Sculpture of Brenda Fassie by Angus Taylor Picture: YVONNE FONTYN
Sculpture of Brenda Fassie by Angus Taylor Picture: YVONNE FONTYN

NEWTOWN is where Johannesburg began its transformation from a rough mining town to a self-supporting city. The first hostels were built there to house hundreds of miners; factories and shops were built and opened and the Kazerne marshalling yards established.

Soweto-born tour guide Sheila Nte has made this historic precinct a passion, and it clearly shows as she guides clients on the Newtown Heritage Trail.

She has a small office at the Workers’ Museum, which has exhibitions about migrant workers who, from the late 1800s, began coming to the reef, attracted by the gold mines and municipal work.

The hundreds of photographs on display bear testimony to their journey, from rural folk in traditional attire to sophisticated urbanites proudly showing off a suitcase or radio.

Life in the hostels was harsh: cold, hard bunks in cramped dormitories, inadequate showers and toilets, and poor food. The workers’ resistance campaigns are documented, as well as the assistance they received from activists such as Hilda Watts, a city council member who during the 1930s and 1940s wrote vociferous pamphlets fighting for better living conditions for workers.

Nte starts the tour at Newtown Park, criss-crossed with paths lined with wooden busts on plinths. They represent all the different types of people found in SA, she says. The area’s urban renewal project is under the aegis of various City of Johannesburg departments such as arts, culture and heritage, and development planning and urban management.

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NEWTOWN has three precincts: the Market Precinct, the Electrical Precinct and the Transport Precinct.

The Electrical Precinct is home to the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, in what used to be the Old Electricity Workshop, which hosts fascinating exhibitions about maths and science.

The precinct housed the first steam-driven power stations that served Joburg, including the Turbine Hall, now beautifully restored to host functions and the headquarters of AngloGold Ashanti.

At the Bassline, where local and international musicians perform, there is a superb bronze statue of Brenda Fassie by Angus Taylor. It shows her sitting, one hand on her knee, beside a microphone and perfectly captures the star, who died in 2004.

She is in good company with the nearby Wall of Fame, which bears the likenesses of Nelson Mandela and other struggle heroes. The Jazz Walk of Fame commemorates artists who spent many years in exile, such as Kippie Moeketsi and Miriam Makeba.

The elegant façade of MuseumAfrica is a fitting invitation into a venue filled with treasures such as African cultural artefacts, paintings, manuscripts and costumes.

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THE Mary Fitzgerald Square, once an outspan for wagons, provides parking for the museum and the Market Theatre. Fitzgerald, considered the first female trade unionist in SA, campaigned for striking tram drivers and miners. She was called "Mary Pickhandle", Nte says, because she brandished the implement while addressing audiences.

A pair of teenage girls are taking selfies against the backdrop of the façade of the Market Theatre, which still bears the signs "Indiër Vrugte Mark, Indian Fruit Market" — the building was the city’s first fresh fruit and vegetable market, opened in 1913.

It staged "struggle theatre" during the 1980s and 1990s and still provides thought-provoking fare today.

During apartheid, Kippies was a hub for the cream of SA’s jazz musicians. It has been beautifully refurbished and can be hired as an exhibition space.

The erstwhile potato sheds — where produce that could be stored for long periods was kept — have been turned into a dazzling restaurant and shops, and the smart Newtown Junction mall also has many shops and safe parking.

The original gateway to Park Station, the Wilhelmina cast-iron structure, stands jettisoned beside the Nelson Mandela Bridge.

An ornate pavilion that once featured in the Rotterdam Exhibition and was designed by Dutch architect Jacob Klinkhamer, the building is going to be turned into a railway museum.

We cross Bree Street into Margaret Mcingana Street. Newtown’s street names were changed in 2004 to honour artists who had been marginalised or exiled during the apartheid era.

These include singer Mcingana (known as Margaret Singana), saxophonists Gwigwi Mrwebi and Ntemi Piliso, and painter Gerard Sekoto.

Our final call is at Marina Walsh’s touching clay statue of Walter and Albertina Sisulu in a small square on Diagonal Street. A quirky, upbeat piece of art, it recalls the couple’s enduring love for each other and for their country.