Understanding Johannesburg Through Its Markets

Johannesburg, the City of Gold! Or at least, it used to be but the majority of the gold mines have been exhausted since. What is left is a vast, flat and segregated city with specific “rich” neighbourhoods like Sandton or Rosebank to name some, and “dodgy” ones, for example, Fordsburg or Hillbrow. Jozi is also a real case study of poor urban planning and terrible public transport system.

I need to admit, I hated this city within the first week of my arrival. Part of it was culture shock and stress, part of it was the city itself making me feel trapped and frustrated. Granted, I was barely in Jozi during my first month in South Africa since the suburb I was located in was in Midrand, the middle of nowhere between Jozi and Pretoria. But even after moving to a more convenient location in Randburg, I still didn’t like Jozi any better than before. Being in one of the biggest and most chaotic cities in Africa definitely made me appreciate the small, calm, quiet and especially organized Ottawa.

Determined to not let this urban jungle overwhelm me, I decided to do some touristic explorations like going to the Johannesburg Zoo, Mandela House, Hector Pieterson Museum, Nelson Mandela Square and Nizamiye Masjid. But I soon got bored of it: there were only so many museums and landmarks to visit and all the different malls look the same.

I started to realize Jozi and Metro Manila, where I was 3 years before, had a lot in common: Manila had jeepneys while Jozi had taxis/mini-buses; the Gautrain only had very few stations like the metro in Manila; lack of sidewalks and confusing roads made it difficult to navigate in both cities; urban life was revolving around malls; and the best (and safest) way to get around both cities was by cab or Uber.

Making this connection in my head between the two cities made me dislike Jozi even more because I was reminded of the overwhelming feeling I had in Manila. I was looking for every opportunity to get out and travel to other parts of the country. It took me a few months to realize Jozi had an urban culture sprouting in the city: local food markets.

A map of places I mentioned in this post help visualize better:

Weekend Markets

Neighbourgoods Market: every Saturday at 73 Juta street in Braamfontein

Neighbourgoods Market is the most crowded place you could be in on a Saturday for brunch. By the time you arrive, the place will already be full and you would struggle to find a place to sit so opt for enjoying your food while standing.

The concept started in Cape Town and expanded to Jozi in recent years. You will find food stalls of all the world-wide popular cuisines: Indian curry; Thai/Chinese stir-fry noodles, dumplings and spring rolls; Argentinian or Balkan burgers; Japanese fusion sushi; Ethiopian vegetarian rice (that one might not be as popular worldwide); Spanish paella; Belgian waffles and French crepes; Italian gelato and many other gourmet cake and cheese stalls. None of them will taste like the authentic food from those countries but they are all locally-made gourmet food with a twist of modern.

The entire building is just a concrete structure that occasionally has some leaks here and there. The bottom floor is where you can find all the food stalls and the second level is the bar with fancy cocktails, indie acoustic live music (sometimes) and vendors selling hipster products like bamboo bowties and sunglasses, beard oil and handcraft necklaces.

Market on Main: every Sunday at 264 Fox street in Maboneng, first Thursday evenings of every month.

Urban life in Joburg is mostly on the weekends and since on Saturday, there was already Neighbourgoods Market, Sundays are for Market on Main which is the same concept, although it has more stalls and more diverse options such as Korean finger foods and other gourmet sandwich stalls. You can also find some of the same food stalls as the Neighbourgoods and some of the same craft vendors as well. What is nice about the place is that it does have a small courtyard where people can sit and enjoy another lazy afternoon and maybe some salsa music, or at least that was the playlist they had on the Sunday when I was there with friends.

Maboneng is an interesting area. Considered both dodgy and hipster, I believe it is one of the neighbourhood that is changing with the local businesses and events attracting people and driving out the crime and violence. However, you can find yourself in front of Market on Main near the funky bars with some street art and The Bioscope, an independent cinema that shows documentaries and indie foreign movies then walk 5 minutes in the wrong direction and end up in an area where you could be a mugging target. Maybe pub-crawling would have to wait a few years before it is feasible in this part of the city.

Rosebank Rooftop Market: every Sunday in the top level parking lot of Rosebank Mall

You would probably find an older crowd frequenting the Rosebank Rooftop Market: parents with young children or retired couples as opposed to young, out-and-about crowd at Neighbourgoods or Market on Main. This market doesn’t have as many food stalls but they have many more vendor stalls for rugs, kitchenware, spices, biltong, vintage clothing with African prints on them, gardening tools, etc. They do have a small stage for burgeoning artists or aspiring singers to have a platform to perform. Rosebank Mall only has big brand stores but this market is to offer a space for local artisans to sell their crafts in a commercial space.

Night Markets

Melville Rooftop Market: every Wednesday at 27Boxes in Melville

Joburgers don’t go out much on weeknights, mostly because they need to go to sleep early in order to wake up around 6AM the next morning and be stuck in traffic by 7AM for their commute. The city is asleep by 10PM, which I had difficulty adjusting to since I’m used to the convenience of shops and restaurants closing around midnight or 2AM in Canada.

Melville is known for its reasonably priced bars and restaurants as well as its expensive art shops and vintage clothing stores. It is also considered a relatively safe place (“relatively safe” by Jozi standard) to pub crawl since it was a student area, being right next to the University of Johannesburg.

Overall, Melville is a hipster neighbourhood and 27Boxes, in the heart of Melville, is the epitome of urban hipster architecture: the whole complex is formed by concrete and all the shops were inside shipping containers. The top floor of the complex is a large empty space which the management has turned into the venue for the Melville Rooftop Night Market every Wednesday night.

The market only started very recently and still hasn’t attracted many people yet but its goal definitely is to add more excitement to the city’s nightlife on weeknights. If you’re looking for a place to gather with friends and colleagues after work, enjoy a bottle of wine and some locally-made gourmet food, this is a pretty good spot to check out.

What I remember the most about this place is among the vendor stalls full of vintage rugs, clothing, pot plants and leather-made products, there were three kids with their own stall of random products like socks, hair bands, gums and pens. The oldest must have been 11 or so. They were also going around and actively approaching people and trying to sell their goods to raise funds for their sisters’ volleyball team (or some other cause I couldn’t remember).

It isn’t uncommon to have one or two beggars mixing in these places, approaching and asking people for money while they are eating but these kids reminded me of the unfortunate ones selling pens on the streets in Vietnam, trying to be entrepreneurial and earning a living. I later asked them if there was an adult supervising them around and they said their mother would come to pick them up later in the evening as they would have school the next day.

This is something you don’t see often in South Africa, especially not with the strong sense of entitlement among the youth (another topic for another day), but it’s very encouraging to see these kids who haven’t even hit puberty yet taken such initiatives. If you bump into them, do try to support them: it’s only R50 or roughly USD 3 for 3 pairs of colourful socks.

Special Events Markets

Depending on the upcoming holiday, certain places would have night markets. Just another occasion for an urban market where people can go out, take their kids, see their friends, have some gourmet food and buy some handmade scented candles or some locally-made cheese.

Melrose Arch is one of the new developments in Jozi and it is definitely tailored for the uber-rich of South Africa, with high-end luxury stores and fine dining restaurants and bars. Although I’ve never been to Melrose Arch during the day, I can just picture the place with rich Asian tourists who shop until they drop.

Modern flea market in a rich neighbourhood: Easter Market in Melrose Arch

The Market no tourist ventures to

Fordsburg, Little India of Jozi, is known for being a dodgy area where you can find a wide range of cheap things: pirated DVDs, clothing, fake Rolex and Casio watches, and Indian street food. The place reminded me so much of night markets in South East Asia with all the brightly lit stalls under a mosaic of roof shacks and all the products laid out on tables in such a way you can barely see the tablecloth. At 9PM, the place was still crowded with people looking to do some shopping and hungry for pani puri, samosas and kebab.

The obvious difference is that this place looks a lot less secure than the night markets in Asia. Being Asian in South Africa, I got used to getting stares while walking down the street or getting “China”, “ni hao” or “Konichiwa” comments shouted at me randomly. So as the only non-Indian and non-black person in the entire market, I would get stares and as usual, I would attract beggars.

But unlike near Vilakazi Street in Soweto, these beggars in Fordsburg were high on weed or whatever else they were smoking and they are known to get violent while their senses are impaired. Hence this place isn’t really one tourists would want to venture to. Even my friends who have been living and studying in Jozi for 2-3 years would not venture there even during the day because they have been told to avoid/scared into avoiding the area. I was just lucky to have had the opportunity to see the place at night safely with some friends.

Jozi is full of markets but they still very much reflect the divide in this country; the rich have their weekend markets full of gourmet food, organic products, handcraft jewelry and live entertainment while the poor have markets such as the ones in Fordsburg or in the townships, formed of shacks and stalls set up temporarily on the side of the street.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Johannesburg Through Its Markets

  1. Thank you very much for sharing your experiences with JoBurg and the extensive description of the food markets. And I appreciate your perspective on the the social environment leading to different markets. As I am blogging about markets I like to consider the many aspects which lead to a market as it is.

    I believe that http://www.thislittlepiggy.co.za/ will be interested in your post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.