Source: Gauteng Tourism Authority / Mindwork

Newtown, located near the Johannesburg city centre, originally started out as a racially mixed working class district where bricks were manufactured. In the late 1890s, the brickworks was removed to make way for the Kazerne Marshalling Yard, the first railway marshalling yard of its kind in Johannesburg. Working class people of all races continued to live in the area up until 1906 when the Johannesburg City Council forcibly removed the African and Indian residents. This was one of the first forced removals to take place in Gauteng. The Council moved the African residents to Klipspruit, the first section of what was to become Soweto, and the displaced Indian residents were moved to Pageview.

The Johannesburg Town Council bought land in the area at great cost and decided to name the district Newtown. A fresh produce market, a mill and an abattoir as well as a power station were erected and Newtown became not only a hub of agricultural trade, but also the producer of much of Johannesburg’s power. Newtown continued to be a place where workers lived, worked and even protested. Two significant strikes that took place in Newtown include the 1911 Tramway strike and the 1918 Wage Campaign. In the 1930s the Council decided to name the open space in front of the market, which also served as a popular meeting place for workers, after Mary Fitzgerald, a fierce labour activist who became the 1920s deputy mayor of Johannesburg in the 1920s.

Newtown experienced another drastic change in the 1970s when both the market and the power station were relocated to other premises and Newtown became home to many of Johannesburg’s aspirant artists, actors and musicians. The Market Theatre moved into the eastern part of the market building. A number of museums, such as Museum Africa, the Workers Museum and the South African Breweries Centenary Centre were established in the vicinity as well. A number of trendy cafes and bars, most notably the famous jazz club Kippies, also found a place in Newtown.

At present, the Gauteng Province is upgrading Newtown to attract more creative industries into the area. This development is part of a wider initiative by the Gauteng Province to breathe life back into the inner city. New improvements include the construction of the Nelson Mandela off-ramp and the upgrading of Mary Fitzgerald Square.

The Brickfields

In the late 1880s, dozens of bywoners (Afrikaans-speaking peasants), who had either been driven off the land by natural disasters or by more successful commercial farmers, came to Johannesburg in search of work. These ex-Afrikaans peasants were unskilled and unable to find work on the gold mines. Left with few alternatives, unemployed Afrikaners petitioned the government to allow them to manufacture bricks from the clay along the Fordsburg Spruit which runs through the area. The government granted permission on a temporary basis and the area soon gave rise to a local brick-making industry. The Brickfields did not only serve as a refuge for poor Afrikaners and thousands of unskilled labourers of all races; a number of independent transport riders and cab drivers also settled in the area. By the beginning of 1896, the Brickfields had become home to approximately 7 000 people.
The Memorandum Factory

In the early 1890s the Netherlands South Africa Railway Company (NZASM) asked the government for land close to the centre of Johannesburg which the company could use for the loading and unloading of goods necessary for transport to the goldfields. The Brickfields, which fell between the Braamfontein Station and the Park Halt (Park Station), was ideally situated and in 1892 the government decided to expropriate a portion of it and hand this land over to the company for use as a marshalling yard. The residents of the Brickfields, particularly the brick-makers, were opposed to moving and decided to protest against the government’s plans. A Brick-Makers Association was formed and a number of petitions were sent to the government. They wrote so many letters of protest that they became known as the ‘memorandum factory’. In spite of these efforts, the land was taken over by the Netherlands Railway Company and in July 1896, the last residents were forced to vacate the Brickfields.


Burgersdorp ('citizens' town')

Although poor Afrikaners were forced to move from the Brickfields, the government remained concerned about the influx of poor unskilled Afrikaners into Johannesburg and decided to lay out a new township especially for them, since they could not afford property elsewhere. The township was called Burgersdorp and was situated next to the Brickfields, between Fordsburg and the so- called ‘Coolie Location’. The Location had been established in 1887 for people of Indian origin and was the only place in Johannesburg where Indian people could legally own property.

As the Location became more overcrowded, many Indian families rented shacks in the backyards of Burgersdorp. Similarly, local African people rented rooms in both Bugersdorp and the Location. Like the Brickfields, Burgersdorp became a place where workers and poor people of different colours, cultures, and religions came together and lived side by side. The large variety of churches in the district, including the Dutch Reformed Church, the Pretoria Diocesan Trust, the Zulu Congregational Church, the Ebenezer Independent Church, a Hebrew congregation and a mosque, illustrated the level of diversity in Burgersdorp. The strategic location of Burgersdorp did not go unnoticed and trading companies, banks, brick companies, a brewery, fisheries and the Imperial Cold Storage Company all moved into the area. Shops and eating-houses were also set up on the streets that led to the Braamfontein Station.


The Dark Side of Johannesburg

From an early date Burgersdorp and the neighbouring Location were considered to be a slums and earned names such as ‘Poverty Point’, ‘The Dark Side of Johannesburg’, and ‘The Fly in Johannesburg’s Honey Pot’. Although government authorities were aware of the appalling conditions in Burgersdorp and the Location, the Anglo-Boer South African War broke out before anything could be done to improve the situation. The war intensified poverty in Burgersdorp. Afrikaans women, who were too poor to flee the Transvaal during the war, looted unoccupied homes and businesses to find food. Eventually a relief fund was organised for these women by local businesses.

Once the British had taken control of Johannesburg in June 1900, and later the Transvaal, authorities again turned their attention to the squalid conditions in Burgersdorp and the Location. They were not worried about the well being of the residents. Instead, they believed that the land was far too valuable to be left as a slum. The British administration aimed to declare Burgersdorp and the Location ‘Insanitary Areas’. This would allow the Johannesburg Town Council to expropriate land, demolish buildings and redevelop the area. The protests and petitions, reminiscent of the pre-war ‘memorandum factory’, made by the residents were unsuccessful and the Commission of Enquiry, appointed in 1902 to report on the Johannesburg Insanitary Area Improvement Scheme, approved the Town Council’s plan to redevelop the site. In the end these expropriations cost the Johannesburg Town Council more than a million pounds, as much as the total construction costs of the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

The First Forced Removal in Johannesburg

In 1904, Mahatma Gandhi, who was practicing as a lawyer in Johannesburg at the time, brought the outbreak of disease in the Location to the attention of local authorities. The special Plague Committee declared it to be the dreaded bubonic plague. A total of 112 people contracted it and 82 of them died. To prevent the spread of the plague, the Location was fenced off after all the inhabitants had been evacuated. The local fire brigade was ordered to torch it and it burned for three days. There is some speculation that the disease, which had broken out in the Location, was not bubonic plague. It was very likely that victims had contracted bad cases of pneumonia as other inhabitants had done the year before. It is believed that the Johannesburg Town Council used the plague as an excuse to get rid of the Location and to segregate the population. In Johannesburg’s first forced removal, the Indian and African residents of Newtown were removed to a camp south of Johannesburg near the sewerage works. This camp, called Klipspruit, was the first section of the township known today as Soweto. After the plague, members of Newtown’s displaced Indian community moved and settled in Pageview, previously called the ‘Malay Location’, to the west of Newtown.

In the 1950s and 1960s the government tried to remove Indian residents from Pageview. In 1956 the area south of 22nd Street was declared a white area. Early in the 1960's the government declared Pageview a ‘black spot’. Schools were closed and children were forced to go to schools in Lenasia some 30 km outside Johannesburg. Many young Indian girls could no longer go to school because their parents did not want them to travel so far on their own. They were served with eviction orders to leave their Pageview homes.

In protest residents formed the Pageview Standholders and Tenants Association (PSTA). After 1976, for the first time, white people also joined in the protest against forced removals. The traders declared that they would not move unless they were given a new place to trade and to live. The government then built a big shopping centre, the Oriental Plaza in Fordsburg. The shopowners refused to move their businesses there as the rents were too high.

Bulldozers were sent in to level empty houses. In 1980 the last 67 families received notices to leave. They refused. They formed the Save Pageview Association and in 1981 managed to get a court interdict to stop further evictions. In an effort to force them to move the government ordered officials to dig up the roads to make it impossible for these 67 families to get to and from their homes. Again they went to court and the digging stopped.


A New Town

With the slums out of the way, the Johannesburg Town Council decided to build a whole new town. Newtown was considered to be a suitable name for the district. A large market building, the biggest building in the country at the time, was erected. The Council also decided to build a huge power station opposite the market. The power station included electric workshops, a turbine hall, and a compound for African workers, married quarters for white artisans and, from the 1920s, two very large cooling towers.

While Burgersdorp and the Location were considered to be the ‘Dark Side of Johannesburg’, Newtown became the engine room of Johannesburg. Many of the structures that were built in Newtown during the first two decades of the 1900s, including the market building and parts of the old post office and the power station, are still be found in Newtown today.

The Cultural Heart of Johannesburg

In the 1970s Newtown once again experienced significant changes when both the market and the power station were relocated to other premises. The eastern part of the market became the Market Theatre, the first non- racial theatre in Johannesburg, and the Africana Museum was given permission to use the main fruit hall of the old market. In 1984 the Market Theatre started a flea market on Mary Fitzgerald Square. Unfortunately these new developments were not enough to prevent Newtown from becoming run- down and derelict. Even the cooling towers, that had become a familiar landmark in Johannesburg, became structurally unsound and were imploded in 1985.

Many aspirant actors, musicians and artists moved into Newtown. In support of this natural influx of creative groups, the Johannesburg Town Council decided to develop Newtown into a cultural centre. Museums such as Museum Africa, the Workers Museum and the South African Breweries Centenary Centre were established in the early 1990s and a number of trendy cafes and bars, including the famous jazz club ‘Kippies’, also found a home in Newtown. As present developments proceed to ensure that Newtown remains the cultural heart of Johannesburg, the face of Newtown is once again changing.


Mary Fitzgerald Square

In the early 1900s Newtown became a place where workers not only lived and worked, but protested as well. The open square in front of the market provided the perfect meeting place for many of the municipal and service workers who worked in the district and the surrounding areas. Significant strikes, which took place in Newtown, include the 1911 Tramway Strike and the 1918 Wage Campaign. In the 1930s the open square was named after Mary Fitzgerald, who was not only a militant labour activist, but also a keen campaigner for women’s rights. Mary Fitzgerald became deputy major of Johannesburg in the 1920s.

Pickhandle Mary and the 1911 Tramway Workers Strike

In May 1911 the municipal tramway men of Johannesburg, organised by the militant Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W), went out on strike. The strike was called when the tramway sheds, situated near Newtown, were surrounded by armed policemen after the tramway workers refused to take part in what they believed to be a biased inquiry into the grievances of tramway workers.

Although some scabs managed to take a few tram cars out of the tram sheds, the wives and daughters of the striking workers lay down on the tracks and refused to let the trams pass. By that afternoon, the transport system of Johannesburg had been brought to a halt. The next day the police, who had taken note of public criticism concerning the use of armed police to control the strike, decided to replace their rifles with pick handles. This did not prevent the police from clashing with strikers and their supporters and a number of women and children were injured in the fight. Some police dropped their pick handles and these were quickly retrieved by the strikers and used in self-defence. It is in this way that the ‘pick handle brigade’ came into existence.

The strike lasted a few days. It was estimated that as many as 4 000 policemen were used to stop the strike and many strikers were arrested. While the strike ended, the activities of the ‘pick handle brigade’ did not. A few months after the annual local elections, the ‘pick handle brigade’ disrupted the meetings of those candidates who had expressed hostility towards the tramway strike. Mary Fitzgerald, who was dedicated to the socialist cause, played a prominent role in defending the tramway strike and was one of the leading members of the ‘pick handle brigade’. Afterwards, Mary Fitzgerald addressed every protest meeting with a pick handle and soon became known as ‘Pickhandle Mary’. The pick handle symbolised the brutal methods used by the police against strikers and Mary Fitzgerald said that she carried the pick handle to meetings to ‘show how far the authorities had gone.’

The 1918 Wage Campaign: black and white activists stand trial together for the first time.

In 1918 an unprecedented wave of strikes by black and white workers engulfed the Witwatersrand. Inspired by the strikes by other municipal workers, night soil workers went out on strike demanding an increase in their wages. These were the days before water-borne sewerage became general and few of Johannesburg’s residents could ignore the growing stench that resulted from the failure to collect sewerage buckets. The 152 strikers were arrested and sentenced to two months imprisonment.

A series of meetings, organised by the Transvaal National Congress (TNC), was held to protest the sentencing of the night soil workers. Members of the Industrial Workers of Africa (IWA) called for a general strike. The IWA, modelled on the militant Industrial Workers of the World, was the first trade union to organise African workers, and adopted the slogan ‘Sifunda Zonke’ (we want everything) to sum up their basic demands. A week later a committee which had been elected to take the general strike forward, reported back to a mass meeting of one thousand workers. They demanded the release of all the jailed workers and called for all African workers to go on strike and demand a minimum wage of one shilling a day.

The lack of effective organisation led the committee to call off the general strike at the last moment. Several thousand mine workers, who did not receive news of the cancellation, went ahead and struck at three mines. These miners were met with armed police and soldiers and fought back with pick-handles, iron bars, axes and pipes. The first general strike movement by African workers was stopped in its tracks and the miners were forced back to work. Seven activists, drawn from the Internationalist Socialist League, the IWA and the TNC, were charged with ‘incitement to public violence’. This was the first time that black and white activists had been jointly charged for their political activities and their trial was a forerunner of the treason trials of the 1950s.

The Market Theatre

One of the first places to provide a forum for black actors and playwrights was the Bantu Men’s Social Centre. It was founded in 1924 by R.F. Hoernle , R.R.R. and H.I.E. Dhlomo. It was housed in a building at the south end of Eloff Street. Another (black multiracial theatre company, housed in The Dorkay House, an old clothing factory was started in the 1960s, and also proved to be an exciting venue, especially for musical productions.

Black theatre, like literature and poetry, was strongly influenced by Black Consciousness in the 1970s, and an energetic form of protest theatre emerged. A number of plays were performed in Gauteng’s townships. Important works included Mthuli Shezi’s Shanti, Mzwandile Maquna’s Give Us This Day, and Matsemela Manaka’s Egoli: City of Gold, Vuka and Ekhaya. Personalities such as the actor John Kani, play writers Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona, came into their own. The recurring theme of this theatre was the abused and painful injustice of apartheid.

John Kani proved to be one of Gauteng’s most talented actors. Kani won a Tony Award in 1975 for his performance in Sizwe Bantu Is Dead and an award at the Sicilian Film Festival in 1987 for his role in Saturday Night at the Palace. John Kani went on to become one of the directors of the Market Theatre.

From the 1970s onwards, black theatre was increasingly performed by multi-racial casts before multi-racial audiences. The Market Theatre, the first truly non- racial theatre in Johannesburg, has long been the hub of exciting theatre, both of local and international plays. The Edwardian girders and pillars and tiles of the old market continue to shelter Gauteng’s liveliest theatre. Museum Africa Opened in 1994, Museum Africa is dedicated to preserving and reflecting the history of South Africa and focuses, in particular, on the political, social, economic and cultural aspects of Johannesburg’s past. The museum presents a geographical profile of the city, which and exhibits that depict the history of Gauteng’s earliest inhabitants, including the San and the stone- age Tswana- speaking people. The original stone engravings and paintings by the San are especially valuable.

'Tried for Treason’'is one of the museums’ special exhibitions and traces the treason trial that took place between 1956 and 1959. As many of 156 political activists were tried for treason during this period, including Nelson Mandela, Joe Modise, Ahmed Kathrada, Ruth First, Joe Slovo and Albert Luthuli. Trials which resulted from several protests, ranging from local bus boycotts to the anti- pass protests at Sharpeville in 1960, are also represented. ‘The Road to Democracy’, another interesting display, illustrates the events that led up to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994.

Material illustrations the development of the local music traditions which emerged from Johannesburg’s slum yards and townships, especially Sophiatown, is displayed in the recreation of a Johannesburg slum yard that illustrates the slick and vibrant Marabi culture which began in the 1920s. The museum also houses the Bensusan Photographic Museum which shows the development of photography in South Africa and the world.

The Workers Museum

The old municipal compound, as well as the artisan quarters, which were once used to house the workers of the power station, can still be found in Newtown. These buildings do not only provide a unique example of a migrant workers compound in the inner- city, but graphically display the racial divisions between workers and the different living conditions that black and white workers were subjected to. Even the most modest white working class family could afford the services of a domestic worker. The back yard rooms of domestic workers, which are sandwiched between the compound and the artisans’ cottages, give a brief glimpse into the life of these workers.At present, a labour college occupies the white artisans’ cottages, situated on Jeppe Street. Behind the cottages a statue of a municipal worker, which was erected by the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU), guards the entrance to the old compound. The compound was renovated in the early 1990s under the guidance of the award- winning architects, Alan Lipman and Henry Paine. Parts of the compound are used as meetings rooms and house a small library with books related to labour history and socialist theory. The east wing of the compound has been restored and functions as a museum on migrant workers.

Kippies and African Jazz

Gauteng has produced some of South African’s leading jazz musicians. The origins of African jazz can be traced back to the illegal bars, or shebeens, that were established in the 1920s and 1930s. It is in these shebeens that a form of jazz, known as marabi, was first played. Popular marabi bands included groups such as the Japanese Express, the Jazz Maniacs and the Merry Blackbrids. Marabi music later influenced leading musicians such as Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela and Kippie Moeketsi.

In the 1950s a form of music, known as kwela or pennywhistle music, gained popularity amongst the youth. This music, in which musicians improvised on their pennywhistles, guitars, string bass and drums, gained international recognition. Lemmy ‘Special’ Mabaso was probably one of the most talented pennywhistle players. Kwela developed in mbaqanga in the 1960s. Mbaqanga consists of a blend of African melody, marabi and American jazz and is played on electric guitars, saxophones, violins, accordions and drums. One of the most well known exponents of mbaqanga is the well-loved Miriam Makeba.

African jazz was always firmly rooted in the experiences of black South Africans and in the 1950s, when the resistance movement against apartheid was at its height, jazz musicians produced a number of protest sings. The song Azikwela (we won’t ride) was written about the Alexandra bus boycotts and Hugh Masekela’s Bye Bye Sophiatown was inspired by forced removals. On the whole, African jazz was adversely affected by apartheid and may of Gauteng’s leading musicians, such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, left South Africa to peruse their careers abroad.

In the 1980s and 1990s big jazz bans regained popularity. Bands that emerged at this time included the African Jazz Pioneers, the Elite Swingsters, the African Jazz Prophets and the Roots, which consists of former Robben Island prisoners. At about the same time a new from of music, mzabalazo, became popular in Soweto. This music is made up of protest songs which were composed on the streets or in prison and is based on wedding melodies. The famous Soweto String Quartet, with Malusi Khemese, Sandile Khemese, Thami Khemese and Makhosini, is also an interesting band which combines classical music with African music.

Bibliography for Newtown

  • Brink E (1994) Newtown Old Town, Museum Africa. Johannesburg.
  • Coplan D B (1985) In Township Tonight, Ravan Press, Johannesburg.
  • Carrim N (1990) Fietas: a social history: 1948- 1988, Save Pageview Association, Johannesburg.
  • Callinicos L (1987) Volume Two: Working Life: factories, townships, and popular culture and the Rand, 1886- 1940, Ravan Ress, Johannesburg.Guy D (2000) The Very Best of Johannesburg and Surrounds, Struik Publishers, Cape Town.
  • Roux E (1964) Time Longer than Rope: the black man’s struggle for freedom in South Africa, University of Wisconsin Press, London.
  • Van der Walt L ‘Race and the early radical left in South Africa: Marxism, revolutionary syndicalism and the national question in South African socialism, 1910- 1933.” Unpublished.
  • Van der Walt L " ‘Fight for Africa, which you deserve’: The Industrial Workers of Africa in South Africa, 1917- 1921.” Unpublished.
  • Van Onselen C (1982) Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand, 1886- 1914: 1 New Babylon, Ravan Press, Johannesburg.
  • Walker I L and Weinben B (1961) 2000 Casualties, South African Trade Union Council, Johannesburg
  • Source: Gauteng Tourism Authority/ Mindwalks

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