Inside Jozi's hidden gem - dinner inside a 115-year-old underground bank vault

20 August 2019 - 09:53
By Cebelihle Bhengu

Tourists and residents in the city of Johannesburg now get to attend secret storytelling dinners and walking tours hosted by JoburgPlaces, at one of Jozi’s most hidden and historical gems - a 115-year-old underground bank vault.

Housed in Gandhi Square, in a building originally named Somerset House which was built in 1904 by the United Building Society, its name later changed to Amalgamated Banks of South Africa (Absa). This building, now known as “the Thunder Walker”, is in many ways one of the origins of Absa Bank.

Gerald Garner, who leads the JoburgPlaces initiative which is dedicated to the reconstruction of the city of gold, told TimesLIVE that the tour business was birthed by a book he had written, Spaces and Places - Johannesburg, which sparked an interest among the public who started to request walking tours around the city.

He said upon approaching the owners of the property under which the vault exists, their idea was to start a small cafe and combine it with their walking tours business, but the more they explored the building, the more they realised its potential.

“Once we started looking at the building, we realised there must be a vault. We had the key for the vault and we walked downstairs and fell in love with the place. The vault somehow survived against the odds.”

By “against the odds”, Garner is referring to the city of Johannesburg having been rebuilt six times in 120 years, with buildings being demolished during each era. The vault, however, survived in its original state.

The discovery of this treasure further birthed the underground dinner restaurant and bar, called Zwipi Underground, where visitors enjoy a variety of cuisines prepared by head chef Princess Bulelwa Mbonambi, in the company of chief storyteller and tour guide, Charlie Moyo, who takes them through its history.

In the vault, built with steel imported from London, are 1000 boxes in which the wealthy stored their valuables, which could have been anything from jewellery to important documents.

Moyo said of the 1000 boxes, only 40 have been opened, each taking eight hours to open at a cost of R1,000. Asked if there was a plan to open more or all the remaining boxes, Moyo said it would be costly to do so and because of this, it rather remains a mystery what lies on the other side, if anything at all.

Many stories unfolded in the vault. A man in his 90s unknowingly attended one of the secret storytelling dinner tours, only to realise that he was in fact in a bank vault where he used to work at as an auditor in the 1970s. One of the doors in the vault bears a cut, whose cause was a mystery until he told its story.

According to Moyo, the man attributed the cut to an attempted robbery which happened in 1978. The door was never replaced or the cut concealed as the insurers refused to pay, suspecting the robbery to have been an inside job.

Asked why the owners of the boxes never returned for their belongings, Moyo said it is possible that they died without drafting wills or informing their families about the boxes.

But not all of them disappeared without a trace.

A man whose father owned a box, claimed to have been inside the vault when he was just seven years old. This, according to Moyo is where the man learnt the truth about who he really was.

“His father pulled out a document and gave it to him. As he gave him the document, the boy looked at his father. He was only seven years old and did not understand. He asked him, what is this? And his dad said to him, ‘This is you. This is your birth certificate.’”

Moyo continued, “the name on the birth certificate was different from his given name, and his dad told him that day that he was adopted. He found out when he was seven, from this vault that he was adopted.

“He was actually a Jewish orphan and had lost both his parents during the Nazi Germany war. He was shipped to SA where this family fell in love with him, and they took him home. He discovered this, right here. You can imagine how many stories played out here.”