Residential development in Johannesburg

The first residential areas to develop in Johannesburg were located about around Church Square, soon to be renamed Government, and then Von Brandis Square, where the Mining Commissioner had his home. At that early stage the northern and eastern ends of Noord, De Villers, Plein, Bree, Jeppe and Kerk Streets were all populated by well-heeled homes, with a smattering of commercial buildings, mostly small family-run grocery stores. The area around Joubert Park attracted some of the town’s wealthiest citizens, and Hermann Eckstein, Lionel Phillips, Carl Hanau, Solly Joel and Edward Lippert all built their first homes in this neighbourhood.

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Before long, however, the town’s swirling dust storms and the interminable pounding of its stamp mills drove the more fastidious to move northwards, at first to the lower slopes of the Witwatersrand ridge, and then progressively over to its northern slopes, where winter temperatures could be up to four or five degrees warmer. The first residential townships to be developed there were Doornfontein in 1887, New Doornfontein and Bellevue in 1889, and Yeoville in 1891.

The first definitive moves over the ridge were made in 1892 when H Eckstein & Co purchased a stretch of farmland beyond Braamfontein for the purpose of establishing a plantation to supply timber to the mines. At about the same time, a residential township was laid out on the higher reaches of the property. Local folklore has it that Florence Phillips, wife of Sir Lionel, who was a director of the company, went out riding in the area one day and discovered it to have sweeping views reaching to the Magaliesberg. She was so taken with the site that she persuaded her husband to build their home upon it, naming it Hohenheim, German for ‘home on high’. Although some of their friends were openly sceptical, other families soon began to follow suit and within a brief time the suburb, named Parktown on 10 March 1893, had become the preferred residence of Johannesburg’s ‘smart’ set.

As a result, it became popular among the town’s wealthier entrepreneurial, financial and upper management classes, most particularly those associated with the mines. Among those who made their homes there were Sir Lionel Phillips, Alfred Beit, Col. J Dale Lace, Sir Thomas Cullinan and Sir Percy Fitzpatrick. During the Victorian and Edwardian eras they were responsible for the commission and construction of a number of fine homes, including several designed by Herbert Baker. These mansions were often enormous, numbering 20 rooms or more, and seemingly built with little consideration to expense. In some instances, the mining companies themselves commissioned their construction in order to provide their contract management with comfortable quarters. Many of these men were highly qualified mining specialists, attracted from America and England by promises of lucrative salaries and comfortable living conditions.

Thus they required additional incentives to remain in what was commonly regarded at the time as an unsophisticated mining village, endowed with a rudimentary infrastructure and few luxuries. As a result, the area gained for itself the reputation of being a home to the rich and the powerful. Unavoidably this image also carried political connotations and, during the labour struggles of the early twentieth century, it was regarded as a stronghold of capitalist and colonial values.

The establishment of other suburbs further afield soon followed, including Auckland Park and Berea in 1893, Rosebank in 1894, Oaklands in 1896, and Craighall in 1902. By 1910, most of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs had been proclaimed all the way to Linden, Illovo and Bramley, although it was not until the 1930s that they began to develop a distinct suburban character. Left to their own devices, Doornfontein and its neighbouring suburbs quietly subsided into middle class respectability, eventually giving way to working class families, and by the 1970s they had become the target for slum clearance and redevelopment.

The north-east corner of the CBD, on the other hand, was rapidly identified as an area for commercial expansion, and from the 1920s onwards its fine residences began to give way to warehousing and small manufacture. Because of its proximity to the town’s first two synagogues, this area also became the focus for its clothing and textile trade, which was dominated by the Jewish community.

What marked many of these townships from their predecessors was the inclusion of measures in their title deeds which precluded the subdivision of land into smaller lots and, unless otherwise designated, their use for anything other than residential functions. Attempts to develop similar suburbs south of the mine belt, such as Turffontein and Rosettenville in 1889, and La Rochelle in 1895, failed to attract a high income clientele, and these areas soon developed a distinct working class flavour.

Development of the East-West Residential Sectors

The northward expansion of Johannesburg’s White residential sector was a response to its physical environment and the somewhat less tangible factors of social preference and economic viability. On the other hand, the east-west spread of the greater Witwatersrand region was the result of factors which were both predictable and the subject of a pragmatic decision-making processes.

The most important of these was the presence of the Witwatersrand gold reefs, which ran in an arc from Randfontein in the east through to Nigel in the west. Although the reef immediately south of Johannesburg was not the first to be discovered, it was the main one, and for many years its deposits were also the richest. It was natural therefore that the first mining settlements should have sprung up on ground closest to the gold mines. Unfortunately, under the ZAR’s Gold Laws, this proximity was not permitted, and the establishment of a formal mining village on Randjeslaagte in 1886 represented a compromise between the wishes of diggers to live near their place of work, and the needs of Government to establish a safe and controlled living environment for all concerned. Because, from the very start, mining operations on the Witwatersrand required substantial capital which limited the ownership of mines to less than 100 publicly-owned companies, the settlement of individual workers was easily channelled into formal townships, and by 1904 the last informal housing in the town centre had been arbitrarily demolished.

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Although early residential settlement was concentrated in specific parts of the first mining camp, it did not take long before lines of separation based upon social and economic factors emerged in the fabric of early Johannesburg. Its managerial and merchant classes quickly gravitated towards the northern part of the town, living in early suburbs such as Doornfontein (1887), Jeppestown (1888), New Doornfontein (1889) and Troyeville (1891). Despite their fine beginnings, however, these were soon abandoned for homes over the ridge, where the weather was warmer and the dust less intrusive, leaving these areas to less affluent families. This social zoning was reinforced over the next 20 years as a number of middle and lower-middle income suburbs began to develop along Johannesburg’s east-west axis.

Virtually from the outset Ferreira’s Town (1886) and Fordsburg (1889) had enjoyed solid working class credentials, and were joined by Bertrams (1889), Lorentzville (1892), Vrededorp (1894), Judith’s Paarl (1896), Mayfair (1898), Bezuidenhout Valley (1902), Brixton (1902), Kensington (1903), and Malvern (1904). At the same time, a number of suburbs were also established south of the mining belt, including Ophirton (1886), Booysens (1887), Rosettenville (1889), Turffontein (1889), La Rochelle (1895), Regent’s Park (1904) and Kenilworth (1907).

Most of these were marked for lower income housing by the size of their stands, usually 500m² and never more than 1000m². This contrasted with suburbs being established at the same time north of the ridge, where plots ranged in size between 1000m² and 4000m². There were, of course, exceptions to these northward trends, and townships with stands 500m² in size were laid out in Norwood (1902), Parkhurst (1903) and Orange Grove (1904), while Albertville (1896) had stands of 250m².

Following the initial discovery of the main reef in 1886, prospector’s working claims both east and west of Johannesburg rapidly traced its path along its entire length. Mining villages which developed initially around these workings to serve the needs of small mining communities, soon gained economic impetus and became the focal points of new industrial and residential growth. Eventually they became linked by road and rail, like beads on a string, into what eventually became known by its generic name, the Witwatersrand.

Many of these towns along the Reef were founded at much the same time as Johannesburg. Roodepoort, for example, was a mining camp in 1886, which came under the administration of a health committee in 1902, and became a municipality in 1904; Germiston, formerly called Elandsfontein, was proclaimed a township in 1886 and a municipality in 1903. Boksburg, Benoni, Brakpan, Florida, Westonaria, Randfontein, Nigel and Springs all shared in the same chronological and economic beginnings, and their early development parallels that of Johannesburg.

This pattern was reinforced on 17 March 1890, when a railway line linking Boksburg to Johannesburg was inaugurated, and by the time the Government-sponsored rail link to the Cape had reached the Rand in 1892, a railway system running the full length of the Reef had been operational for at least a year. The need for this link was self-evident. Johannesburg was fast developing into the region’s commercial and financial centre, creating a demand for a means of transport to carry labour and materials to the mines on the Reef. Thus, virtually from the outset, the economic incentives existed to structure the region as an integral whole along an east-west axis.

The demographic composition and growth rate enjoyed by some of the older towns on the Reef have probably been very similar to those of Johannesburg’s southern suburbs. Exceptions to this rule have been Edenvale and Kempton Park, two peri-urban areas which developed in the 1970s within the greater Witwatersrand metropolitan region. Neither owes its existence to mining activity, and only Kempton Park is located on a major transport route, the Reef-Pretoria railway. Another exception has been Alberton, which developed to the south-east of the city, astride the main Rand-Vereeniging and Johannesburg-Durban road links.

It needs to be noted that all of these, as well as most Johannesburg suburbs proclaimed thereafter, were for the exclusive purchase and residential use of Whites, a fact that, until 1994 would have been noted in the founding Township Deeds. However, there are strong indications that many landlords and house owners, specifically those living in working-class areas, ignored these limitations and sublet portions of their properties to Black families in order to subsidise their own rentals or bond repayments. Thus, while outwardly most of Johannesburg appeared to be a segregated city, in reality it was racially integrated to a greater degree than was officially acknowledged.

Expansion to the South

Although White residential townships were established to the south of the Main Reef early on in Johannesburg’s history, their growth has never approached that of their sister suburbs to the north. Development was hampered, in the main, by micro-climatic and physical conditions. One positive aspect, though, lay in the size of their stands which, on average, was smaller than those available in the northern areas, and hence within the means of working-class families.

Exceptions to this rule could be found at The Hill and Haddon, which offered erfs in excess of 1000m². By 1931, residents in the southern suburbs constituted only 14.9% of Johannesburg’s White population. This figure remained relatively constant in relation to the metropolitan population of the city right up to the 1960s, when the rapid growth of Soweto under apartheid changed the balance radically. Since that time, the grassing over of the mine dumps in the 1960s, and their total removal in the 1990s, has fostered the establishment of a number of middle and upper-income townships in the area, and today many of the historical class and race divisions so common during the early half of the 20th century have joined other antediluvian ideologies on the scrap-heap of time.

The fourth and last segment is the triangular piece of land located on the north-eastern boundary of the CBD. This was originally developed as a high income residential area comprising single-storey detached and semi-detached housing. During the 1930s it became the focus of light industrial activity and today is the centre of multi-storey small industrial, warehousing and wholesale development.

Last updated : 16-Sep-2013