Sarah Barret is a captivating storyteller who knows more about Joburg than most people. The founder of Joburg 360 Tours, her days are filled with sharing not only the fascinating and often lesser-known facts of this city, but also breathing life into the colourful characters that have at some stage or another called Joburg home. On her guided tours of Johannesburg, Soweto and surrounds, you'll be guaranteed unique insights into what she calls an "exhilarating, broken-but-beautiful city".
"Joburg is where you start to understand how the country [South Africa] ticks and where you look into a part of its soul."
What brought you to Joburg, and what makes you stay here?
The love of a man brought me here, but the love shown to me by a whole city makes me stay. Joburgers are warm and welcoming. This place is about its people.
Why did you decide to do what you do in Joburg?
I think tourism is a calling. I started accompanying tours in 1988 as a holiday job after my post-grad, and even though I've worked in other areas of tourism (and in art, too), I always come back to being a guide. It's a combination of teaching, acting, and storytelling. It's my home.
The work you are proudest of?
Perhaps I'm most proud of my work at Constitution Hill. I've guided hundreds of people through the site. Many of them are overseas visitors, but it's my mission to get every Joburger to visit, too. It's not a perfect site. It's plagued by budgetary constraints, but I think it does an excellent job of tracing our history from colonialism and apartheid to liberation – and showing the way our constitution acts as an essential cornerstone of our new democracy. A visit to the Constitutional Court gives us hope for the future – a possible future of dignity, humanity, and mutual respect.
What is it about the city that fuels your ongoing curiosity?
That's easy because I can't keep up! I feel sorry for people who think that a weekend means languishing on the sofa or heading to the mall. There's so much happening, particularly in the arts space, where so many people have something to say. The Joburg arts scene is inclusive and diverse; it takes creativity to another level. The city is home to three world-class art fairs every year, and that's not including the Open Studio days, fashion shows, pop-ups, and so on. If the arts are not your scene, then there are new bars and restaurants opening all the time. Plus classical music, opera, ballet, and jazz.
"The love shown to me by a whole city makes me stay."
What's the most common reaction to Joburg from your visitors?
Part of my job as a guide is to dispel the myth that Joburg is all bad. Of course, we don't sugar-coat it. We show visitors the city, warts and all, but most people find it fascinating and a pleasant surprise. Before the tour, they say, "People warned us not to come here!". After the tour, they say, "We wish we'd known" and "We wish we had more time."
What aspect of Joburg is your favourite to show off?
Johannesburg is a sprawling city. It measures 1645 sq km, which makes it bigger than London! That's partly a result of the dreadful segregationist policies of the old regime, but it also shows how much Joburg is growing. I like combining different facets of the city to give contrast, like a Sandton to Soweto experience, but a bit more curated; or the nature reserve of The Wilds with urban regeneration at Victoria Yards; a Soweto shebeen with Gerakaris Winery in Craighall Park; Keyes Art Mile with street art in the inner city; emporia like Ardmore, The Trov, and Kim Sacks Gallery with township street stalls, shweshwe homewares, and wire animals and flowers sold on the pavement by Stuart at Keyes Art Mile and Lovemore in Parkview. It's all beautiful, just in different ways.
The most underrated experience in Joburg?
I feel lucky to have access to so much on our doorstep. I recently asked a friend of mine in the USA what she misses about Joburg. "No reservations!", she exclaimed. I had to think about what she meant. Then I realised she was reminding me that city life all over the world means crowds of people, pre-booking of everything, and far less spontaneity. Here we have access to so much on our doorstep, from restaurants to theatres, ballet, sport, and even parking bays. We may not think so, but our traffic is generally not bad. Even Cape Town's traffic is worse! It's easy to take that for granted. You can have breakfast in Maboneng, followed by cricket at Wanderers, and an evening show at Montecasino all in one day. If our infrastructure weren't collapsing, we might even call ourselves a world-class African city!
What's your earliest memory of Joburg?
Trees. Expecting an industrial, mining town but finding that part of the city is home to the world's largest urban, man-made forest. Who knew?
When you are not guiding, where are you most likely to be found?
With family, out for a run, visiting a gallery, watching sport on TV, playing the piano... sometimes just learning to sit still.
An industrial loft apartment behind 44 Stanley. I couldn't be happier in my space.
What three things should a visitor not leave Joburg without seeing or experiencing?
The Constitutional Court, the view from Munro Drive, and a bungee jump off the Orlando Towers (just kidding; if I can't do it myself, I can't really recommend it, can I?). Instead of the bungee, my third choice would have to be our warm welcome. But there's lots to do. It's no wonder Conde Nast Traveller has voted Johannesburg one of its top places to visit in Africa in 2024.
The most memorable meal you have eaten in Joburg?
I'm not a foodie. I eat to live, not the other way around, so memorable meals are not my thing. You're more likely to find me at [American burger joint] BGR than at [fine-dining] The Pot Luck Club. But my visitors need food, so I know what's available. Often they say they want to eat 'African', but then they realise that sheep's head and tripe at the home of my friend Phiri in Orlando East are not quite what they had in mind. Then again, they don't want pizza either. The wonderful Alina Mlotshwa in Dobsonville provides a happy medium of African cuisine that suits the visitors' palates, so we often head there to sample her delicious buffet washed down with a glass of wine or a quart of Soweto Gold. My visitors love The Pantry by Marble in Rosebank too!
If you could buy one Joburg building, which would it be, and why?
I'm not someone who continually harks back to the 1900s, but I am saddened that the Johannesburg Art Gallery is not properly maintained and that the Johannesburg City Library has been closed for some time. Water damage is so destructive to both art and books. Apart from the heritage, these are important resource spaces, and it makes me so sad to see the way these buildings have been allowed to fall into disrepair.
If you were the Joburg mayor for one day (average tenure) what would you change?
I would improve public transport. The historically divisive spatial planning means that people have to travel long distances daily. The provision of buses and trains is woefully inadequate, and minibus taxis bear the load. Better public transport would reduce the number of cars on our roads. It would allow visitors to get around without a private transfer, a private guide, or an e-hailing taxi service every time they want to leave their hotel. I know I'm talking myself out of a job now, but the challenge for visitors is not just the obvious fear of crime, but also the fact that they have no idea how to go anywhere by themselves. Except for the Gautrain, there is no easy way to get around.
Favourite Joburg label, and why?
I'm worried I'm too old to understand labels. Does Nando's count? I just love the Nando's brand because overseas visitors think it's from Portugal, and I love the look on their faces when I tell them it all started right here in Rosettenville. Seriously though, Thesis Lifestyle and Tshepo Jeans are a couple of my favourites, and my guests love them too.
What makes someone a Joburger?
Optimism, determination, resilience, focus and drive, honesty, fragility, friendliness, the ability to hustle, and the belief that anything is possible.
What do you love most about Joburg?
The weather, the energy, the arts, the people. The fact that people come to South Africa to go on safari and visit the natural beauty, but their time in Joburg gives them a short, sharp, multi-layered history of South Africa. Joburg is where you start to understand how the country ticks and where you look into a part of its soul.
What do you least like about Joburg?
The fact that we don't look after things. We install but we don't maintain. We build beautiful structures like Nelson Mandela Bridge, Liliesleaf, and the outdoor museum at Chancellor House, and then we don't look after them. Vilakazi Street is the most famous street in the country, and yet the weeds are as high as the visitors who walk along it. Some years ago at 44 Stanley and along Owl Street, the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) erected beautiful bollards. Now many are damaged, broken, and lying on the ground, but no one at the JDA will attend to them despite my best efforts. Officials love to take the credit for things, but then they're never around when there's follow-up work to be done. It's beyond frustrating.
Your number-one tip for a first-time visitor to Joburg?
Don't book a hotel at O.R. Tambo International Airport! Come to visit the real Jozi – you're in for a pleasant surprise.
One Joburg personality whom you would honour with the freedom of the city if you could, and why?
I would honour the active citizen. Every person who stands up to make a difference, who fills in where government lets us down. The members of OUTA, JoziMyJozi, and the Johannesburg Inner-City Partnership, those who make Braamfontein work, those who make The Wilds and other parks clean and safe, the members of the African Reclaimers Organisation who step in where Pikitup fails, the independent electoral candidates for 2024, and every individual who campaigns until grass is cut, a traffic light is fixed, or a pothole is filled. May the freedom of the city be bestowed upon you all!
The perfect weekend in Joburg includes:
A walk or run, coffee, an exhibition opening, a market, friends, wine, a picnic and jazz at Nirox Sculpture Park or live music at Blind Tiger. Does that sound too international? How about chicken feet, umqombothi [traditional beer], and a Soweto Derby? It's all good. Bring it on!
Three words that describe this city
Compelling, edgy, unequal.
Check out some of our previous #MyJoburg interviews for more insights into the city:
#MyJoburg with Melusi Mhlungu, creative powerhouse behind JoziMyJozi.
#MyJoburg interview with Banele Khoza, artist and founder of BKhz Gallery.
#MyJoburg with DJ and journalist Charles Leonard on his podcast 'This is Joburg.'