THE Fietas subway is a visual explosion of images: there are trams, Fat Harry, Dolly Rathebe, the Avalon Bioscope, children playing kennetjie and three tins, couples doing the lang arm, and residents going about their daily business.

The colourful murals, turning a drab walk into something spectacular, is an example for the other subways that have sprung up around Joburg near Rea Vaya bus stations, built so that pedestrians and passengers can safely cross the busy roads.

These subway projects have been spearheaded by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), which commissioned the art in the Fietas subway. It was unveiled earlier this year.

Linking Fietas and its neighbouring Fordsburg under De la Ray Street on the western edge of the CBD, it captures images of life in Fietas and ensures that the unity and celebration once experienced in this previously vibrant area never dies.

About the subway’s origins, the JDA says: “Legend has it that sometime in the late 1800s, a truck laden with mining explosives accidentally blew up, causing a depression. This prompted the development of the subway, which linked Fordsburg and Fietas and generations of their peoples.”


For those who lived in Vrededorp and Pageview, the subway led to schools, clinics and bioscopes, restaurants, dance halls and places of work in Fordsburg. Similarly, for the people living in Fordsburg, the subway was the passage to mosques, churches, shebeens, sports at Queenspark grounds and shopping on De la Rey and 14th streets.

Children walked through the subway holding hands with their mothers. It was a space that passaged lives within its frame, telling stories of pranks, fights, fears, rivalry, spirits and romance, the JDA adds.

Painting the mural has been a long process. In 2003, during the Fietas Festival, graphic artist Reg Pakari led a team of young people, the children of Fietas and Fordsburg forebears, in painting a large mural on one of the walls of the subway. “This was a brave initiative under conditions of scant resources. It was time for the subway to begin to speak, releasing its store of memory,” notes the JDA.


Then, the Trinity Session consortium and 26’10 South Architects, in consultation with a former resident, Feizel Mamdoo, were awarded the tender to transform Pageview, Vrededorp and Fordsburg using art, as part of the JDA’s upgrading projects.

People who lived in the area were publicly invited to participate. “A strong collaborative approach developed between artists and community members during the process, resulting in the framework for conceptualising a suitable design for the artwork,” says the agency.

In gathering the stories and information for the subway artwork, several discussions were held with people living and working in Fordsburg, Vrededorp, Pageview, Lenasia, Eldorado Park and Soweto – the places to which Fietas residents were moved by the apartheid government.

Through children’s games days and kite flying, specifically designed exhibitions, questionnaires, the Fordsburg newspaper, East Wave community radio station and door-to-door visits, the research allowed for stories to be told and memories of Fietas to be shared.

The artwork, erected earlier this year, stretches under two railway bridges, running for 126 metres on either side of the road. It’s a mix of flat steel images that are bolted on to the walls, smooth concrete pictures laid on the walls and others painted on the brickwork.

People, buildings, pigeons and wallpaper designs make up the mosaic of images that reflect aspects of the life once lived in Fietas. The total surface area is 1 538m2 and 17 different hues were used. This project, which cost approximately R800 000, took two years to complete.


The mural was a collaborative effort, commissioned by the JDA and overseen by the commissioning agent, The Trinity Session; 26’10 South Architects; the Fietas Festival; and Whack Design. Bie Venter of bie CC was the project co-ordinator.

Several hundred locals gathered on 20 February to share in the fond memories depicted in the artwork and savour the mural during a walkabout with the artists. Rookeya Gardee, Bronwyn Lace and Reg Pakari were among the artists who took the crowd on the tour of the subway art.

On the tour, a former resident, Junior Jacobs, spoke of the kwela-kwela vans – the police vans – on which the police used to load people and take them to John Vorster Square, now Joburg’s Central Police Station.

He said: “If my father was not home on Fridays by 7pm, we knew there was trouble somewhere between Brixton and John Vorster Square.” When Fietas was cleared Jacobs was moved to Eldorado Park.

A plaque was unveiled that reads: “The subway serves not only as a physical link between the suburbs and the city, but also symbolically echoes the links between areas elsewhere in Johannesburg and South Africa similarly torn apart and left isolated by apartheid.”

New subways

More subways are being built in Joburg. Two have been have been included in the JDA’s projects: one was erected in Ellis Park on the eastern side of the CBD, and another is being built in Newclare, in the west.

In 2009, the entire Ellis Park precinct underwent major upgrades ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. Part of the work was the construction of a 20m wide subway at the Doornfontein Rea Vaya bus station, which was constructed at a cost of more than R26-million.

It has improved access from the precinct’s transport hub to the stadium, Coca-Cola Park: the construction of the two pedestrian tunnels has created a safe route between Doornfontein Station, Transport Square next to it, and Ellis Park.

Upgrades to various streets leading to the station have also improved vehicular and pedestrian access to the precinct. Public environment improvements involved new paving and better street lighting, new street furniture, road overlays and road markings in Curry, Sherwell, Buxton, Nind, Pearse and Height streets.

The same improvements were done in Park, Appolonia, Miller, Voorhout and First to Fourth roads.

The Newclare subway

According to Vuyiswa Voyi, the senior development manager at the JDA, the BRT underpass that is being built across town, in the west, will be a 30m concrete tunnel running under a railway line between Newclare and Westbury stations.

“This underpass will be well lit and paved sidewalks on either side of the culvert will be provided to channel pedestrian movements within the tunnel,” she says.
This project aims to connect Hoy and Price streets, as well as improve traffic by providing an alternative for motorists, who now have to use the only rail crossing at the Fuel and Price streets intersection.

Construction of the underpass, which started in February, is scheduled for completion in December.

Voyi says the JDA will also be constructing traffic calming measures along Hoy and Price streets in the form of mini traffic circles, paved pavements and raised pedestrian crossings to ensure that pedestrian safety along the two streets is not compromised.

In addition, work is ongoing at the pedestrian bridge at the intersection of Fuel and Price streets. It should ensure that pedestrians can cross Commando Street safely, while at the same time provide a protected right turn into Price Street.