only to understand the human condition. The authors argue yes, but only after everyone is able to eat.

Their argument is presented from the assumption that those who wish to decolonise this country should want, or need, to see how the other half live. Perhaps they don’t. And if they do, it won’t be by reading words written by a Bell or Johnston. It will be through their own lenses.

An argument could be made that Joburg’s beauty lies in the repurposing of its relics as the country fights through its contested reality. In many areas the city’s architectural and Victorian history is on an inexorable road to irrelevance. Some will mourn. Most will shuffle by oblivious to cries of a dying history.