South Africa Gauteng Gauteng

Other Side of the City


The second building to go up on what is now Gandhi Square, in 1916, was renamed Somerset House at some homesick colonial point and will have another name again. It contains one of Johannesburg’s ‘lost’ arcades behind boards that have long blocked anyone from seeing it or United Bank’s old safe deposit boxes in its basement.

The basement is first to open to the public as dining areas and an Underground Bar called Zwipi, restored and given new life by Gerald Garner of Joburg Places. I hear the echoes of bankers’ heavy treads making way, through construction banging, for a new experience in century-old surrounds.

The ground floor of this quadruple volume arcade is under an arched, glass roof. Upper galleries lead off balconies supported by Art Nouveau swan-neck supports. My feet are on the dusty but original black and white marble floor. Edwardian men and women in buttoned shoes would seek respite from what they perceived as din and dirt in the streets of Johannesburg and stroll on these floors in such arcades, purchasing little luxuries, having their hair dressed or consulting with lawyers in the rooms off the balconies.

Today the people of Johannesburg, as on Gandhi Square, come from all over South Africa and Africa, some from other continents. Most walked long paths to get here and have, at least metaphorically, Africa’s dust on their soles. When the Johannesburg storms come, they sniff and smell the earth through the rain, even in this pavemented city with its high buildings, reminded of their homes, their places before. Between lightning flashes we glimpse the shape of a woman striding swiftly on the rooftops. She is the Thunder Walker, representing those who have travelled here from beloved spaces.

Hers is the name and the myth Gerald has given to this building, naming the arcade space where there will be cafe tables and treats to eat, Scatterlings. The arcade has already been used as a wedding venue, confetti scattered from the floor above.

The rooms above are being transformed into what Gerald has named the Balcony Gardens Apartment Hotel, in the air bnb style of use.

We climb the stairs to the very top, till we’re standing overlooking the square, next to the tip of the roof and find, even up here, along a precarious ledge, a slim door in a wall. Perhaps it’s where the thunderwalker disappears after the storm.

(Thunder Walker 110 Fox St 082 894 5216)

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