Louis Botha Avenue’s ‘Little Italy’: What is left of la dolce vita?

Amid Louis Botha Avenue’s shift in demographics, a few businesses stand out as relics of the former Italian migrant community that made the area home.

When you hear “Buongiorno!” from Samson Muvhali, you know you have arrived in Johannesburg’s slice of what was once dubbed “Little Italy”.

For many years, Italian immigrants made Louis Botha Avenue the hub to meet, shop, dine and reminisce about their motherland. Now a Tshivenḓa-speaking security guard’s workplace, Super Sconto, is among the few reminders of the area’s “Little Italy” accolade. 

Super Sconto, which translates as “super discount”, sits on the bustling thoroughfare that extends from Hillbrow to the edge of Sandton. Instead of functioning as another food store it acts as a time capsule of a bygone era, filled with an importer’s paradise of goods. 

LEFT: Samson Muvhali, the Super Sconto security guard who has worked at the food centre since 2010. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

A boom in migration sparks a community 

Like many Italians in the area, the store’s general manager, Roberto Casti (66), has an immigration story of his own. The man, wearing a red Lacoste shirt and watch with a strap to match, explains that he was born from Neapolitan and Sicilian parents into an Italian colony in Eritrea, northeast Africa, after which he ventured down to South Africa in 1980 to look for greener pastures.

“The only place that could give us an opportunity was South Africa; that is why I came here,” Casti says, carrying an Italian accent untouched by his life in Africa.

Louis Botha was flooded with Italian immigrants when a dynamite factory in Avigliana, a town north of Italy, hit dire straits in 1894 and subsequently closed down. Dr Anita Virga, an Italian lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, says the closure, coupled with the later effects of World War II and severe unemployment, led to many skilled workers being transferred to the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory on the Pretoria Main Road.

“The first person usually arrives and calls the others, saying ‘Come here, there is an opportunity’,” she says.

Virga, who moved to Johannesburg from Turin, Italy, six years ago, explains that after the war Italy remained physically and psychologically destroyed, forcing Italian citizens to venture out and find work.

A four-minute walk southeast of Super Sconto takes you to Marco Pecci (MP) Mirror & Glass. The owner and namesake ended up in the area due to similar circumstances.

Pecci tells the story of his parents who were forced to leave Marche, Italy, in the Sixties when employment in their home country hit a dismal low. Following the numerous success stories of fellow Italians they migrated to Johannesburg, eventually establishing their glass workshop on Louis Botha in 1991.

This being said, the same influx of Italian influence in the form of delicatessens, shoe shops and jewellery stores which lined the avenue has since vanished. Now Super Sconto and MP Mirror & Glass are among the only Italian-owned work spaces left on Louis Botha.

Bringing ‘Little Italy’ back to Louis Botha

A mechanical engineer by trade, general manager Casti did not realise his heritage would play such a major role in his future until he met Franco Pisapia, who established Super Sconto in 1996.

Over the past 23 years Super Sconto has changed almost as much as the avenue it calls home. The store had humble beginnings, operated by only four staff members including Casti himself. The food centre functioned humbly on a single floor, juggling a deli, coffee bar and kitchen all within an arm’s length of each other.

“We were also renting part of our premises to Standard Bank. When their lease expired, we took over and 12 years ago we revamped,” Casti says.

It is Monday morning at Super Sconto and for the general manager breakfast consists of cappuccino and small talk before the real bustle begins. He does his rounds in what still looks like a newly renovated store, passing between aisles of imported products and racks of liquor on the ground floor.

A tiled staircase separates the two storeys and leads him into the spacious restaurant, complete with a designated smoking area and a deli stacked with fresh meats.

“It’s nothing fancy. It’s all very simple, like old Italian tradition. We start with the sauces early in the morning and whatever is on the blackboard is the menu of the day,” says Casti.

Roberto Casti starts his morning at Super Sconto, his place of work for the past 23 years.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

Come lunchtime the restaurant is packed, but a hush settles over customers who delve into their meals, engrossed in Italian goodness.

The only thing breaking the silence is muffled conversation from downstairs, starting with questions such as “Quanto costa?” meaning “How much is it?” rising from the ground floor. Upon further inspection these questions are directed not only at the staff of Italian descent, but also at the African workers like Muvhali (49) who have picked up on Italian lingo since working at Super Sconto. 

“I have worked there since 2010 … so I learn new words from customers every day,” the security guard says.

A traditional component of the store that remains unchanged is its family element. Pisapia’s daughter, Chiara (20), who has left Johannesburg to pursue her studies in financial sciences, finds herself being drawn back to Super Sconto on a weekly basis. The vibrant yellow pasta and strong smell of espresso in the air do wonders to jog her memory of a place that has become more of a home than a business.

Fetching one of these recollections, a dark-haired and jovial Chiara says, “I would always sit on Roberto’s lap while he would offload the container, and once all the products were offloaded we would all play hide-and-seek in the basement between the high boxes and tins of products.”

Employees and customers take us through the history of Super Sconto, the now renowned Italian food centre with humble beginnings in the unlikeliest of places. Video: Gemma Gatticchi

Back at Pecci’s house of glass the space is not ideal for child’s play. At first glance the store seems empty of human presence, until the lean and grey-haired 47-year-old pops up from behind a desk crowded with tools and newspapers. 

The self-proclaimed “one man show” explains that many Italian businesses on Louis Botha closed down because they were dependent on the same community that left “Little Italy”.

Peering into his workshop, it is difficult to avoid your reflection. Mirrors lean against almost every inch of the inner store walls, making space for a giant glass-cutting table that dominates the space.

Pecci disregards the idea of following fellow Italians out of the area.

“There were also many banks here, and when they closed due to crime many people moved, but I am pretty happy where I am. I am really not worried about the crime because I do not have anything people want to steal,” he says.

Looking at his store from the outside, it is clear that he means what he says. While others choose to plaster their transparent walls with newspapers, barricading their contents from passers-by, Pecci’s glass store acts as a glorified window into his work space and life.

Marco Pecci cuts a mirror for a customer in his workshop on Louis Botha Avenue. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi
Marco Pecci specialises in window repairs, sandblasting, bevelling and glass furniture. Many of his current customers once formed part of Louis Botha Avenue’s “Little Italy”. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

While the entrances of neighbouring stores like Pecci’s sit tightly on the pavement bordering the avenue, Super Sconto is fenced off, with an adequate amount of parking to accommodate customers who no longer reside in and around Louis Botha.

Today the Italian food centre acts as a drawcard, bringing customers back into an area they have since forgotten about, but the attraction is not limited to the Italian community. The current members of Louis Botha often indulge in what the last of “Little Italy” has to offer.

Felix Mpofu, a Louis Botha worker and resident, towers above his colleagues at Skyblue Security Systems, situated conveniently next door to Super Sconto. They all huddle to share their experience of the store.

“It’s fantastic and the service is good. Everyone is always friendly, and they have so many different items. I really cannot complain because I am more than welcome when I am there,” Mpofu says.

According to its website, by 2019 and 27 staff members later, Super Sconto has grown to be the biggest Italian retail store in South Africa.

“We’ve got customers in Cape Town and Durban. Some of the retailers shop here. We’ve got restaurants that we are supplying too,” Casti says.

This being said, there is a wealth of Italian stores that failed to adapt to the avenue’s shift in economy and demographics.

LEFT: Deli assistant, Rosina Senwamadi slices and packages mortadella for a customer in the popular Super Sconto deli.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

A mark that remains 

On 226 Louis Botha Avenue, what is now a vacant building was once Ponte Vecchio Jewellers, owned by Annarita Ravenna (75). A keen Ravenna explains that in 1951 her family moved from Florence, Italy, to South Africa when her father was offered a job at what was then Iscor, a steel company now known as Mittal Steel South Africa.

The Ravenna family used the only trade they knew to start a business on Louis Botha and make a living.

“My father’s brothers were jewellers from Florence, but he was a fitter and turner and the wish of having a jewellery shop was always within him.

“We chose Orange Grove because of its Italian community. Even the Italian Consulate moved to Houghton to be closer to the community,” says Ravenna, who helped to establish Ponte Vecchio Jewellers in 1968.

The jewellery store prided itself on manufacturing, remodelling, repairing and importing jewellery from Italy, employing many locals to add their charm to the store before it closed its doors in 1996.

RIGHT: Thomas Mpfuni waits for customers next to his snack station on Louis Botha Avenue where he has been working since 2010.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

“Some Italians moved away, but I think it was because their offspring married and moved away, mainly to Bedfordview because of the Italian Club being there. I don’t think that there is another ‘Little Italy’ anywhere else in Johannesburg,” says Ravenna, who has since moved back to Italy.

Wilson Mapheto (68) worked at the Italian jewellery store and now runs a jewellery workshop of his own on the south-east end of Louis Botha, hidden from view by a chipped white wall and two drooping trees.

“Believe it or not, Ponte Vecchio Jewellers brought me to where I am today. Even now I am still part of the Ponte Vecchio family,” says Mapheto.

Today the once glamorous home for gold, silver and pearls looks more like the garage of an abandoned house where the flashy window decorations have been traded in for random strokes of graffiti.

Thomas Mpfuni (64), another Louis Botha resident, now uses the pavement in front of the defaced building to make a living in his own way, selling an assortment of chips and popcorn.

The mute man, referred to as “uncle” by customers and passers-by, greets you with a smile as warm as the sultry Monday afternoon sun. He sits modestly, with nothing but one chair and several boxes as a makeshift table. Mpfuni packs his goods out neatly, grouping the same products together and laying them out in solitaire fashion.

BELOW: A homestyle ciabatta sandwich made with blue cheese at Super Sconto. The sandwiches are a quick and popular dish at the Italian food centre.
Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

The man who proudly dons his Zion Christian Church hat and badge has been sitting at his unofficial spot every day since 2010. Mpfuni provides for his family, who live next door in the equally dilapidated Margaret Court apartment block. 

He is a popular stop for many on their way to work. Those who buy from Mpfuni know how to communicate with him, often using hand gestures to make small talk and establish a price for a desired product. 

The same history of determination to make a living runs rampant along the avenue through the likes of Casti, Pecci and Mpfuni too. It is this determination that brings a strange attraction to the area.


When a store becomes a personal landmark 

Now, instead of functioning as a makeshift country or vessel to an Italian motherland, Louis Botha and its surrounding areas operate more as a point of reference for those who are hungry for days gone by.

“Many Italians still go to places like [Super Sconto] to have lunch … When I really need something that reminds me of Italy, then I go there, so it is more a sentimental attachment than really a need,” Virga says.

As the sliding doors open for the last customer to exit, you are sent off with a final shout of “Arrivederci!” from Muvhali, as the deafening commotion of Louis Botha consumes the solace and air-conditioning that came with entering Super Sconto.

By leaving the store, the area’s “Little Italy” is reduced once more, only now instead of four walls it is confined to a plastic bag, ready to be taken with you to the place you call home.


Dave Garlick frequents the food centre for its range of Italian coffees and chocolates. Above he inspects a box of Sperlari, an Italian chocolate brand. Photo: Gemma Gatticchi

FEATURED IMAGE: A women rolling dough for baking. Photo: Supplied


Louis Botha Avenue, Johannesburg’s Tar Nile

Corridors of Freedom rains new hope on Johannesburg’s Tar Nile by offering renewal and new investment for the once economic hub.

Lonley petrol pumps stand with employees settled on the sidelines outside the manager’s office, waiting for the midday rush of motor vehicles to flow through the petrol station to wet their beaks.

In front of the office sits a stern man, engaging with his young protégés. His quiet dominance is felt by his younger peers as they talk about their lives.

ABOVE: The ongoing Rea Vaya construction Louis Botha Avenue in Wynburg Photo: Tsholanang Rapoo

He listens silently and cracks a slight smirk as the young protégés crack jokes. His intimidating demeanour is shed with the slightest sign of a smile, bringing light to a fatherly demeanour as he offers advice about the younger men’s problems.

Ndaba Mahlangu (46) is manager at Ener-Gi garage located on Louis Botha Avenue, Orange Grove. For the past four years he has witnessed the construction of what is meant to be the economic revival of Louis Botha.

It is meant to be the restoration of Johannesburg’s Tar Nile by carving out new transportation hubs through Rea Vaya, which will feed the economy of the suburbs it flows through. This is extensively explained in the Corridors of Freedom (COD) document.

However, the 46-year-old manager describes this as a “death roll” on his business.

“The development of the Corridors of Freedom, based on an effective public transport system and high-density neighbourhoods closer to the places of economic opportunity, giving rise to sustainable human settlements”: This is how it is stated in the Static Framework.

Breathing new life into the tar Nile

The COF framework further explains: “The majority of working class and poor citizens are still living on the fringes of the city, commuting daily, often at considerable cost, long distances to access work and economic opportunities.”

It aims to reduce these costs by feeding into the economic restoration of Louis Botha through a transport-centred plan that will function as an economic activation to bring back the vibrancy of this once legendary avenue.

“The intention of the current initiative is to optimise development in and around high- intensity corridors, to create more opportunities for residents of Johannesburg and create economies of scale that are attractive to investors.”

The sun rises with the sound of taxi horns heralding passengers to and from Louis Botha. It is a busy road with quiet pavements, swallowed by the grunts, groans, growls, wheezes and chuffs of different motor engines rippling through the surface of Johannesburg’s Tar Nile.

This is accompanied by the burble of tires rippling over the tar of Louis Botha. The energy is chaotic but controlled by the stop-and-go traffic and honks, which are enough to wash away one’s urge for five more minutes of sleep.

Louis Botha is the Tar Nile of Johannesburg, providing fertile land for development opportunity in the economy of more than nine varying suburbs.

The Tar Nile connects Johannesburg’s Fife Avenue, beginning at the edge of Hillbrow, with Bramley and transforms into Pretoria Main Road.

It facilitates multiple business transactions through the busy-ness of the road, assisting in the mixing of the different economic spices – the Rea Vaya becoming the emerging crocodile of the 9km Tar Nile.

RIGHT: Louis Botha is the tar Nile of Johannesburg. The 9km stretch serves to connect people through varying transportation. Future plans to revive the once booming economic hub involved an injection of people through construction, with major development into the Rea Vaya. Residents and commuters of Louis Botha share their thoughts on the stalled construction, particularly those close to Ener-Gi petrol garage.

The cost of renewal

“This Rea Vaya construction has cost us a lot. Some big trucks now cannot even drive in,” said Mahlangu.

In front of the distressed orange, white and black fill-up station, in the middle of the narrow road, is a large newly painted glass blue-red Island barricaded by concrete blocks.

The terminal prevents access by incoming traffic from Pretoria Main Road to Fife Avenue, a phenomenon that does not happen in front of big-name garages only a few hundred metres away from Ener-Gi.

The metal brocade is surrounded by an overwhelming combination: the drilling of nearby construction mixed with desperate hooting from taxis scavenging passengers.

“So far we have lost a lot of business, because since some roads are closed off already the customers from the other side can’t drive this side, so they just go to BP or Caltex,” said Mahlangu.

ABOVE: Across Ener-Gi garage stands a newly constructed Rea Vaya station on the narrow road of Louis Botha, showing the different forms of transport on Louis Botha Avenue.  Photo: Tsholanang Rapoo

Early bird Johannesburg energy gurgles through this small petrol station for approximately two hours and later flows into a relaxed morning with light ripples of traffic, taxis swimming pedantically through the street.

The wave of activity rises again at lunch time and knocking-off peaks, with the sounds of motor vehicle engines gurgling as they continue to flow past the banks of the Tar Nile.

Rebuilding the economy of Louis Botha begins with the COF framework, which states: “The majority of working class and poor citizens are still living on the fringes of the city, commuting daily, often at considerable cost, long distances to access work and economic opportunities.”

The City of Johannesburg’s action plan to resolve economic issues along Louis Botha includes resolving inequality, unemployment and poverty.

This road has lent itself as a microcosm of Johannesburg’s greater economy. Like reflections on the river, the surrounding structures mirror a greater South African history.

Economic inequality waves through the Tar Nile, with a political, social and economic history entrenched in its buildings and demographics.

History gives breathes life to a new economy

Lining the banks of this Tar Nile are Victorian-styled buildings covered in dried, freckled, peeling paint on one side of the pavement characterised by curved lines and monochromatic colours.

The opposite banks of the avenue are filled with freshly painted developing upmarket real-estate with clean lines, modern-style architecture housing corporate businesses, and ongoing construction for key South African supermarkets.

Inserted on the horizon of Orange Grove are green hills filled with blooming jacaranda trees and a scattering of modern high-rise homes with wide-open windows and high brick walls.

But the heart of Louis Botha is formed by the tumble-down hotels turned into apartments covered with withering paint and dull glass windows buckled with butler doors.

The Tar Nile still holds its reputation as a migrant nucleus, transforming Orange Grove’s little Italy into an African migrant pivot.

This presented an influx of business opportunity stemming from capitalising on the busy-ness and energy of the road, one that carries its own flash-flood reputation with its notorious “Death Bend”.

The Death Bend is located on the Upper Houghton section of the Tar Nile marked by S-Bend wall, covered in a mural of art marking the different changes of Louis Botha.

A slide show of the storefront of Joel Autospare located on 119 Louis Botha, framed with car bumpers and a tire-tower topped with the rim and some of the products in the store. Photo: Tsholanang Rapoo

The S-Bend, which in its history is infamous for a high accident rate in Upper Houghton, has in the past been difficult to navigate; thus its notorious history of fatal accidents, which earned it the name Death Bend.

“I think accidents are not predetermined. I have witnessed one once or twice. I wouldn’t say accidents help the business,” said Odinaka Ugwumba, a co-owner of and administrator at Kingsley Auto Motor Parts on 207 Louis Botha Avenue.

This reputation has produced a unique type of transaction, creating a micro auto parts economy evident in several shops on the pavement banks of Louis Botha, whose services transfer through its neighbouring suburbs.

“I think what helps the business is the busy road and the cars passing, and the people living in the community,” says the Nigerian native.

Ugwumba has been working on Louis Botha for three years, but the store has been open for only two months.

The tall, broad-shouldered, light-skinned, blue-eyed young adult is stationed at the back of the spare parts auto body shop scattered with car hoodsm with an administration desk in the back, stationed in front of a single window.

The 36-year-old recalls pleasant interactions with the transformation of Louis Botha, saying in part: “I remember when I started working here in 2015, towards the end of December. I used to take public transport from Ghandi Square, the Metro bus down to Louis Botha. It has been awesome, I think.”

Despite the booming business for auto body parts on the Tar Nile, the installation and towing are done away from the gushing street.

Not too far from Kingsley Auto Motor Parts stands Joel Auto Spares, a similar store and a familiar sight as the Nile is sprouting these types of stores.

Joel Auto Spares has been open for approximately a month. The quaint store is cluttered with car parts, with relatively no space in the front of the business to interact with its workers.

Sitting behind the entrance are three employees on their laptops and phones, conversing about synchronising price points.

The young business uses an online advertising model to set itself apart from the competition through advertising on several social media sites.

This transports the economy of Louis Botha away from traditional walk-in interaction, introducing the Tar Nile to a new type of consumer.

“Most of the customers we get are other people that also deal with auto body parts – shops and individuals,” said Brighton Chitekero, an employee of the shop.

“Some of the customers are mechanics, panel beaters, those people that fix cars,” added the 25-year-old, most of whom come from the surrounding neighbourhoods.

“Online is more effective because nowadays someone does not need to be driving around stop by stop, but he wants to be on his machine or his phone once.

“After he finds what he wants, he makes a call so that if he is leaving his place he just goes direct,” echoed Chitekero.

Their most expensive item, depending on the model of the car, is headlights, which can range in price up to R9 500, which would be a Range Rover headlight.

“We buy [these goods] from insurance companies,” said Bradley Dziva.

Dziva (26), another employee of Joel Auto Spares, echoed the business’s attraction to the busy-ness of the road, adding “the rates this side are affordable, the building itself”.

Bicycle ornament hanging from the entrance inside Viml Daya’s store, Bhanis Bicycle, located on Louis Botha. Photo: Tsholanang Rapoo
Viml Daya completing early morning admin in his store on 280  Louis Botha Ave in Orange Grove. Photo: Tsholanang Rapoo                                  
Bicycles on display inside Bhanis Bicycle, a store on Louis Botha Avenue in Orange Grove. Photo: Tsholanang Rapoo

The current of the tar Nile

A continuous theme for the Tar Nile: The continuous flow of movement is what drives the economy, drawing investment from local business owners, old and new.

“Louis Botha is an important road, it’s a very busy road. When the highway, N1, has traffic, this road becomes the next nearest through road,” said Viml Daya, (45) a bicycle repair shop owner on Louis Botha.

“That is a bad thing because sometimes you need a bit of quiet and there is always this drumming noise of cars passing by and taxis hooting, so that creates a bit of noise.

“We have become accustomed to it. When there is no traffic or no noise, that worries us. When there is peace and quiet we worry, ‘now what’s happening outside, is there a problem,” he added.

“The busy road does play an important role in attracting customers,” said Daya.

“If I was on a quiet road, inside a quiet residential road, then there is no traffic, no one will know about my place.”

The shop tangled with bicycle parts has been there since 1992 and has been witness to the transformation of its industry on the Nile.

A common thread in the transportation economy of Louis Botha is the transit of commuters moving from one place to another. The flow of movement is the last remaining aspect of the once booming economic giant.

The COD aims to finesse this to attract investors.

“In their present form, the corridors already act as a significant spine on which diverse sectors of the city move and interact,” states the official document.

“Well [the location] it’s not ideal. For a bicycle shop you need parking and Louis Botha doesn’t offer parking, it doesn’t exist… and that is a challenge and has been a challenge since day one,” said Daya.

The COD aims to feed back to the economy of Louis Botha by placing more people on the streets. Through initiatives that include high-density housing, the COD wants to increase foot traffic, introducing human interaction along Louis Botha.

Through Rea Vaya, the residents will be able to sail further distances and return at little effort and cost to them. The increased use of public transport instead of private motor use is aimed at reducing traffic on the road, allowing for a clean flow for Louis Botha.

The bustle and noise on the road will also include the murmurs of human interaction along with the occasional taxi hoot.

FEATURED IMAGE: A slide show of the storefront of Joel Autospare located on 119 Louis Botha, framed with car bumpers and a tire-tower topped with the rim and some of the products in the store.  Photo: Tsholanang Rapoo