Joburg then and now … from the top of the hop-on, hop-off bus

14 August 2015 | Kate Turkington

The Shadow Boxer in front of Chancellor House

Of course, there was no City Sightseeing bus in Johannesburg 50 years ago. The trams stopped running in 1961, but if you want to see one of the first horse-drawn trams used in the city, hop off at the James Hall Museum of Transport (stop 12). The last electric trams ran on 18 March 1961, exactly 70 years after the first horse-drawn one left Market Square.

Apartheid was at its height 50 years ago, so after dark there were no black people in town – by law they were forced to return to Soweto and other blacks-only townships. Today, the streets of Egoli – the City of Gold – are thronged not only with locals but with people from all over Africa, lured to the “New York of Africa” by hopes of jobs, education and a better life.

In the old retail district of Johannesburg – Eloff and Commissioner streets – 50 years ago you might have seen be-hatted and be-gloved white ladies taking tea in the restaurant at the fashionable department store, John Orr’s. If you were a bit more downmarket, you shopped at the OK Bazaars on the corner of Pritchard and Eloff.

Today the same retail areas are booming, but with street vendors, shops and stalls owned by dozens of stallholders of dozens of different nationalities, and crowds fill the malls and supermarkets.

The view from the Carlton Centre

I recently put up a photo on Facebook of a misty Johannesburg today from the 360° viewing deck of Africa’s tallest building, the 50-storey Carlton Centre. It once graced Johannesburg’s glitziest and ritziest hotel, The Carlton, and was known as “Top of the Carlton”. My post was overwhelmed by comments, memories and outpourings of nostalgia.

Rosina wrote, “Remember the Carlton clearly. We had to dress up for dinner at the Three Ships restaurant. Lovely memories.”

Barbara wrote, “Spent many a happy night at Top of the Carlton!”, while Azval commented, “I was resident pianist at the Carlton back in the 1990s … Also did tons of corporate functions there. Remember the Three Ships at the Top of the Carlton?”

The hotel is now closed, but be sure to hop off at stop 11 where you’ll be met by a City Sightseeing guide who’ll take you up to the roof for fabulous panoramic views of the city.

Kate Turkington (middle) on the bus with her grandson Nicholas Thiel (right). Image by Tara Turkington

Today, from the bus you can see other iconic buildings that were overlooked and ignored years ago. Chancellor House, which housed the law offices of Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo at the corner of Fox and Gerard Sekoto streets, has now been restored and refurbished and is well worth a visit. A huge statue of Mandela in boxing gear stands outside.

Half a century ago there was no Apartheid Museum, SAB World of Beer or Origins Centre – all fascinating stops on the bus route today.

And something that was almost unthinkable all those years ago, was white people visiting Soweto.

Samora Ngwenya sells crafts behind the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto

So if you have time, take an add-on trip to Soweto (it departs from stop 13), during which you’ll visit some of South Africa’s historic landmarks and even get the chance to bungee jump* from the top of the colourful Orlando Towers.

That would have been inconceivable to people living in Johannesburg 50 or more years ago.

*Thursdays to Sundays for groups of 10 or more that made a reservation