Local Government

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When disaffected groups of Dutch farmers from the Cape reached the Trans-Gariep region, they brought with them a mindset that was essentially rural and agrarian in nature. Their constitution of 1858 divided the country into a series of ‘districts’, each governed by a Landdrost under the authority of central government, but said little about the founding and administration of villages and towns. Article 187 entrusted a local Landdrost with “the supervision of the town or village ”¦ in order that all matters may be conducted in an orderly manner”, but did little to differentiate between the affairs and divergent interests of town and country. Land was held to be agricultural in nature, and the work of the Landdrost was supported by a military ‘Commandant’ and his ‘Field-cornets’, a Market Master, a Pound Master and a Water Bailiff, whose concerns were all essentially rural.

This position was probably owed, to a large extent, to the fact that, at that time, the Republic could only boast of two major urban centres: Potchefstroom and Pretoria. Most so-called ‘towns’ were little better than hamlets, or small villages, where rural markets and religious events were held four times a year. Because of this, their planning incorporated many features of rural life, and their permanent population seldom exceeded 300 persons. It is evident, therefore, that the planning of services in such ‘towns’ would have been subject to rural principles of design.

On 6 August 1858, provisions for the ‘Regulation of Towns in the South African Republic’ were published in the Staats Courant, which merely reconfirmed the authority of the Landdrost, and only made provision for the establishment of town management boards. As these had no powers to make by-laws or impose rates and taxes upon residents, early attempts at municipal government in the ZAR were doomed to failure. Only two centres were granted municipal government: Potchefstroom, on 3 March 1864, and Pretoria, on 19 April. Neither found the situation to their liking, and on 21 September 1864 the citizens of Pretoria went so far as to return village management back to central Government, complaining that “without the cooperation of the government the regulations of the municipality could not be properly enforced”. Potchefstroom followed their example on 14 May 1889, and the administration of both centres remained firmly in the hands of the local Landdrost until the fall of the Republic in 1900.

It is fair to claim, therefore, that by the time diggers started to gather on the Witwatersrand in 1886, the ZAR’s experience in the provision of services for settlements larger than 300 persons was somewhat limited. Mindful of this fact, as well as of the conditions that many of their number had previously experienced on the De Kaap goldfields, on 18 September 1886 the miners held an informal meeting at Ferreira’s Camp. Featured prominently on its agenda, in terms of the Gold Laws, was the election of a nine-member ‘Digger’s Committee’ to draw up rules and regulations for the mining camp. A ballot, presided over by Mining Commissioner Von Brandis, was held on 8 November, the Committee was sworn into office on 17 November, and it held its first meeting a week later. However, the financial powers of the Committee were highly circumscribed, and despite its elected nature, its composition was highly suspect as all landowners in the area had the right to attend its meetings as ex officio members. As this involved over thirty persons, these could easily outvote the elected members, regardless of their needs and interests. The Committee immediately objected to this, but eventually accepted a proposal that landowner representation be limited to five votes. 

A number of important appointments were then made by the Government in 1887: A Health Inspector was confirmed on 14 February; a District Surgeon on 6 March; and a street supervisor in charge of road maintenance on 1 December 1887. Arrangements were made in March for both the purchase of a ‘scotch cart’ for waste removal and the employment of the first police constables; a temporary hospital was opened in April, and this was replaced by a more permanent structure in August 1888. Johannesburg soon became the first town in the ZAR to draw up its own health regulations.

Throughout this time, all such positions remained in the gift of the Government, and although various requests were made to Pretoria for the proclamation of Johannesburg as a town, this was never acceded to. Instead, in November 1887, local health regulations were amended to allow for the formation of a five-member ‘Gezondheids Comite’, or Sanitary Board. Its election was held on 19 December, and its first meeting was held on 29 December. The Government’s interests were represented, ex officio, by the Mining Commissioner and the District Surgeon. This body did not immediately replace the Digger’s Committee, which, bereft of all official powers, continued to function for a time as the only elected voice of the miners, but its last recorded meeting took place on 3 May 1888. Its functions were then assumed by the office of Mining Commissioner.

Despite such decisions as the Sanitary Board was able to implement, it was unable to raise the necessary funds it needed from local sources, and most of the taxes raised on the Witwatersrand continued to flow directly into State coffers. The ZAR had discovered a figurative ‘milch cow’, and was not about to give it away readily, and for the next thirteen years, until 1900, the town fell directly under the control of central Government, and most administrative decisions were made in, and implemented from, Pretoria.

By 1888, living conditions in Johannesburg had become perilous, and in June the Sanitary Board again petitioned Pretoria for municipal status, which would allow it to levy rates and taxes upon its residents. Again this was refused, as was another separate petition in June 1889, probably because the ZAR feared the establishment of ‘a state within a state’. On the other hand, matters could not be allowed to continue as they were, and on 11 October 1889 the Government increased the membership of the Sanitary Board to include twelve elected members and three ex officio Government representatives. It was also permitted to raise loans to a maximum of £10,000. As a result separate sub-committees for Public Works, Public Health, Legal and Financial Affairs, and by-laws could now be constituted.

Contrary to the spirit of these developments, however, the Government continued to play an active part in local affairs, largely through its policy of awarding concessions for services which would normally have been the concern of a municipal authority. Concessions had already been granted for the supply of water and street lights, but their award preceded the formation of a Sanitary Board, and was thus quietly acceded to. However, the prospect of making the removal of night soil and other wastes subject to a concessionary system raised such fears that in elections for the new enlarged Sanitary Board in November 1889, no candidate advocating such a policy was returned. Public dissatisfaction increased soon thereafter when it was learnt that, without prior consultation, the Government had awarded concessions to private individuals for the establishment of a market in Market Square, and for the provision of a horse-drawn tramway system. As both such projects were to be located upon public land, and any income derived was to accrue to State coffers, the voting public was understandably outraged. In frustration Johannesburg’s citizens turned their anger upon the Board, and after a bitter campaign involving petitions, and accusations of incompetence and corruption, the Board quietly went out of office in September 1890.

A new Board with increased powers of taxation upon property was sworn in on 19 November 1890, and a valuation roll was prepared and ready by 9 May 1891. However the removal of rubbish and night soil remained a problem, largely because many of Johannesburg’s residents did not understand the need for such a compulsory service. The condition of the town’s main public thoroughfares was also becoming a major concern, and the Board sought permission to establish toll-gates at key points of the town’s periphery in order to limit the influx of over-laden wagons. Although the Government found this idea attractive, and attempted to implement it on its own behalf, the seven tolls thus erected soon proved unworkable, and were abandoned. In August, renewed accusations of incompetence and corruption caused the suspension of a number of key officials, and brought the workings of the Board to a virtual halt. Ultimately though, the new system of taxation would eventually prove to be the Board’s downfall, as Johannesburg’s citizens had to pay over £36 per annum in local taxes, while the residents of Durban and Pietermaritzburg paid £8 and £10 respectively for equivalent properties.

Despite such events on the political stage, Johannesburg was able to make a number of significant advances during this time. In November 1890, a rudimentary volunteer fire service was put in place, and this was placed on a firmer footing at the end of 1891 with new equipment, a fire house, and a permanent Fire Chief. The town also acquired a system of street lighting, and by April 1892 as many as 100 gas lamps had been installed. Street names went up on most street corners in 1892, but as these were in English, many of the town’s Dutch residents took offence at this slight upon the ZAR’s official language. Some attempts were also made to place curbs upon the open practice of prostitution on the town streets.

Johannesburg offered little entertainment to its predominantly male population, whose capacity for consuming hard liquor was legendary among visitors. Women of a certain character became a necessary adjunct to such activities, and by 1888 the town centre, notoriously known as ‘Frenchfontein’, could boast of 77 canteens, 43 hotels, 12 billiard rooms, and 97 brothels. Over the next decade a number of proposals were considered, and usually found wanting. The usual methods of moral persuasion towards a better life, including religious crusades, proselytizing and the beating of tambourines, had little effect, as did other hard-line options adopted by the authorities. At one stage the Government, briefly, considered the legalization of brothels, and mine owners also took an interest, fearing the obvious dangers of drunkenness in the workplace, and the spread of debilitating Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD’s) among its workforce. Ultimately however, a social balance was only achieved after 1900, once the demographic composition of the population began to reflect a greater number of women and family units.

In August 1892, the Government promulgated a new Town Council Act (No 19 of 1892) providing for the establishment of town councils for every settlement in the ZAR with a population in excess of 500 persons. The law provided that Mayors be directly appointed by Government and that the franchise be limited to male citizens of the Republic owning land at least £100 in value. Quite clearly those who drafted it did not have the citizens of Johannesburg in mind, for they rejected it comprehensively at a public meeting called by the Board on 13 August. Following the formal closure of the meeting by its Chairman, the stage was taken by J Tudhope, who soundly attacked the Government’s policies, and proposed the founding of a political organization to serve as a mouthpiece for Uitlander grievances. His motion was adopted with acclaim, and was followed by the election of fifteen citizens to formulate the basic plan of action for the new body. The founding of the Transvaal National Union on 20 August was the direct outcome of this move. This was the first time that an uitlander agenda had found such open expression in a public forum, and later events might have been averted had the Government dealt with the issue of local government for Johannesburg in a less inept manner.

For the next four years no move was made to apply the new act to Johannesburg, and it was only after the abortive Jameson Raid, in January 1896, that the Government began to take active steps to reduce tensions between itself and the citizens of the town. The Raid had exposed the deep-seated antagonisms that the town had developed over the years in its largely one-sided relationship with Pretoria, and it became evident that despite their avowal of neutrality, both the Board and its officials were sympathetic to Johannesburg’s revolutionary element. Indeed its chairman, Edward Hancock, openly refuted his neutrality by applying for membership of the Reform Committee.

On 10 January, President Kruger issued a proclamation promising to provide Johannesburg with a town council as quickly as possible, but when the Johannesburg Town Council Law was published on 29 September 1897, it proved to be too little too late. Indeed, under the provisions of this Act citizens were to have even less representation than they had enjoyed under the old Sanitary Board. Half of the Council had to be enfranchised citizens of the Republic, and although the State reserved the right to appoint the Mayor, the Committee could choose its own Chairman. On 4 September The Star described it as a 'hopeless and colossal failure'.

For their own part, the citizens of Johannesburg appear to have taken this latest blow to their political aspirations with a degree of equanimity, for when the Government’s appointee as their first Burgermeester, Johannes Zulch de Villiers, arrived at Park Station on 1 October 1897 he was greeted by an orchestra playing the Transvaal national anthem, after which he was given a splendid reception at the Central Hotel. De Villiers was a well-qualified administrator who had previously filled a number of high profile positions in the Orange Free State Presidency, on the Lydenburg gold fields, in Swaziland and in Pretoria, and may have been an indication that the Government was now prepared to take Johannesburg’s persistent demands more seriously.

At its first meeting on 4 October 1897, the Council retained all the sub-committees previously established by the Sanitary Board, and set a date for new municipal elections, to be held on 3 November 1897. One of the most pressing problems was the task of augmenting the present supply of potable water. The Johannesburg Waterworks Co had previously been taken over by the Board in October 1895, but the Council’s perilous financial position made any extensions to this service difficult to support. By the time war had broken out in October 1899, its overdraft had long exceeded the £100,000 mark, and its work was brought to a grinding halt.

Although attempts were made to retain a skeleton staff, the exigencies of the war effort on both sides made it difficult to retain even a semblance of basic services. The majority of its officials had either been called up on commando duty, or had absconded to the British side. The Town Engineer’s Department was temporarily disbanded, street lighting was reduced to a minimum, and once the Council’s draught animals had been commandeered by the Republican military, all pretence of a transport service collapsed. The Council’s last meeting was held on 11 May 1900, at which time it had to be abandoned as no quorum could be raised. Johannesburg voluntarily surrendered to the British on 31 May, at which stage the administration of the town was taken over by the Military. On 15 April 1901, the nominal running of local government was handed over to an appointed Town Council which, although little different from its predecessor, was a necessary precursor to the town’s first elected Municipal Council, which took office on 9 December 1903. During this time a number of important appointments to key municipal positions were made, including Lionel Curtis, Richard Feetham and Stephen Court. Drawing extensively upon English and colonial experience, the three set about reconstructing the nature of local government for Johannesburg, and, by example, for the rest of the country. In the process they also established its municipal agenda for the next half-century.

Supply of Water

Rivers fulfil a number of important functions in the establishment of human settlement. They are a source of drinking water, they supply industrial needs, they are a means of transport and hence of trade, and during the initial stages, they serve to carry off sewage. Johannesburg has benefited from none of these and, since its inception, has had to rely upon outside sources for its water supply. Thus the growth of Johannesburg has been quite remarkable, for even now it remains the only major population centre in the world not to be located on, or with immediate access to, a major waterway. The availability of water to the Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand region has therefore been crucial to its growth and development. Even today, the city has yet to be assured of a plentiful supply, and its citizens are still subjected to periodical shortages in times of drought.

Initially water was drawn from the many streams in the area, thus giving it its Dutch name, the ‘Witwatersrand’ or ‘ridge of white waters’. However, within a couple of years, the needs of its population had outstripped its water supply, and although in 1889 the Johannesburg Waterworks Estate and Exploration Company claimed that it could supply 750,000 gallons per day from its springs in Doornfontein and Berea, by 1893 a large portion of the town's inhabitants were still drawing their water from wells and rain water tanks. In 1895, the town experienced its first major water shortage, and matters were only alleviated in 1898 when the Waterworks Company secured a constant supply of water on the farm Zuurbekom, some 17 miles south west of Johannesburg, near present-day Kliptown.

Development of these facilities was brought to a standstill by the war, and in September 1901 the town’s Military Government took control of the water supply away from private investment companies and placed it in the hands of the public sector. The Witwatersrand Water Supply Commission was appointed in November 1901 and three months later it recommended the establishment of a Rand Water Board. This was constituted on 7 May 1903 with the brief that it take a fresh look at the problem, and that it broaden the scope of its services to supply the needs of both Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand minefields, from Springs to Randfontein, which were once again in full production and in the process of expansion. It was not until 1923, when the Kei-Gariep, or Vaal River Barrage was opened, that for the first time, the Rand was assured of a plentiful supply of water for its population, industry and mines.

Early Transport & Communication Links

Before 1886, the communication links joining the Transvaal to other major centres in southern Africa were clearly geared to the requirements of an agriculturally-based economy. The region had few or no manufacturing industries, its imports were limited to a few staple necessities, and its exports relied largely upon agricultural produce. A concession to advancing technology was made in 1879 when Pretoria was linked to the southern African telegraph grid, but otherwise the transport of passengers and goods remained limited to animal-drawn vehicles. At the time of the discovery of gold on the Reef, its closest ports were at Delagoa Bay and Durban. However the railway had also been making inroads into the southern African interior, with rail-heads having been established at Komatipoort, Ladysmith and Kimberley.

The Volksraad of the ZAR believed that an extension of the Kimberley rail-head into the Transvaal would, in turn, tie the country's economy inextricably with that of the British colonies to the south, and feared that this would result in increased British interference in the affairs of the country. However, after 1886, the rapid growth of the Witwatersrand gold fields over-taxed the existing transport system to such a degree that, in the Transvaal, even ordinary goods became prohibitively expensive. It was evident that a rail link between the ZAR and the coast was unavoidable if the gold fields were to survive as a commercial proposition. This was compounded by the fact that, unless these links were made as soon as possible, the precarious Transvaal economy would also be threatened by a possible recession.

In addition to the region's economic problems, between 1886 and 1889 a number of other crises came to a head, making the construction of a railway link to the coast a matter of paramount importance. The food shortage of 1889, for instance, developed because of the existing transport infrastructure was overtaxed and largely monopolized by the mines. This was recognised to be a major factor in favour of the proposed railway. The water shortage, on the other hand, had little to do with the availability of a railway, but had the Reef proved to be totally waterless there is no doubt that both industrial and residential development would have been severely curtailed without outside support. Admittedly the ZAR was able to resolve some of these problems independently. The fuel shortage of 1886-1887, for example, saw the replacement of expensive coal, imported from Natal by means of slow ox-wagons, with resources from local coal fields opened up at Boksburg and, later, at Brakpan and Springs. As a result of this discovery a train service for the Reef was commissioned in 1888 and inaugurated in March 1890. Popularly known as the ‘Rand Tram’, it linked the Witwatersrand from Springs through to Krugersdorp at least one year before the Cape-Orange Free State railway line reached the goldfields.

The Volksraad was therefore faced with few alternatives when it voted to link the Witwatersrand Goldfields to the coast by rail. It however opted for a politically more palatable, if more expensive, choice, and voted instead to join up with the Komatipoort-Delagoa Bay line, probably in order to distance the Transvaal as much as possible from the British government of the Cape Colony. By 1890, Kruger was forced to reverse this policy and his government accepted the need for an immediate linkage with the Cape-Orange Free State railway which had, by that stage, progressed as far as Vereeniging. The economic problems brought on by droughts and the rinderpest epidemics of 1895 and 1896 soon made this connection all the more desirable.

The first train from the Cape reached Johannesburg on 15 September 1892 and by 1 January 1893 the line had been extended to Pretoria. Leyds tells that, in order to pander to Kruger's nationalism, railway officials laid the line in such a way as to connect the capitals of the two Boer Republics by the straightest possible route. This meant that although the service was chiefly provided for the benefit of Johannesburg, the line passed through Elandsfontein, since renamed Germiston, some eight miles east of the town. Improbable as it sounds, the anecdote has its roots in the antipathy that Kruger, and many of his Volksraad, felt towards the Uitlanderdorp. It may well have been formulated as part of a deliberate attempt to give recognition to Pretoria, ahead of Johannesburg, as the Transvaal's premier urban centre.

It is probable however that the Cape railway was linked up to the Reef line at Germiston for purely practical reasons based upon the topography of the region, as Germiston does not have the rugged ridges which transverse the land from east to west immediately south of Johannesburg. Hence it was cheaper to negotiate the final climb up to Johannesburg by taking a more easterly route. The terrain to the west, on the other hand, would have created an even bigger detour. Germiston, therefore, provided a suitable compromise, which may possibly also have pandered to the xenophobic prejudices of the Republican Government.

Whatever the reasons, the detour meant that Pretoria and Johannesburg were only linked by rail via Germiston, involving an additional travelling distance of 13km between the two towns. Soon after the war, the British Military Administration commissioned the survey of a proposed railway line from Johannesburg to Pretoria running through what is now the Parkview golf course. Happily, this was never built. Further links to the Rand were to follow, joining it up to Delagoa Bay in 1894 and to Durban in 1895.

In a wider sense, the introduction of a railway link to the Reef had a twofold effect upon the region. It provided a rapid method of travel from east to west, joining the numerous mining villages springing up as nodes of activity on the Reef, giving rise to what Soria y Mata later described as a ‘linear city’.  It also reinforced what came to be known as the Main Reef Road, a vehicular traffic route serving the Witwatersrand. At a local level, the railway tended to emphasize, and reinforce, the divisions that were beginning to emerge between Johannesburg's northern and southern areas. The route taken by the railway into the town followed a line of sharp ridges which already divided the city. All four features, road, rail, gold reef and ridge, were therefore interacting and self-reinforcing factors which played an important role in determining the physical form of both Johannesburg and of the larger Witwatersrand metropolitan region.

Important links from Johannesburg also existed via road to Potchefstroom, Rustenburg and Pretoria, all three towns having been founded well before gold was discovered on the Reef. The first two have never played an influential role in the affairs of the Rand. The road to Potchefstroom has always been a relatively minor inter-town route which was only upgraded in comparatively recent times; the road to Rustenburg and its minor gold fields remained sufficiently important long enough to become etched in the fabric of the city. The Pretoria link, on the other hand, was based upon historical, administrative and economic reasons. It has thus played an important role in the city's growth, determining the main thrust of its early residential development.

Last updated : 28-Apr-2016

This article was produced by South African History Online on 19-Oct-2011

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