A street guide for those in search of God in Jo’burg

As a lapsed believer who has not paid his subscription fees in years, but who still retains an intellectual interest in the church and religion, I decided to do an amateur cartography of churches in Johannesburg.

The mapping pilgrimage would begin in Braamfontein. Safe, sane and small, it did not seem as vast and variegated as Johannesburg's CBD nor as sordid, unfathomable and hair-raising as Hillbrow.

The mapping of the city's churches could not be done on any other day except Sunday because, apart from the few edifices designed for prayer, most of the churches in Johannesburg are accommodated in what used to be office space. It shows the enterprise of the city's denizens: always changing their space to suit present needs — an informal rezoning, if you will. The result of this is, for instance, a church in the old, sprawling complex on the corner of Ntemi Piliso and Jeppe streets where the Johannesburg Stock Exchange used to be.

Besides, keeping my activities to Sundays would ensure that I would not miss the mournful or celebratory sounds escaping from the third or fourth floors of the city's high-rise buildings.

In my mapping of Johannesburg I restricted myself to Ntemi Piliso Street in the west, End Street towards the east, Bree Street as you move north from Anderson Street and Marshalltown in the south. Left out of this project were Berea, Yeoville, Doornfontein and Troyeville.

View God in Jo'burg in a larger map
This map shows churches in Hillbrow only. Known as Jo'burg's crime capital, Hillbrow might have the highest concentration of churches per square metre in the city.

Sunday #1
I set out one windy morning, accompanied by the autumn leaves that littered Johannesburg's tarmac. My routine would be replicated over the next three Sundays.

The starting point of the mapping expedition was the improbably named Let's Go to Glory congregation in the Liberty Building at the corner of Wolmarans and Biccard streets in Braamfontein. The church is led by Themba Manana, a youthful, Swazi-born charismatic preacher with two university degrees: a bachelor of commerce from the University of the Witwatersrand and a master's in business administration from the University of South Africa.

In its own way, this is a remarkable church. Its vivacious, "spirit-filled" congregation, now numbering about 5 000, attracts the city's upwardly mobile and cosmopolitan crowd. It comprises lawyers, chartered accountants and other professionals, including Braamfontein's student community. Founded 10 years ago in a room in the Braamfontein Centre, a Wits University residence, it is appropriate that it has a huge student following.

For years it held its services on the ground floor of the Liberty Building. The church holds several Sunday services, the first of which starts at 7.45am. Cramped and wishing to accommodate an even bigger crowd, it has now moved from the ground floor into bigger premises on the 10th floor.

My modus operandi was quite simple; I relied on my feet (to walk up and down the streets), a sharp sense of hearing (to pick up snatches of hymns and songs escaping into the stratosphere from the top floors of buildings) and a pen and notebook (to jot down the co-ordinates). I counted Braamfontein's churches: eight in all. I could be wrong. The only church that exposes itself or stands as such was the Roman Catholic Church on Bertha Street, next to the soon-to-be-opened Wits Arts Museum.

This preliminary journey through Braamfontein gave me a sense of the chastening obscurity in which these churches exist, so hidden that only God's all-seeing eye can spot the faithful.

Sunday #2

I would generally start mapping from Ntemi Piliso Street in Newtown going east, for the obvious reason that the suburb west of Ntemi Piliso is Fordsburg, a predominantly Muslim area, but I made an exception and began right at the bottom of Bree Street. There is a congregation on the corner of Gwigwi Mrwebi and Quinn streets, a church about which friends living in one of the lofts on Carr Street always complain, describing prayer sessions that extend into early morning hours.

Most outlying areas of the Johannesburg CBD are deserted on Sundays. One sure way of locating churches is to look for cars. And you will find all manner of them, gleaming off-road supercars and jalopies, whose very presence on the roads is proverbial proof of the quickening power of the heavens and whatever lies inbetween. As I walked on Gwigwi Mrwebi Street, past warehouse-like structures on both sides of the road, I also saw hordes of working-class people, Bibles in hand, trudging on foot to their places of worship. I turned right just below the N1 south and left into Bree Street.

By my reckoning, Bree could be the busiest road in Joburg's CBD. On Sundays the blare of taxis, the din of stragglers ransacking the shops and music — invariably that monotonous, keyboard-based gospel sound – rose above the street, making it difficult to place its origin. Was the music coming from some church on the floors above, or from speakers laid out on the pavements? It was difficult to tell. I was not surprised to find only one church on this street, at the corner of Harrison and Bree, and for several streets God was not to be found. There is so much commerce on the street that God barely has a place to call his own.

I walked on, right to the point where Bree intersects with End Street. Sitting under the eaves of a decayed edifice were young guys, mostly in their 20s, who looked like men you did not want to mess with. They watched me walk past, with what I thought was disinterest and intensity, perhaps intrigued by the notebook. Getting sweaty hands, I did not think God was on their minds, although it is quite possible God was thinking of nothing else but them.

The marginal area of Doornfontein, which borders End Street, has a large concentration of churches. The combination of cheap rentals and big, warehouse-type buildings must work in its favour.

Near the intersection of Pritchard and End streets, I counted four churches. They included an independent African church, the Christian Apostolic Church in Zion, whose signature dress is long, flowing robes in primary, not always complementary, colours. I found a number of Nigerian churches (the accents of the preachers blaring from the speakers gave them away) and the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the congregation whose acronym could have been coined by a dyslexic. UCKG, of course, is an example of Christianity's successful attempt to franchise God. There is one at the corner of Bree and Ntemi Piliso streets, another at the corner of Eloff and Plein streets, yet another at the corner of Pritchard and End streets and one in Pretoria Street in Hillbrow.

Apart from the many Nigerian-led churches, there are other nationalities laying a claim to the city. I met an acquaintance — a man who survived a horrific accident in which his wife perished and who is now raising their son on his own — coming out of a building close to the corner of Market and Kruis streets that is occupied by Glad Tidings, a church of Zimbabwean origin. There is an Ethiopian Pentecostal Church whose services are in Amharic. And on the corner of Market and Kruis streets in Hillbrow I heard, on another Sunday, preaching in a tongue that was recognisably not Southern African — West African, perhaps. In Commissioner Street, right in the CBD, there is a church whose signs are written in English and Portuguese.

Sunday #3
As a friend and I walked in Wolmarans Street, approaching Hillbrow from the west, we were suddenly confronted with hundreds of people standing obediently in single file. Hillbrow is at best a chaotic mass of people, and at worst a 21st-century incarnation of the mythical Tower of Babel. Igbo bounces off Wolof, which bounces off Ndebele, Chewa, Luba and scores of other languages in an endless linguistic shuffle.

But only one language, isiZulu, rose above the babble from the speakers suspended outside an edifice known to the Jewish community as the Great Park Synagogue, the first shul to be established in Johannesburg. The monumental structure, finished in 1914 in the Byzantine style then in vogue, was designed by architect Herman Kallenbach, rumoured to be Mahatma Gandhi's lover.

Occasionally, the speaker would slip into rudimentary Sesotho. The preacher spoke clearly and slowly, as if in peroration. He had none of the hackneyed, heckling tones you hear from those charismatic chancers who believe that sound and fury will compensate for a lack of content and conviction. It was a voice that demanded to be heard, reminiscent of one of the Bible men I often listened to in my pious adolescence.

Being non-believers, we stood at a safe remove. An usher, wearing reflective clothing, came up to say: "You are not allowed to stand there." He gave us a pamphlet and told us to go into a building where the sermon was being beamed on to a screen. We chose to stand outside. "The devil does not stop chasing us because we are in the church," began the pamphlet.

This is the Revelation Church of God, led by prophet Samuel Radebe. The assembled, wearing their Sunday best, could have numbered as many as 2000. It felt like a cross between a rally and a throng at a liturgy. Anecdotal evidence suggests that to get a seat inside the church and see the miracle-working man in person, you must get there as early as 4am. After standing for about 20 minutes, I told my friend it was time to check out the other churches. The cartographer cannot afford to be sentimental.

We crossed Claim Street. Hillbrow's extra-wide streets and impatient taxi drivers careening up or down the hill mean pedestrians really have to take care, even when they have right of way. We proceeded to the corner of Nugget and Wolmarans streets, where we found the exact opposite of the church we had just visited. There were, perhaps, one or two people in sight, otherwise it was dead, in stark contrast to Radebe's throng. The church, known as the Cathedral of St Constantine and Helen and officially opened on September 23 1909, felt like a museum. It is appropriate that the city has designated the Hellenic monument a heritage site, as a plaque triumphantly announced.

We turned left into the next street, Smit, where there is another heritage site, the First Church Christ Scientist. Most of the churches we encountered in this suburb — the Hillbrow Independent Baptist Church, the Lutheran Church, Brethren in Christ and many others — did not stand out in any way. Apart from a few with fantastical names (the Tower of Solutions is a case in point), there was nothing particularly distinctive about this church except, perhaps, for the drug peddlers standing right outside the door. One, reaching out for my hand, even mentioned a price.

It reminded me of the few times that Jesus showed emotion: when, whip in hand, he had a fight with the forex dealers outside the temple. "My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves."

I counted about 20 churches in Hillbrow. The suburb, which is by most accounts Johannesburg's crime capital, might have the highest concentration of churches in the city per square metre.

On one of the dingy streets, as grey water spewed forth from a drain, we saw an unkempt girl, thin as a reed, leaning against one of the grimy walls. She was in the company of what could have been her dealer, a pimp, or a relative who had come to her rescue.

After three hours of walking, my companion, legs weary, face sticky with sweat and stomach grumbling, wanted to sit down and eat. Later, I wished I had shouted at her in the way Russian critic Vissarion Belinksy did to writer Ivan Turgenev: "We haven't yet solved the problem of God and you want to eat!" And drink Hunter's Dry cider as well, nogal.

Sunday #4
My first expedition into the city ended on Commissioner Street and I had to come back on Sunday number four to finish what I had started. It was a disappointment.

I started at the bottom end of Fox and End streets, just below the highway. Nothing cried out in these parts, except perhaps the obscure street names that only postmen could recognise.

The only churches I found during this last outing was one at the corner of Marshall and Eloff streets and another at the corner of Joubert and Andersen streets. On the pink, low-rise building was signposted in bold black: "Sunday Miracle Service; Thursday Prophetic Service—" Every first Friday of the month, the church has all-night prayer sessions.

Though the City of Gold is regarded by those who do not live here as a city without God, to be visited only when one cannot avoid it, I did find God in the most unimaginable and improbable of spaces. I glimpsed his radiant halo in the synagogue-turned-church on Wolmarans Street, in hidden and sordid side streets that only God and the faithful can locate; he is to be found in churches that have become refugee clearing houses the Methodist Church at the corner of Pritchard and Small streets.

And, unlike what they taught us in Sunday school, God does not just speak Hebrew and English. He speaks Amharic and Sesotho, isiZulu and Lingala and a multitude of other tongues of the people who now call Johannesburg home.

God is small business, witnessed in the small spaza-shop churches that have sprung up in the city. God is big business too; just look at the big car the pastor drives, the man demanding that you pay a tenth of what you earn to him (whether he means himself or God is not immediately clear) — as if God needed the money.

Percy Zvomuya is the Mail & Guardian's arts writer

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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