From the book: Working Life - Factories, Township and Popular Culture 1886 - 1940 by Luli Callinicos


This part describes the nature of housing and shows how it was related to the labour needs of the employers on the Rand.

Housing in Towns

Housing before industrial times

In traditional society, families built their own houses, using materials freely available from the land around them — clay, water, wood, reeds and grass. Their houses were warm in winter, cool and airy in summer, and spacious. Overcrowding was fairly easily overcome—it was not difficult to build another hut if the family got bigger.

With more space available, it was easier to keep the living area clean, and to dispose of rubbish and sewage at a healthy distance. In the old society life was often hard, but it was much easier to organise living arrangements, and families were able to supply most of their own needs.

New needs in the towns

In the towns, people’s lives were separated from their work places. Large numbers of people lived close together, and this new way of life created new needs—while the nature of these needs created new markets for businessmen.

In the emerging capitalist system, nearly every need became a commodity, something to buy and sell—even space itself. People had to pay with money for land, for materials for a house, and usually for the people to build it, too. In the early years, water had to be bought by the bucket. The Rand towns were not built near large rivers, so water had to be transported from afar and pumped, cleaned and piped to all parts of the growing town. Heating and Lighting — whether in the form of gas and electricity, or more simply as candles, paraffin and coal — also had to be paid for.

In the towns, most of these services were difficult for individual families to obtain — they had to be organised on a large scale. In other words, they were run by the government of the town — the town council or municipality — and shared by the people, provided they could pay.

From the beginning, the town council in Johannesburg was responsible for sewage and rubbish disposal. At first, private companies holding special licences from the government supplied water, gas and electricity. Then the companies found that these services were not profitable enough, and the municipality took over the supply of gas and electricity in 1895, and the supply of water in 1903.

Other services like roads, transport, education and hospitals were also developed to some extent by municipalities, the provincial administration of the Transvaal, or by the central government itself.

Housing in the towns

We must therefore see services as part of the basic issue of housing in the towns. And to understand the development of housing in the towns it will be useful to remember two points:

  • Every material need — space, housing, services, food and clothes — had to be paid for. Most of these needs became commodities, to be bought and sold for profit.
  • It was so difficult for individuals to obtain certain services by themselves that they had to share the cost of these services with others. A municipality or some other central body then organised the service and decided who could use it and how much they would pay.

These two points help to explain why and how housing and services were unequally shared in the towns, as we shall see later in this section. Some people got better houses and services than others. The quality of housing and everyday living depended on having enough money. For workers, this depended on having a well-paid job.

Housing for Workers

Homes for skilled workers

We have seen how there were two kinds of workers on the early Rand — skilled and unskilled. The skilled workers were experienced. They had worked in industry before, mostly in England or one of the other English-speaking countries. They could command higher wages because they were few and there was a great demand for their skills. They thus earned enough to find reasonable homes.

In the early years, these artisans tended to come alone and would either club together to share a house, or live in boarding houses, as described in Early Domestic Workers . In 1902, a British labour politician visiting the Rand gave his impressions of the life white workers lived on the Rand:

‘You have simply to walk through the wage-earning districts of the town to see the numerous dining rooms; you have simply to try and find a workman at home in Johannesburg to discover that his home is only a bedroom, which he generally shares with a fellow workman, and that family life—upon which the state is built — may be said to hardly exist amongst great sections of the population. Men rent beds, not houses, in the Golden City.'

After the Anglo-Boer War established that Britain was to control the economy and build up a modern, capitalist state, many artisans returned to the Rand, some of them with wives. Artisans grew more confident about holding down steady jobs. Hundreds mc sent for their wives and families as the economy picked up again, especially from 1909. Between 1902 and 1912 the number of married white miners nearly doubled.

But the great influx of people after the war led to serious shortage of accommodation. Some of the skilled white workers were able to find housing in married quarters on the mines. Others had to squeeze into small houses in the poorer areas near the centre of town.

But the British members of the Transvaal government were anxious to secure a stable, settled working class. They wanted to encourage the building of fan housing. They were also anxious to avoid the division of Johannesburg into rich and poor areas, and to prevent slums of the kind that had developed in English cities during the rapid industrialisation of the 19th century. As the town clerk pointed out to the governor, Lord Milner (thinking only of white workers):

‘What we have to fear and avoid is a similar state of things in Johannesburg — where the area nor of the reef would be covered by residences of the well-to-do, and by streets of shops supplying the wants — while the area south of the reef would be inhabited solely by the poorer employees of the mines and by an inferior class of local shopkeepers’

In 1903 Johannesburg’s boundaries were extended to include an area of 82 square miles. Neat, white working-class suburbs like Jeppe, Malvern, Troyevil Bez Valley and Belgravia were established. Roads and trains made the journey to won quick and cheap.

Most of these suburbs had no freehold rights, but were owned by the municipality or by the mining companies. But in 1912, the houses in these working class suburbs were put up for sale to encourage a stable, orderly, property-owning white artisan class

Where the unskilled lived

Johannesburg’s early years, as ‘burghers’ (the only people allowed to vote in the old Transvaal Republic) they were able to appeal to the government for sped assistance in setting up their homes cheaply.

But these special conditions were not to last — the steady influx of unskilled workers placed them in competition with low-paid black workers.

Housing for migrant workers

For black workers, the housing available in the towns depended on the labour needs of employers. The migrant labour system of the mines, for example, led to the development of the compounds. Later, compounds were also used by other employers of migrant workers in the towns — by the growing municipalities on the Rand, for instance, and by other employers of large numbers of unskilled workers, like those in the building industry. Conditions in the compounds.

There were also many black workers who lived at their places of work. Domestic workers lived in the back yards of the houses they cleaned; cooks, waiters and cleaners lived behind or at the top of the hotels and boarding houses they serviced. Most of these workers were migrant workers. Their homes were in the Reserves or on the farms where their families lived, to which they returned whenever they could.

Housing for town-based workers

But with greater hardships on the land, especially after the 1913 Land Act and the droughts in the following few years, more people made the trek to the Rand to look for work. Many eventually settled in the towns.

After World War I the economy of the Rand began to develop more rapidly. As industries developed, they began to require more settled, semi-skilled workers who would not leave after a few months. They wanted to retain the services of the delivery man who was trusted to use the firm’s bicycle, or the worker who had learnt to use a new machine. So it was more profitable to encourage trained workers, both black and white, to stay in town for as long as possible.

These workers needed homes for themselves and their families. The small ‘locations’ set aside for blacks were soon outgrown and usually, like white workers, they settled as near as they could to their places of work.

Housing Problems


The new working-class suburbs helped to create a greater distance between the skilled artisans and the new, unskilled workers. The residential divisions (which the town clerk had been so anxious to avoid) remained, and working-class areas in the inner city did indeed grow into slums as more people settled in Johannesburg.

The map of early Johannesburg shows that the places nearest to the centre of town were working class and poorer areas — the Brickfields and Vrededorp areas to the west and (later) the Doornfontein and Jeppe areas to the east. They all developed into cheap, inner city housing areas for poor people of all colours.

The houses in these areas were mostly very small. The stands in the areas originally set aside for black were even smaller. Yet, to be able to live on their miserably low wages, black workers had to share more and more of their space in order to pay less rent.

Soon there was overcrowding, and from the earliest years blacks began to spill into ‘white’ areas, often only a street away.

Lack of services

In these areas — the ‘slums’, the ‘camps’, the ‘yards’ and the ‘locations’ — there were few services provided, even though these services were basic needs for health and even life itself.

As described in The Diseases of Poverty , time and again the Medical Officers of Health in the Rand towns complained about the conditions people had to live under. What was the attitude of the government and the town councils towards the housing of the poor? What steps did they take to improve conditions?

Official housing policy

From the earliest years of colonial government, it was customary to keep the housing of different race groups separate — in other words, the policy was one of segregation. The Transvaal government too would always place black townships or ‘locations’ just outside the boundaries of each town — the first map of Johannesburg shows clearly the separate living areas marked out for Indians, ‘coloureds’, Africans and whites.

Indeed, in the early years some camps were established on the basis of ethnic groups. The name ‘Malay Camp’ goes back to this time. It was easier at first for people to set up homes near to friends and relatives, people who had the same background.

Yet, as we see in the histories of Vrededorp, Doorfontein and Bnickfields, and in other Rand towns, too racial mixing soon developed amongst the poor and amongst the lower-paid workers, desperate for cheaper living space.

While in theory Vrededorp was a separate ‘Afrikaner location’, it was also situated next to the other workers’ ‘locations’.

The housing of Johannesburg was thus in practice divided along class lines — the working class poor of all racial groups had a clearly defined area of their own, set apart from the upper and middle classes. For instance, in Doornfontein the working class and mid class areas were separated by the railway line.

Mixed housing

Why was ‘mixed’ housing allowed in a racial system south Africa, where people are defined according to colour?

Firstly, the Rand — Johannesburg in particular —was the centre of the industrial revolution in South Africa. This powerful force of change was beginning to weaken the old, colonial economy based on land conquest. Instead, driven by profits, the fast-growing capitalist system was attracting work seekers, black and white, from all over the country. Many without capital or skills. They had only their labour to sell. Regardless of race, that was what they had common as unskilled workers.

In this first period of Johannesburg’s history, ore, the town’s housing pattern was that of most industrial towns in the world, with more or less separate areas for the rich and the poor — the upper middle classes, and the workers.

The town councils

For many years, official housing policy on the Rand was not clear-cut. Rather, it reflected the struggles amongst people with different interests in the town and other property owners. These people were of course either upper or middle-class, or they were better-paid workers who could afford their own homes. Their representatives sat on the town councils.

The money from these rates was used to run the towns, to build roads, and to supply the services described at the beginning of the section — as well as to beautify the town with parks and pools where people could relax.

The town councils, therefore, tended to be controlled by the rich and comfortable. The poor people, on the other hand, had little say in the running of the town, or how money should be spent, because they did not pay rates.

In the racially divided society of South Africa, the property owners were nearly all white. Those whites who were poor were at least allowed to share some of the recreational space and transport provided by the municipality.

Most blacks were too poor to be taxed — they certainly got few of the services or benefits. (In the early years, even the pavements were forbidden territory — blacks had to walk on the side of the road so as not to brush against white passers-by.) Their needs were neglected, and they had to manage as best they could with a minimum of help from the society and the towns they served.

Interest groups

In the early years after the Anglo-Boer War, most Rand town councils were controlled by mining Capitalists. Mine owners had no specific interest in the housing of black workers, because black miners lived in the compounds while they were working their contracts.

But the living arrangements arrived at in Johannesburg suited a number of other interest groups that had emerged in the new capitalist system.

Employers wanted to keep their workers as near to their places of work as possible. They did not want extra transport costs and higher rents to push up the workers’ cost of living, for that would oblige the employers to raise the wages of the workers. For example, when the Johannesburg municipality chose Klipspruit as a future ‘location’ for black workers, the government and employers expressed concern that the distance from town ‘would have a depressing effect on the labour market’.

Many ratepayers, who paid rates to the town council, objected to changes in the housing of the poor if the town council had to pay for these changes out of the rates.

Spending on black housing was kept to a minimum. Only when disease struck down too many workers and threatened to spread, as happened in Brickfields, was any attempt made to improve the conditions of the poor. Even then the council offered black residents a ‘location’, known as Nancefield, outside the town right next to a sewage dump.

Slum landlords, too, were benefiting from black workers living in town, and did not want them to move to improved housing. (See, for example, how slum removals were delayed in the histories of Brickfields and Doornfontein.) Nor were they prepared to spend extra money on improving existing property.


We have seen that the crowded environment of industrial towns creates a new kind of living. In town, people work for a wage and the individual family unit cannot provide for all its basic Services have to be organised by the town or the f the people are to stay healthy and ready to for work every day he first stage of industrialisation in South Africa, other countries too as these shows, services not adequately provided for the poor and the lower-paid workers. The result was ‘slum’ living condition diseases and a high number of deaths, especially amongst children.

The industrialised towns quickly developed an inequality so great that it outstripped the older racial inequalities of the colonial farm labour system of the nineteenth century. While the lowest-paid workers —and white — lived in dangerously over-crowded, Under-serviced ‘slums’, the middle and upper classes comfortably in spacious, separate areas. And while the town councils developed to organise services for those they represented, they ignored the needs of the poor, especially the black poor.

The town councils allowed the housing and the servicing of the poor to remain more or less unregulated for many years, guided mainly by the needs of business and the job market.

But as the capitalist economy began to expand, industrialists, businessmen and the state itself were forced to pay more attention to the needs of the growing number of workers at their homes.