Johannesburg the Segregated city

Residential development in Johannesburg

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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.