Jo Buitendach is the co-founder of Past Experiences, Johannesburg’s first walking tour company. Past Experiences, gives visitors a taste of life in Joburg’s inner city and encourages them to find beauty in places where there is none, particularly through graffiti and public art. Ayiba’s Edem Torkornoo spoke with Jo after a graffiti tour of Joburg’s Maboneng Precinct about running a tour company, the joys of experiencing a place on foot, and introducing people to her beloved city.
What motivated you to start Past Experiences?
I actually wanted to start a company that did archeological tours and it didn’t really take off. We did one city walking tour and it was kind of amazing. But I’m so lucky because sometimes you fall into the things you love. I fell in love with Joburg. I’ve always liked Joburg but I seriously fell in love with Joburg.
Why walking tours?
I’m a huge believer in walking in general. There’s something about touching the ground. But also, I don’t know how you can experience a place without walking. With people in tour buses, it makes it seem like the locals are in a zoo and you’re watching them and just taking photos. When you’re on the ground, you interact with them and they see you. And for a lot of these people it may be the only time they interact with a white person. I’m not trying to make it racial but it’s the reality.
The other thing is us being green. We either walk or use public transport so that people are not using their cars. This way, we’re supporting public transport and the locals.
Have you lived in Joburg all your life?
No, I lived two years in London and I think that’s how I’ve learned to love cities. I always knew I’d come back. Africa is my home, Johannesburg is amazing. But London was good for learning new things.
What’s your favourite thing about giving tours?
I really like people so I get to meet the most amazing people on the tours. And it teaches you that by nature, human beings are good. Obviously bad things happen in life and they don’t end up as good as they could be, but there’s a lot of good and this job teaches you that. I also discover cool stuff in Joburg.
Doesn’t it get boring at some point?
That’s the thing, you know? There’s this terminology called guiding fatigue. I did part of my honors on it. But this job is not like that because you are always meeting new people and we’re always creating new products.
What’s your least favourite thing about your job?
I’m not so keen on corporate work, but it’s the best money. Some corporate work is amazing. The creative industries are really creative with what they want us to do. I love school tours as well.
Do the people on the corporate tours tell you what they want?
It depends on the theme. Sometimes the theme is “No more bias.” That’s a big one.
Do you have a most memorable tour?
I have several. There was one where I had a family for four days. They were the best fun. I also love the weekend tours for the South African public. I love Joburg so it’s not hard for me to work on a Sunday.
I also like the collaborative tours. Like, this one [of Graffiti in Maboneng] where we teamed up with the iwasshot FOUNDATION. Iwasshot is becoming a sustainable business and not just a project. An important part of what we do, though we don’t do it officially like we’re a fair trade business, is that we collaborate with people and somehow benefit them. That’s what we do with these guys.
Are there any challenges?
If you’re not on a tour bus, you can’t control who comes up to you. This is a city with crime so you’ve got to be careful and I’m always aware of what’s around me. I always check to see if people are with us and I always map out routes ahead of time to know where we’re going.
What has been your biggest lesson?
I always thought that I could talk to people but this has made it very easy for me to talk to anybody. It’s taught me to treat everybody the same. I think I always had that principle but this has really made me do it. We do this one tour where the theme is “No more bias” and it teaches you that.
What advice will you give anyone who wants to start a business like this?
I feel like I went into this business not knowing anything, but if I had to do it again, I would. That’s a good sign. I feel like when I was starting this, there was no advice for a young person who wanted to start a tour business. Now, we’re part of a government program that provides support. I feel like a lot of people start businesses without knowing what it entails or how difficult it is. Not to discourage them, but I would just say, it’s going to be difficult and they’re going to need some funding. My parents helped me initially, but the government has also been good to us because we’re a small business.
Be prepared, do your research, realize if there is or isn’t a market. Also, do things you enjoy. You know the saying, “it’s not personal, it’s business?” I’m like rubbish, it is personal. This is a part of me, it’s always personal.
Where does your love for graffiti come from?
I think it’s amazing artwork and has an amazing colourful impact on a people and city. It’s not gang-related here. For a lot of the kids here, it’s the only art they see. They know it’s there and will tell you about it.
What are must-dos for anyone visiting Joburg, apart from taking your tour?
Attraction-wise, I always love Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia. That was the underground base of the ANC party in the 50s. When the police raided it, they found documents that incriminated Mandela. It’s an amazing site, it’s been beautifully redone.
Also, go somewhere with a lot of local people. Braamfontein is quite nice on a Saturday night. I love that it’s multiracial. I also like Newtown. I like the graffiti there.