Welcome to Braamfontein. Also known as Braam, Braamfontein is a swanky suburb in Johannesburg. Quick side note: some other popular acronyms used in town are Jozi and Joburg, both which represent Johannesburg.
Braamfontein has been redefined as one of the cultural centres of Johannesburg following recent urban renewal projects after the collapse of the Apartheid era. Packed with trendy coffee shops and colourful buildings, the suburb is frequently visited by university students nearby and a popular hub for many start-up companies.
Following lunch at a pizza restaurant right next to the iconic Braamfontein sign, we meet up with our walking tour guide, Gerald (check him out on JoburgPlaces). A native South African, Gerald was born and raised in Johannesburg and grew up during the Apartheid era. For the next four hours, we will be following him on foot as he leads us through Braamfontein on a very informative tour. Some highlights below:
On our way up to Constitution Hill, the walk leaves many of us short of breath. Two possibilities:
- We are extremely out of shape (or more specifically, I am).
- The altitude of Johannesburg is much higher than many of us are accustomed to.
Well in truth, it’s probably both. But to address the second point, Johannesburg is 1,700 metres above sea level, whereas, in comparison, Montreal is only 232 metres above sea level. By the end of this trip, I’ll have acclimatized to this higher altitude and become a superior breather. Remembering my grade 11 biology class that explained how athletes would travel to higher altitudes to train, I can only hope to be one of those model athletes. Let me imagine.
The Johannesburg bus system was constructed a few years back and apparently is considerably safer than the subway system. It also looks much more advanced than any public transportation system I’ve seen in Canada.
In terms of the government building looming in the back, note the intimidating design of the structure. Apparently is was purposely constructed by the Apartheid regime to emphasize the power they held over its citizens. As you walk through the complex, there is a clear sense of dominance reflected in the architecture.
Mildly perplexed at how narrow many buildings are in Johannesburg. According to Gerald, it could have just been due to the architectural designs of the time during construction.
Another angle of the government building. Can you imagine its overpowering presence standing under it? Ironically, I am reminded of several buildings on campus in university….
A 10-15 minute walk from the Braamfontein sign, we arrive at Constitution Hill and are greeted by singing voices. At the top of the hill sits the highest constitutional office in South Africa. Built on the same site where the prisoners during the Apartheid Era were held, the prison that once sat here jailed many famous figures including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Ghandi. Today, the new offices and buildings of Constitutional Hill were built with many of the same bricks of the prison. It is stunning to see the seamless integration of the past and how it paves the road for the future.
The new architecture following the end of the Apartheid era has a much different message conveyed through its visual design. Unlike the previous government building, even though this is the highest constitutional office in the country, it purposely was designed to be welcoming for individuals of any backgrounds. Inside the Constitutional Court, there are constant visual and symbolic reminders that those in power are there to serve the public of all race, gender and ethnicity.
The design of the building was selected through an anonymous international contest. In the end, with over 500 submissions, two South Africans in their early 20s won. Their design reflected the values of the new constitution and future for South Africa.