Town & regional planning in Johannesburg

Residential development in Johannesburg

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Johannesburg Institutional sector

Town & regional planning in Johannesburg

Central Business District

Within months of its establishment, Johannesburg experienced a surge of building activity, and by 1898 the present fabric of the city centre had already been defined. Most office and financial activity became located south of Market Square, bringing together banks, broker’s offices, auctioneers, and other financial institutions.

Pritchard and Eloff Streets had already entrenched themselves as the town’s main shopping areas, stretching from the centre to the more fashionable residential suburbs of that time. The importance of Eloff Street was reinforced after 17 March 1890, when Park Station was established upon its axis, thus providing new arrivals to the town with an avenue of transition from the quiet lawns of its northern residential area through to the dusty bustle of the business centre. Doctors and nurses began to group their practices in an area around Jeppe Street, north of Von Brandis, a trend which was maintained until the end of the 20th century. A brewery, a mill and several workshops, which were established south and east of the town centre, heralded the direction of future light industrial, warehouse and motor workshop developments. Residential areas dominated the north and north-eastern sectors, and although these have long vanished, they established a trend which has persisted to the present day.

The end of the South African war resulted in renewed economic activity, and in the construction of a number of major buildings. Among them were the Corner House and the Carlton Hotel, both being the first of many steel-framed structures to be erected in the town. They were also the forerunners of more intense vertical development in the business centre. Other notable projects to be completed soon after were the Law Courts on Von Brandis Square and the City Hall on the eastern portion of Market Square, opposite the Rissik Street post office.

By the end of the 1920s, the town’s economy had tightened considerably and, with the exception of some activity in the commercial and retail areas, there was a marked decrease in construction. World War I, the 1922 General Strike and the 1929 Stock Market collapse all played a role in prolonging this era, and it was not until 1932, when South Africa went off the Gold Standard, that Johannesburg’s growth recommenced. Recovery was not slow and in the years just prior to World War II the city’s building industry experienced one of its most productive periods. Development took place in most parts of the central area, further reinforcing land use patterns established before 1898. Also, during this time the Victorian character of the city began to change, as many historical landmarks of old Johannesburg fell prey to land economics, changing land use patterns, and a need to find expression, through modernity, for the strength and vitality of its capital-driven economy.

The years immediately after 1945 saw only a limited amount of development, due to the imposition of building restrictions necessitated by material shortages, as well as to the curtailment of capital expenditure. In spite of this, conditions favourable to the building industry were rapidly re-established, and by 1952 new projects in the residential, retail and office sectors were springing up in the CBD.

This period also saw the first commercial and office developments taking place in Braamfontein, thus extending the central core northwards over the railway lines. After 1902, this area had begun to develop as a working class suburb, consisting largely of dwellings and small retail businesses, and during the 1930s it had seen the construction of some medium-rise residential buildings, as well as a few small industrial intrusions. The Town Planning scheme of 1946 gave business rights to a large part of this suburb and, by 1950, property investors had begun to show interest in its development.

Areas associated with the central core, but peripheral to it, were located in four smaller segments. The first lay in a narrow belt north of the railway line and comprised those parts of Braamfontein and the central area still zoned for residential purposes, including the Civic Theatre, the new municipal Civic Centre, Joubert Park and the Art Gallery. Some office development had already taken place in the area and this pattern continued until it was incorporated into the fabric of the larger Braamfontein-CBD area.

The second was one of the oldest sections of the city, and could be found to the west of the central area stretching down to the historic Fordsburg dip, the site of Johannesburg’s first mining camp. It included developments dating back to the beginning of the century, such as the power station, the public transport yards, the market and abattoir, as well as a number of allied trades which, by their very nature, tended to inhibit new developments. Planning proposals put forward at the time sought the relocation of these facilities to sites further out of town, making the whole area available for urban redevelopment. Unfortunately the imposition of an extensive, and visually overpowering, two-tier motor-way structure through this area during the 1970s proved to be a powerful limiting factor to its revalidation, and the first redevelopments only began to take place during the late 1980s.

A third peripheral segment was the site of a small outcrop of the Main Reef located immediately south of the CBD which, once mining operations had ceased, was developed to house light industrial and storage activities. This character has been maintained to the present day, and it still accommodates a number of small workshops connected with the motor trade. However its land is heavily undermined and will not permit high-rise building development of the kind found elsewhere.

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.

Black residential development in Johannesburg

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Before 1822, the indigenous population of the central Highveld is estimated to have numbered some 150,000, many of whom lived in large settlements of up to 7000 persons (See pre-history). However, the ravages of the Difaqane, from 1822 to 1836, and the invasion of the region by Cape Dutch farmers in 1836 forced many families to leave their ancestral lands. By the time gold was discovered on the Witwatersrand in 1886, their nearest major settlements were located 110km away, near Rustenburg. The ZAR’s subsequent unilateral imposition of a ‘hut tax’ forced rural residents to enter into White employment. Johannesburg offered both work and higher wages and within a few years the town had become the home of a large, unskilled and predominantly male labour force. Some found jobs as domestic workers in the suburbs, but most laboured on the mines.

The ethnic composition of these early African migrants in Johannesburg has rarely been considered in histories of the city. When it does come onto the radar, the migrants are lumped together with Africans from different parts of the country. Yet, because of their closer proximity to the city in pre-colonial times and during the colonial period, they tended to retain much of their rural ties and connections, regardless of the extent to which they became ‘urbanised’. This is particularly true of the Tswana groups found in the Magaliesberg and Rustenburg area at the time of the discovery of gold in 1886. This shaped their responses to developments in the 1930s through to the 1950s that either strengthened their claim as ‘the permanently urbanised’ or reinforced their ties, real and perceived, to their rural origins.

Early Johannesburg did not offer its Black citizens much in the way of housing. While the mines generally looked after their own, and most domestics could expect to be provided with sleep-in quarters by their employers, the remainder had to fend for themselves. Almost from the outset, when the town was first laid out, separate suburbs, or ‘locations’ as they were known, were allocated for Black, Malay and Asian occupation. This is an aspect of colonial town planning which was not unique to the Transvaal, but was common to most other parts of southern Africa. Not only did it conform to existing ZAR policies, but the idea of separate residential areas for Black and White also suited the mining companies who had recently adopted the ‘compound’ as a means of housing their Black labourers.

The concept derived its name from the Malay word kampong, meaning an enclosure. Originally it was implemented on the Kimberley diamond fields for security reasons to prevent the pilfering of gemstones, and was used to confine employees to their quarters for the duration of their labour contracts. However, its application on the Witwatersrand was not as harsh. Compounds consisted of single-sex hostels housing between eight and sixteen men per room. Early buildings were set about a central square accessed through a single gateway. The planning of later complexes, which could house up to 5000 workers each, was amended to a fan-shaped pattern, with buildings radiating out from a central access point.

This refinement was claimed by mine management to facilitate ‘riot control’, a euphemism used to denote labour disputes which arose from time to time, and which mining companies had little compunction in settling through the use of force. Although apologists for the compound system have pointed out at great length the advantages of living in such communities, it is evident that, almost from the beginning, this programme gave rise to a number of social problems. Alcohol abuse, venereal disease and prostitution were common occurrences among mine labourers of that time. Matters were not helped by the general male-female ratio, which remained high right up to the late 1930s. In 1902, for example, the total Black population on the Rand was 64,664, of which only 7615 were women.

After 1909, the mines began to obtain the bulk of their labour through the enrolment of migrant workers. In time it became evident that this system imposed a number of hardships upon the labour force, and that compounds played a strong contributory role in these abuses. These included the destabilisation of the rural economy, the destruction of the rural family, culture shock, and the gradual impoverishment of the rural proletariat for the benefit of a small class of urban capitalists.

The gold of migrant labour. Author: Ruth First. Article in Africa South Vol.5 No.3 Apr-Jun 1961 pages 7 to 31.To read some more related articles on Migrant and Mine labour visit the references and archive listing

It is apparent that some of these problems were also common to the white farming community, where a series of droughts, locust plagues and the rinderpest increased rural poverty and forced many Dutch farmers and transport-riders to seek employment on the mines.

Early maps of Johannesburg show its ‘locations’ to have been sited on the outskirts of White-designated suburbs, on land commonly known as Brickfields, and included Burgersdorp, a low-income area where many indigent Dutch transport riders had made their homes. This was a poorly drained piece of ground that had originally served as a brickyard, providing the materials for many of Johannesburg’s first brick buildings. Early photographs show that most houses in this area were built in a square plan, with clay walls and corrugated iron roofs. A few thatched dwellings were interspersed between them.

Considering the rudimentary methods of waste disposal available there, and the clay nature of the soil, it did not take long for a serious health hazard to develop. Before 1899, Johannesburg’s business and mining interests had made repeated complaints about this area to the ZAR government. However Uitlander grievances in general usually fell upon deaf ears in Pretoria and little could be done during the war that followed. In 1902 the matter was reopened by the new British administration and a Sanitary Commission was appointed to investigate the Brickfields.

In November 1903 its report was tabled, recommending that the site be expropriated and redeveloped. These findings were overtaken by events on 19 March 1904 when an outbreak of bubonic plague is reported to have taken place in Burgersdorp. Virtually overnight the inhabitants of Brickfields were evacuated; the area was fenced off with corrugated iron sheeting and everything within fired to the ground by the Fire Brigade. It was subsequently renamed Newtown and redeveloped as a suburb for light industry.

Following these events, the residents of Brickfields were moved to a ‘health camp’ near the Klipspruit Sewage Farm), some 20km from the town centre. Some were accommodated in corrugated iron dwellings, but most were simply provided with materials to build their own homes. Although this settlement was intended to be of a temporary nature, it remained in existence until the mid-1970s, when, under the name of Pimville, it was cleared to make way for new housing developments.

A recent search identifying Soweto’s heritage sites has revealed that the ‘health camp’ was situated in Klipspruit, a township adjacent to Pimville. When the threat of bubonic plague receded and the suspected carriers returned to Johannesburg, the camp was taken over by turban-wearing Zulu ‘Ama Washa’. These were Zulu men who did laundry for Johannesburg’s White, single male residents, using the stream on the southwestern part of town for their washing. After 1906 the Johannesburg municipality regarded the use of the stream as a health hazard, forcing the Zulu Ama Washa to use the health camp in Klipspruit as an alternative.

It is true that outbreaks of bubonic plague had taken place elsewhere in southern Africa before this time. Some of them had been quite severe, but the disease itself was not local. It originated from plague-infected rats accidentally brought into the country from Argentina during the South African conflict, and were imported by the British, together with bales of fodder for their horses. As a result, most of the recorded outbreaks took place in the Eastern Cape where the animals were landed.

However, it is clear that despite the obvious threat that the outbreak might have posed upon the general population, in reality its presence was limited largely to those workers who came into regular contact with the stores. Thus there must be a strong suspicion that the outbreak was used by the municipal authorities as a convenient lever to remove a voteless and indigent community, rapidly and without fuss, from an area which urban expansion had brought uncomfortably close to the town centre.

The period following the South African war also saw a reduction in Johannesburg’s Black labour force, as many workers who had gone back to their rural homes following the closure of the mines now refused to return to employment on the Reef. The reasons they gave for this decision centred upon the harsh working conditions they encountered underground, as well as the brutal treatment they experienced at the hands of White supervisors. This induced the new British Administration to permit, in 1904, the introduction of indentured Chinese contract labour (See Chinese miners) in their stead, and by 1907 nearly 64,000 Chinese were employed on the mines.

This move provoked strong political opposition, both locally and in Britain, and following repeated protests by the citizens of Johannesburg, by the beginning of 1910 all Chinese workers had been returned to their homes. However, during their stay they had all been housed on mine property, and save for a few tombstones in Braamfontein Cemetery, their presence in Johannesburg left little mark upon the fabric of the town.

One area which, for a time, gained the fleeting reputation of being called Johannesburg’s own ‘Chinatown’, was located in Ferreira’s Town, where a number of Chinese families had settled early on, and continued to make a living by trading in staple goods. Their presence had no connection with the subsequent employment of Chinese miners on the Rand, each of whom was repatriated at the end of their three-year contracts.

Despite having been dispossessed of their homes in the Brickfields, the residents of the resettlement camp near Klipspruit were given no compensation for their properties, nor were they provided with a sanitary infrastructure, and for many years the services available to this community remained rudimentary, affecting its quality of life. It must be assumed that, because they had now been removed from the town centre, their welfare had ceased to be of direct concern to its citizens. The people of Klipspruit were not alone in this plight, and generally very little  was done by the authorities of early Johannesburg to improve the housing conditions of the homeless.

A small measure of relief was afforded in 1917 when a disused compound on the Salisbury Jubilee Mine was rented by the Town Council and converted to a single-sex hostel to house one thousand men. Two years later, between 1919 and 1922, a housing scheme to provide homes for 5000 people was completed in Western Native Township, but this was a small concession made following the influenza epidemic of 1918. By this stage the urban Black population of Johannesburg had risen to 116,120 people and these projects made little difference to the living conditions the majority of the town’s Black citizens were labouring under.

There is no doubt that the question of land ownership was a major issue in the housing of Black workers. The Gold Laws inherited from the ZAR precluded ‘persons of colour’ from owning land in virtually the whole of Johannesburg. This included citizens from a wide range of backgrounds, including Black, Indian, Malay, Chinese and the children of mixed race marriages. Thus the reservation of prime business and residential land for the exclusive use of Whites became a political issue at an early stage of the town’s history. Western Native Township, for example, had not been claimed for White use as its land had previously been used as a brickfield, and was subsequently leveled and then used as a refuse tip.

By the 1920s, other townships, also suffering from poor infrastructural conditions, had arisen in places such as Sophiatown (1903), Newclare (1912), Prospect and the Malay Location. A number of other areas were also considered to be slums by public officials. However officers from the MOH’s department repeatedly refused to condemn them or to have them cleared, knowing full well that the vast majority of their inhabitants were Black and that no other facilities existed for their re-housing.

In 1925, a single men’s hostel was built at Wemmer. At this stage the ratio between men and women had dropped only minimally to 6:1. Therefore official emphasis was still upon the provision of single sex compounds, rather than upon the construction of family homes. However it is probable that official figures failed to reflect the true state of affairs. A form of ‘influx control’ and the carrying of passes for Black residents had been introduced by the ZAR as early as 1890, and although it had been based upon a system previously used by the colonial administration of the Cape, it differed substantially in intent from the British model, where it was used as a ‘passport’, thereby recognising the existence of autonomous Black states beyond the boundaries of the Cape. The ZAR made no such distinction, and merely used the passport, whose name had now been shortened to a ‘pass’, as a means of controlling the movement of Black citizens within its borders.

Thus, although the 1925 figures showed the presence of 117,700 men against 19,000 women, it is probable that there were far more black women in Johannesburg than was officially indicated. It is credible that, in time, many workers began to bring their families to the town. Being illegal residents, their presence could not be declared, and their numbers thus increased the pressure upon an already overloaded informal infrastructure.

Much of the blame for these conditions must lie with the Johannesburg Town Council. By this stage many smaller towns in South Africa had already established their own separate departments to handle what they called ‘Native Affairs’. Johannesburg, on the other hand, waited until 1927 before taking any action, and only set up a Committee of Native Affairs in 1928. Before then the affairs of ‘native administration’ had been handled by the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The First Black Suburbs

By 1930, large extensions had been made to Western Native Township, and the new suburb of Eastern Native had also been established. The latter was never permitted to grow to any significant size and, in 1976, it survived only as a Municipal single men’s hostel. In the same year 2500 acres were purchased near Klipspruit, and in 1931 a start was made on the suburb of Orlando, named after Councillor Edwin Orlando Leake. However progress was slow, and by 1939, Johannesburg could only boast a total of 8900 houses and hostel accommodation for 6700 single men. By then the Black population had risen to 244000 with an official male to female ratio slightly below 3:1.

In 1932, after nearly a decade of unsuccessful attempts at slum clearance, the Johannesburg Municipality was able to provide residents of inner city slums with alternative accommodation. For much of the 1920s, the municipality was thwarted by the courts in repeated attempts to destroy the slumyards and relocate residents to areas outside the city. This was because no alternative accommodation was provided by the authorities, and residents defied orders to leave the yards. The end of the Great Depression, the subsequent departure from the Gold Standard and the boost brought about by the mining industry’s return to profitability meant increased revenues for the city from the mining sector in particular.With this increase in revenue, the city was able to expand its stock of low-cost housing.

The next five years were an important period in the history of Johannesburg’s Black residential sector. With most of the White labour force engaged on overseas war duties, increasing demands were made upon local skilled and unskilled labour. The war effort not only boosted the industrial and manufacturing sector, but its demands for material production broke down many old prohibitions upon the use of Black labour. As a result more Black workers were brought into urban centres, effectively sensitising them to labour and other economic issues, and forging them into a well-politicised industrial proletariat.

The effects of this were only felt fully during the 1950s, once the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) began organising campaigns of resistance against continued White political, cultural and economic domination. By the end of the War, Johannesburg’s Black population had increased to 395,231, with a male to female ratio of nearly 2:1. Over 20% of this population consisted of young children, a clear indication that many families had cut their rural links and were forging a new urban society. It also meant that the needs of education would henceforth also have to be taken into account when planning for the infrastructural needs of the Black community.

A factor which became increasingly manifest during this period was the failure of the Johannesburg Municipality to cope internally with the health problems that its own department of ‘Non-European Affairs’ (NEAD) was generating. During the 1930s the work of the MOH had been severely hampered by worker shortages. This was aggravated by the massive housing backlog and rapid rate at which urbanisation was taking place, which made attempts at establishing a sanitary infrastructure virtually impossible. An attempt to bring order to the situation was made in 1935 when the Murray Thornton Commission managed to institute some changes in the organisational structure of the Health Department. However, by the end of the War, the housing shortage was again reaching such proportions that it was not uncommon to find dwellings so overcrowded that one family was being accommodated in each room.

The Informal Settlement Movement

An artist's rendition of 14th Street in Pageview, then known as “Fietas”

Between 1936 and 1946, Johannesburg’s Black population grew by 59% to a total of nearly 400,000. During the same period the comparative growth of the White sector was 29%. However, by the end of the War, the Municipality had erected only 9573 low-income housing units and made available 7270 beds in male, single-sex hostels. This means that officially, only some 55,000 persons were being housed in municipal residences. Unofficially, of course, the figure was much higher. The remainder had to make do as best they could, and although some people worked and slept over in the White suburbs, few could claim a home of their own. The majority was forced to move illegally into vacant tracts of land in areas such as Orlando, Pimville, Dube, Newclare and Alexandra,where informal settlements sprang up virtually overnight.

Mpanza’s Squatter Movement
The squatter movement led by James Sofasonke Mpanza in Orlando at the tail end of World War II is well documented. It was the culmination of years of appeals to the Johannesburg City Council (JCC) to provide houses for residents living in backrooms as subtenants in the township. These were made up mainly, though not exclusively, of families migrating to the city during the war. Mpanza garnered considerable support among these residents in his quest to become a civic leader in the Orlando Advisory Board in successive elections. And his appeal to this constituency enabled him to upstage his rivals who invariably were candidates fielded by the SACP. During this period the SACP was particularly active in local government politics, while the ANC was largely dormant.
This squatter movement therefore represented a deliberate political and resistance strategy aimed at forcing the JCC’s hand into expanding its stock of low-cost houses. Yet again, the JCC could not provide the budget to expand its housing programme and accommodate these residents. And in 1944, Mpanza led thousands of his supporters onto vacant land on the outskirts of Orlando, urging them to erect structures using any available materials. Overnight, thousands of hessian structures dotted the vacant land lying between Orlando and Kliprivier, later named ‘Shanty town’. The movement attracted the attention of the media and other sympathetic pressure groups who urged the JCC to find a solution to what had become a crisis. Consequently, the JCC relented and made a start with construction of low-cost houses across Kliprivier in a part of Orlando West that was to be known among locals as ‘Phomolong’, or ‘a place of rest’. This is the area where ANC veteran Walter Sisulu was later to reside with his family.

When the largest of these camps was eventually cleared in 1955, it was found to have housed an estimated 60,000 persons. The lack of sanitation and the overcrowding of housing in these areas caused the overload of an already meagre infrastructure. In time these communities also began to demand other facilities, such as schooling, which was either rudimentary or non-existent, or was being withheld by the authorities as a matter of policy.

Over the years the quality of life available to residents in these areas has become a matter of some debate. Liberal commentators have pointed out, with some reason, to the richness and variety of sub-cultures which existed in places such as Sophiatown. It is true that these informal settlements gave rise to some of this country’s most notable black poets, writers, artists, singers, musicians and political leaders (See key figures). It is also true, however, that they suffered from a high crime rate, and that residents were generally at the mercy of profiteers, slum-lords, farmers of shacks and any carpet-bagger unscrupulous enough to exploit the despair and plight of others. Richard Rive has pointed out that, contrary to the romantic image that White liberals have painted of District Six in Cape Town, the residents themselves considered it to have been a slum and often ‘could not wait to get out’. Sentiments of a similar nature were also expressed by the people of Pageview, or ‘Fietas’, prior to the demolition of this suburb in the 1980s.

Not unnaturally, such conditions also gave rise to a generation of political leaders and socially involved persons who voiced the grievances of Black workers. Patrick Lewis has called them ‘leaders outside the law’ and, in view of subsequent events, it is significant that the City Council of that time found itself powerless to act against them. It was only the coming to power of the Nationalist Party in 1948 which temporarily stilled the voices of legitimate Black protest and forced many of its leaders into exile or jail. The South African Communist Party was banned in 1952, and following eight years of sustained political protest, the ANC and PAC were also banned in 1960. The formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) the subsequent year marked the beginnings of an armed struggle against White oppression which continued until 1994.

'Birds in the Cornfield: Squatter Movements in Johannesburg, 1944-1947' (PDF). Author: A.W. Stadler Article in Journal of Southern African Studies, Vol. 6, No. 1, Special Issue on Urban Social History. (Oct., 1979), pp. 93-123.

Predictably, a riot did eventually occur in August 1947 when municipal offices were attacked and three White policemen were killed. The Council’s attitude may be best summed up by a memo they submitted at the time to the Governmental Commission of Enquiry into this event. Under the heading ‘Fundamental Causes’, they claimed that:

‘In the submission of the Council, the fundamental cause of the riot is the attitude of mind produced in the urban native population by the series of squatter movements which have occurred in Johannesburg since 1944 and which may best be summarized as one of contempt for authority and for constitutional methods in favour of direct action, however illegal and violent, coupled with growing political and national consciousness of the urban Native population.’ (Stadler, 1979)

Writing some 19 years later, Patrick Lewis also attempted to dismiss the social and political realities of the informal settlement movement. He claimed that their leaders were acting as the agents of financially motivated profiteers and slum lords, a naive assertion which indicates, if nothing else, ignorance of local housing conditions, and of the needs and aspirations of urban Black residents.

The period between 1939 and 1945 is also significant, for it marks a time when the economic and residential make-up of Johannesburg’s urban Black population underwent final and irrevocable change. Before WWII this community was marked by a sizeable component that retained seasonal links to the rural areas. This was owed to the rotational nature of the migrant labour system, which brought rural workers to the city on 11-month contracts and then expected them to return home for an enforced break until the cycle was repeated the following year.

After 1945 the make-up of urban Black society changed to include a greater proportion of children. This indicated a tendency on the part of Black families to sever their rural roots and to establish permanent homes in urban areas. After 1948 the Nationalist Government attempted to reverse this trend by introducing a policy of forced ‘repatriation’ to ‘independent states’ having a predominantly agrarian economic base (See Homelands). This promoted a myth of ‘rural ethnicity’ which sought to deny the existence of an industrial proletariat, a position which the Nationalist Government only abandoned relatively late in its existence.

Thus the planning and implementation of urban housing programmes in Johannesburg after 1945 had to take into account the existence of an expanding and permanent urban Black population. However, a realisation that demographic changes had taken place was slow in percolating through to the civic decision-making process, and of the 10,730 house contracts placed between 1940 and 1947, only 1538 were built. Instead it was thought that relief for homeless residents could be found in a policy of temporary housing. Although some units were built on a short-term basis, they were experimental in nature and suffered from some notable technical and planning flaws. The concrete-roofed houses of Jabavu, known to its residents as ‘White City’, are an example of one such project.

Almost inevitably, these have also become permanent in nature and in time have degraded to the point of becoming unfit for habitation. Further housing activity took place between 1947 and 1951, when a total of 6788 units were built. It was not until 1951 that two Acts, designed to ease the nation-wide housing crisis, were promulgated. The Prevention of Illegal Squatting Act was the first of over one hundred pieces of similar legislation designed to give local authorities the means of removing squatters from land; while the Native Building Workers Act authorised the utilisation of skilled Black labour on low-income housing schemes. The combination of the two, together with a large infusion of State funds, allowed Municipal housing agencies to initiate new, large-scale housing programmes in Johannesburg’s Black residential areas.

Low-Cost Housing Developments in the Post-War Era

Soweto, 1988: Playing golf in an open field. Photograph: Santu Mofokeng

The immediate effect of the Native Building Workers Act was the formation of a Housing Division within the City Council. With the assistance of Governmental subsidies, and a series of loans raised from Johannesburg’s mining companies, most specifically Sir Ernest Oppenheimer of Anglo-American, the Housing Division was able to implement a number of site-and-service schemes that eased the crisis to a small degree. By the time building operations reached their peak in Johannesburg in 1958, the Housing Division was handing over 40 houses a day for occupation, and by 1969 a total of 65,564 houses had been built in Soweto alone.

History through pictures: Soweto

The houses were built as a result of research conducted by the National Building Research Institute (NBRI) between 1948 and 1951. Although this project is generally considered to have been the result of group effort, much of it revolved around the ideas of Douglas Calderwood, a young architect working at the NBRI at the time. He subsequently incorporated his work into two academic dissertations for which he was awarded a Master of Architecture degree and, later, a PhD, by the Department of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand. The dwellings were probably designed by another young architect employed by the NBRI, Barrie Biermann, who has since become better known for his research in Cape Dutch architecture.

Biermann’s knowledge of the Cape vernacular is evident from the plan of the average Soweto house, a four-roomed unit which resembled a double-pile Kaapse lang huis. It became generally known as the NE 51/6, where ‘NE’ stood for Non-European, ‘51’ was 1951, the year of Calderwood’s doctoral thesis, and ‘6’ was the drawing’s number in the thesis. Other designs included the NE 51/7, consisting of a pair of semi-detached NE 51/6s, and the NE 51/9, a slightly larger version of the NE 51/6 with an internal bathroom. In later years, Johannesburg’s Housing Division also evolved their own versions of the NE 51/9, which they called the ‘Type L’ and the ‘Type M’ respectively. Few of these, however, are known to have ever been built.

These designs should not be read in isolation of White opinions prevailing at that time. In April 1950, the Minister of Native Affairs Dr EG Jansen stated in Parliament that it was a ”¦wrong notion that the Native who has barely left his primitive conditions should be provided with a house which to him resembles a palace and with conveniences which he cannot appreciate and which he will not require for many years to come’.

Jansen, who went on to become Governor-General of the Union of South Africa, was no doubt fortified by the thoughts of his leader, Prime Minister Daniel Malan, who held that ‘the Native does not need a home. He can sleep under a tree’, but he was also, in many ways, echoing the sentiments of previous colonial governments. In 1894, for example, during the planning stages of Vrededorp, a lower economic suburb aimed at housing indigent Dutch as well as residents of the nearby Malay Location, President Kruger is reputed to have slashed the size of plots down to 250 sq ft, claiming that ‘Ek sal hulle nie plase gee nie, maar net sitplekke’ (meaning ‘I will not give them farms, but only sitting places’).

Calderwood’s work for the NBRI in the early 1950s was therefore designed to meet such governmental standards and, ironically, formed the basis for Nationalist housing policy right up to the mid-1980s.

The NE 51/6 included two bedrooms, a lounge and a kitchen beneath a simple, gable-ended ridged roof. Rudimentary toilet facilities were provided by a separate external Water Closet (WC) located to the rear of the stand.  The walls were 150mm wide, usually constructed out of cement-ash blocks laid on a minimal 75mm concrete foundation, and roofed over with asbestos-cement fibre corrugated sheeting. There were no ceilings or internal doors, and costs were budgeted at about £250 per unit. Although building was conducted by a number of contractors, the major share of the work fell upon Roberts Construction, while the main suppliers of materials were the South African Rapid Block Company for the blocks, and Everite for the roof sheeting.

The planning of Soweto incorporated a number of important features. There is no doubt that its town planners were inspired by ‘garden city’ theories current in Europe at that time. Its streets broke with the grid-iron pattern common in other parts of Johannesburg, and were designed to promote a hierarchy of traffic routes. Suburbs were laid out to create neighbourhoods, and green areas and civic spaces were integrated into the overall plan. Houses were detached and each was set on its own plot of land.

The idealism of the planners however, was offset by the unavoidable fact that Soweto was the brainchild of racist and segregationist thinking (See Apartheid City Planning). This manifested itself in a number of ways:

  • When the residents of informal settlements were forcibly resettled in Soweto, there was no attempt to respect existing social structures and neighbourhood units. Instead these were wilfully split up, seemingly as an act of bureaucratic terrorism aimed at breaking the spirit of the community.
  • Vehicular access to Soweto was, and still is, limited to three major arterial routes and one small gravel road. The intention here was to restrict movement in and out of the area in times of civil insurgency.
  • Many of the older suburbs of Soweto, such as Orlando East and Meadowlands, were laid out on a ‘honeycomb’ pattern. Calderwood tells that this was done on the specific instructions of Hendrik Verwoerd, then Minister of Native Affairs and acknowledged architect of ‘grand Apartheid’. The intention here was to locate police stations and nests of machine-guns at the hubs in order to control any potential civil insurrections (Calderwood, personal communication, 1966). In many ways this attitude is a continuation of the philosophy which created radially planned, single-sex compounds on the gold mines, and eventually manifested itself in the building of extensive single-sex dormitory hostels during the apartheid era.
  • Soweto was divided into ‘ethnically’ predetermined suburbs separated by open pieces of veld, on the assumption that if the various ‘tribal groups’ were not set physically apart, they would be at each other’s throats at the slightest provocation. One of the strategies used by apartheid administrators was the creation of self-perceived ‘ethnic divisions’ as part of a larger ‘divide-and-rule’ governmental policy.
  • No provisions were made for the creation of business districts, or for the establishment of industrial and manufacturing areas. There was no intention of allowing Soweto to create its own internal economy, thus breaking its ‘company store’ relationship with White Johannesburg.
  • Stands were kept deliberately small and of uniform size to prevent any distinctions arising between professional, entrepreneurial and unskilled working class tenants.
  • Most of the open spaces, designated as ‘green’ areas on town planning maps, were no more than utopian dreams included for liberal public consumption which the government had little intention of realising. In virtually every case for the next 40 years these remained open pieces of undeveloped land, used as dumping grounds for car wrecks and havens for vagrants and criminal gangs.

One of the more lunatic proposals put forward by the newly elected Nationalist Government in 1948 would have located Soweto, or whatever its name might then have become, near Newcastle, in KwaZulu-Natal. The theory then was that high-speed trains (yet to be invented) would have commuted workers into Johannesburg on a daily basis. In spite of its final location in proximity to Johannesburg, the NP Government never intended for Soweto to be anything other than a temporary dormitory suburb. The name ‘Soweto’ itself is little more than a cold acronym, invented by a faceless apartheid bureaucrat to denote the words ‘South Western Township’.

The growth and development of Soweto may be summed up by the tabulation below. The year refers to the date of the suburb’s declaration; the population and housing figures reflect the numbers as they stood on 30 June 1964. This data has been drawn from official NEAD reports of that time.

Pimville 1906 29,088 1,232
Eastern Native Township 1926 3,968 627
Orlando 1930 65,593 11,314
Jabavu 1948 25,468 5,100
Dube 1948 12,727 1,957
Mofolo 1954 28,284 4,543
Central Western Jabavu 1954 25,468 1,432
Moroka North 1955 15,207 2,693
Molapo 1956 8,188 1,466
Moletsane 1956 10,360 1,962
Tladi 1956 10,000 1,860
Dhlamini 1956 9,015 1,422
Tshiawelo, also given as Chiawelo 1956 20,152 3,989
Jabulani 1956 11,721 2,039
Naledi 1956 19, 923 4043
apetla 1956 11,476 2,105
Phiri 1956 11,332 2,190
Zondi 1956 8,861 1,548
Senaoane 1958 8,732 1,511
Zola 1958 30,630 5,572
Emdeni 1958 11,680 2,298
TOTAL 360,994 60,902

Many of Soweto’s suburbs also owe their birth to the destruction of other Black residential areas, such as Western Native Township, Eastern Native Township, Sophiatown and the Moroka informal camp. Each of these, in its own time, represented a pocket of political resistance against White racist and segregationist ideology. Each was destroyed, in its turn, by a governmental bureaucracy bent upon breaking down, willfully and systematically, existing social structures and democratic political movements. Resettlement was therefore used as a political weapon, deliberately dispersing well-established neighbourhood units and support groups, separating extended families and neighbours, as a means of maximising the shocks of removal and dispossession. Soweto was the spawn of apartheid, and its location, planning and architecture serve as constant reminders of this fact to its residents.

Between the resettlement of communities of the Western Areas of Johannesburg in Soweto and the inauguration of the West Rand Administration Board in 1975, Soweto was administered by two local authorities, each with its own ideology and set of political values. Meadowlands and Diepkloof, both having absorbed the majority of families removed from the Western Areas, continued to be administered by the Native Resettlement Board (NRB), the Nationalist Party’s statutory body responsible for their removal and subsequent resettlement in Soweto. The rest of Soweto was administered by the Johannesburg City Council (JCC), under the auspices of the United Party. 

One of the key differences in the application of municipal by-laws in the two sets of locations was in the enforcement of Section 10 of the Native Laws Amendment Act of 1952. Section 10 (1) (a) was more rigidly enforced in Diepkloof and Meadowlands than was the case elsewhere in Soweto. The NRB undertook pre-dawn raids in Diepkloof and Meadowlands to arrest and deport all persons not permitted to be in the urban areas of Johannesburg as provided for in Section 10 (1) (a) of the Act. Transgressors were arrested and deported back to the homelands and warned never to return unless they could show that they were employed in the city. This did not apply to residents of the rest of the townships.

The NRB was also mindful of the government’s homeland policy. It established links with various homeland governments, allowing chiefs to pay regular visits to Diepkloof and Meadowlands to hold meetings with their subjects. The NRB established a venue in Meadowlands that was used by chiefs visiting their subjects in the townships. No similar measures applied to residents of the other townships in Soweto. Though many commentators consider the move from Sophiatown to Meadowlands as reconfirming the residents’ commitment to the city and severance of ties with the countryside, the NRB continued to foster loyalty to homeland governments.    

After 1963, Municipal housing activities in Soweto began to wind down, and after 1969 these came to a virtual standstill. In 1973 the West Rand Administration Board (WRAB) took over the control and day-to-day administration of Soweto from the Johannesburg’s NEAD. However, by 1976 housing had, once again, become a major political issue in Johannesburg’s Black community. This may be ascribed to a number of factors, including:

  • WRAB’s failure since 1973 to provide additional ‘official’ housing in Soweto.
  • WRAB’s refusal to conduct, or even condone, maintenance work upon their own houses. This was in line with Nationalist Party labour policies, which held that access to trade skills should be limited to Whites. Ben Schoeman, Minister of Transport, articulated this in 1952, when he stated in Parliament that Natives can do skilled work if trained for it; that is why we must not give it to them’.
  • WRAB’s continued use of former municipal liquor outlets and beer halls as a means of funding the administration and implementation of an apartheid infrastructure.
  • Central Government’s obsessive attempts to implement a policy of separate ‘homeland’ development, which sought to decentralise industry and remove all Black residents of urban areas to a series of ‘self-governing states’. The intention was to make all urban Blacks ‘temporary residents’ and, at one stage or another, resettle them, with or without their permission, to an ‘ethnically’ predetermined rural area. Their ‘temporary’ status gave their housing needs low priority, and governmental funds for new house construction were made available only to those who voluntarily endorsed themselves out of their urban area. This scheme is recorded to have suited some elderly persons wishing to retire on pension, but few others are known to have availed themselves of this opportunity.
  • Because all urban Blacks were regarded as being ‘temporary’ residents, applications for the construction of privately-funded housing in Black-designated suburbs were not entertained.
  • For the same reason, residents of these areas were also not permitted to gain ownership of their properties. This failure to grant residents security of tenure discouraged even basic, self-initiated, maintenance work upon existing housing units. This resulted in a steady degradation of urban environments. Although attempts were made in the early 1980s to implement a scheme permitting limited 30-year tenure, this was resisted politically by residents who opted for an ‘all or nothing’ attitude. As a result, less than 10% of homes in Johannesburg's Black suburbs are known to have been purchased under this dispensation.

Although the 1976 Soweto student uprising was sparked off primarily by dissatisfaction with current standards of Black education, popular grievances with local housing conditions were important lateral issues in the conflict that ensued.

Soweto’s next stage of development also began in 1976, and coincides with the inauguration of the Urban Foundation. This was an agency founded by concerned members of the White business community as a direct response to the student-led uprising for the specific purpose of conducting housing and development work in Black urban areas. As a result of its involvement, a number of major housing and community projects were undertaken. Among the first was the provision of an electrical infrastructure over the area, a project which was not necessarily initiated out of civic altruism, but out of a necessity to reduce current levels of air pollution over Johannesburg as a whole. Much of this can be traced back to Soweto's innumerable wood fires, most particularly in winter when local temperature inversions and southerly winds combine to carry these fumes northward to Johannesburg's White residential suburbs.

During the early 1980s, conditions regarding the construction of privately funded housing were relaxed, allowing banks and building societies to enter the Black housing market for the first time. This, together with the availability of small pockets of land, then allowed a modest amount of middle income housing activity to take place.

However, normal population expansion, an existing housing backlog, and the relaxation of rural influx laws ensured that, by 1994, the housing crisis remained as pressing as it had been forty years previously. As a result, informal housing settlements once again began to develop in such places as Kliptown, and on a number of White-owned farms bordering on Soweto. This has continued to the present day as government agencies have struggled to meet their own deadlines

Other Black Suburbs

Sophiatown, February 1955 (©Jurgen Schadeberg)

Many of the Black residential areas closest to White suburbia have undergone radical change since the 1950’s. The original residents of Western Native Township have long been relocated to Soweto, after the suburb was rezoned in 1963 under the Group Areas Act, and given over to Coloured occupation. Today it is undergoing extensive redevelopment and has been incorporated into a wider grouping of officially-designated Coloured suburbs, including Bosmont, Newclare, Coronationville and Claremont. The provision of housing specifically for Coloureds did not begin until 1937 when Coronationville was established. Noordgesig followed in 1940, but with the promulgation of the Group Areas Act in 1950, it was consolidated with Newclare into a sector for the exclusive occupation of Coloureds.

Sophiatown, one of Johannesburg’s original Black suburbs, gradually evolved into a mixed area inhabited by all races, becoming a symbol of how a non-racial South Africa could be made to work. This was not something which the Nationalist government could permit at a time when its programmes of social engineering and racial segregation were in their initial stages of implementation.

Therefore, in 1955, the land was rezoned for White occupation, its houses were bulldozed to the ground, and the area was redeveloped as a White residential suburb. Ironically, its new name was Triomf, an Afrikaans term meaning ‘triumph’, presumably signifying the ‘conquest’ of Nationalist racist values over democracy (See Sophiatown).

With the destruction of Sophiatown completed in 1959 and residents resettled in different parts of Soweto, the NRB turned its attention to Alexandra Township. Hundreds, probably thousands of Alexandra families were resettled in Diepkloof and Meadowlands between 1961 and 1966. The NRB stopped this process sometime in 1966 or early in 1967. It is possible that this was influenced by the passing of the Physical Planning Act of 1967, which was designed to curtail further development in land that the NP government designated ‘controlled areas’. And for the rest of the 1960s forced removals from Alexandra Township were suspended.

During the 1970s Alexandra underwent a period of indecision and anxiety regarding its future for it seemed that the whole area would be forcibly expropriated by Government and redeveloped as a series of gigantic, single-sex hostels. After a protracted legal and political battle involving citizens of Johannesburg from all walks of life, this community won the right to remain on their own land. Today the suburb is in the process of renewal as many of its older parts are slowly being upgraded or rebuilt. Until a few years ago, Alexandrawas one of the last remaining suburbs on the Witwatersrand where Black residents retained the right to own land

Persons of Indian origin have been residents of the Reef since its earliest days, when their presence probably played an important role in the development of Johannesburg's CBD. When the mining camp’s first stands were auctioned off in December 1886, plots located in the central area were reserved for White ownership, but Indian families were permitted to purchase erven on the outskirts, which were deemed to be less favourably located. This permitted the development of a small predominantly Indian business and residential component which, in later years, became known as the ‘Diagonal Street area’.

It would appear that by 1897 a sizeable Indian community had also grown up in a portion of the Brickfields where many families ran ‘Native Concession’ stores. It is probable that, following the plague scare of 1904, when all residents of Brickfields, Black and White, were removed to Klipspruit, this community became divided. One section chose to settle near the health camp, continuing with their concession stores and forming the core of what was to become the Kliptown business centre. The other chose to return to the central area with its thriving commercial district. It should be noted that one of the buildings to have been demolished arbitrarily in 1904 was a well-appointed mosque.

A third Indian community, more commonly described as Malay, also made their home immediately to the north and west of the Brickfields. A map of Johannesburg for 1897 refers to it simply as a ‘Location’, although other sources have also described it as the ‘Malay Location’. In later years it was to become known as Pageview, although most Johannesburg residents knew it as Vrededorp or, more simply, as Fietas.

This area was extensively damaged by the Braamfontein dynamite explosion of 1896, as a result of which it had to be rebuilt. However it does not appear to have been involved in the plague scare eight years later and, mercifully, it was not involved in the wholesale destruction of housing that followed.

The character and demographic composition of this suburb changed considerably between 1900 and the 1960s, when its original Malay residents slowly gave way to Indian and predominantly Muslim families. The mechanics of this changeover are not clear, but would appear to centre on the Malay custom of conducting large, and hence expensive, weddings. As a result of this, many Malay families entered into debt with Indian businessmen and forfeited their properties when they failed to meet their repayments. In the late 1970s, Pageview was rezoned as a White suburb. Its residents were then forced out, their properties were expropriated and demolished, and have since been redeveloped as low-income housing for Whites.

As the result of the ZAR’s Gold Laws, which prohibited persons of colour from owning land in areas that might be gold-bearing, small pockets of Indian residences were also created on the fringes of suburbs such as Doornfontein, New Doornfontein and Fordsburg. When Johannesburg spread further east and west, these groups were incorporated into the urban fabric of the new suburbs. Although in time these areas developed a predominantly White, working class character, their Indian residents managed to retain their homes until the 1970s.

This did not take place without some degree of White resistance which, in some cases, became quite voluble. In Vrededorp, for example, White residents were agitating for the removal of their Malay and Indian neighbours in Pageview from as early as the 1920s. It is ironic to note that, when the two groups were still residing alongside each other in the late 1970s, it was the Indian families who would not permit their children to fraternise with their White counterparts, considering them to be ill-mannered and hence a bad influence.

After the 1950s, the expansion of Johannesburg’s CBD, together with the government’s implementation of Group Areas legislation, forced many Indian residents out of their homes in the city centre. As a result, in 1955, a suburb for the exclusive use of Indians was established some 32km south of Johannesburg, near the Lenz military camp. Its name, Lenasia, was probably derived by combining the names ‘Lenz’ and ‘Asian’, but the originator of this literary gem has never been identified. Although Indian families were at first unwilling to relocate to this remote location, government pressure and decreasing residential options in central Johannesburg ensured the gradual development of the suburb, and in time it has grown to an extent that land for its expansion is no longer available.

This forced many persons employed in Johannesburg to either make their homes illegally in White suburbs such as Mayfair and Fordsburg, or to seek residence further afield in places such as Laudium, in Pretoria. The removal of Indian families from Pageview in the 1970s served to aggravate this situation. It also meant that, in many cases, industrious and relatively affluent Indian families fortunate enough to find a White landlord ‘altruistic’ enough to break the law on their behalf, were also forced to find homes illegally in White suburbs while paying exorbitant rents for the privilege of having a roof over their heads.

Throughout this time, the development of Johannesburg’s Black residential sector has taken place predominantly south of the CBD. The initial reasons for this do not appear to have been the outcome of deliberate policy decisions so much as a series of historical and geographical coincidences. Certainly areas south of the Braamfontein ridge have always been considered to be colder, windier, and hence less desirable for residential purposes than land to its north. This was aggravated by the growth of a mining industrial belt and the ensuing dust pollution it generated.

However, Soweto’s current location can be traced directly to the plague scare of 1904. This allowed the authorities to resettle the bulk of Johannesburg’s Black community to the Klipspruit health camp where water and sewage facilities were readily available. Circumstances dictated that these were located south of the town, but they could just as easily have been to its north. The subsequent development of an industrial and mining belt along the Reef also made it sensible to erect any new worker housing south of this line.

Faced with this set of self-reinforcing elements, it is probable that Johannesburg’s early town planners and subsequent apartheid bureaucrats found their decisions easy to enforce. Given the segregationist mindset of most people at that time, it would not have concerned them over-much that the town’s southern areas were remote and not as comfortable as their northern counterparts. In all fairness though, the same class attitudes prevailed regarding the development of Johannesburg’s southern suburbs as a predominantly working-class area for White residential use.

In this way, planners continued to pile one disadvantage upon the next until they created a physical and material gulf between the affluent northern suburbs and the indigent south, a gap which generally persists to the present day. Read individually, the negative factors mean little; taken as a whole they create a damning indictment of White Johannesburg. The first Black township was built on the structurally unsound soil of a rubbish dump; Klipspruit was the site of a sewage works, with all its attendant smells; Soweto is remote from town and, for many years, remained poorly served by transport; little housing was provided until 1951; the south is cold, windy and subject to twisters, temperature inversions, violent thundershowers and hailstorms; the area is heavily undermined and prone to wall-cracking earth tremors; in some parts land is given to heaving clay and is therefore expensive to build upon. This list is long and by no means complete.

There is no doubt that then, as now, economics have played a major role in the planning process. The initial purchase price for land in Soweto, for example, was R16 per acre, a figure considered to have been low even by standards of that time. Until recently Soweto was still regarded as a ‘temporary’ dormitory town and families who were resettled there in the 1950s were generally not in an economic position to acquire homes or land outright. Thus their housing was 100% subsidised and had to be economical out of necessity. The questions of social justice and of a moral partnership between White capital and Black labour had yet to impinge upon Johannesburg’s civic consciousness.

Johannesburg Institutional sector

The presence of an Institutional sector in Johannesburg’s urban fabric only became manifest during the 1960s although, in retrospect, it had already begun to develop during the early years of the city’s existence. Initially it grew about two major nodes, one medical, and one educational in nature. The first was established on 29 March 1889 when the Johannesburg General Hospital was officially opened on Hospital Hill, subsequently known as Hillbrow, to cater for the needs of the rapidly expanding mining community.

The second focused upon the University of the Witwatersrand, better known as Wits, which was established in 1910 as the South African School of Mines and Technology. The sector remained relatively undefined up to the early 1960s, when it began to undergo extensive development and consolidation, giving it a clear identity. By the 1970s it included the following major components:

  • The Johannesburg General Hospital, also known as the Hillbrow Hospital, together with its attendant nurses’ homes and some 15 other subsidiary hospitals, maternity homes and clinics. Added to this was the Medical Research Institute, the Adler Museum of Medicine, the old Medical School facilities attached to Wits, a Lazaretto and fever hospital, a specialised children’s hospital, a morgue, and a host of office and residential buildings for medical staff. This concentration of health-based functions was reinforced during the 1970s by the erection on the Parktown Ridge of a new, and controversially located, Johannesburg General Hospital, now known as the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital, with an outpatient’s section, an attendant Medical School attached to Wits University, and residential facilities for nurses. This complex is surrounded by a number of other medical establishments, including the Park Lane and the Kenridge Nursing Home, since renamed the Wits Donald Gordon Medical Centre.
  • A block away from the Hillbrow Hospital is the Johannesburg Fort, which, in spite of its historical importance, continued to be used as a prison until the mid-1980s when it was taken over by the military, and subsequently converted to a museum. Today part of its grounds house the new Constitutional Court (see key sites), while retaining a small concentration of buildings housing law-enforcement facilities, as well as residential quarters for police employees and their families. Other buildings include the Municipal offices, the Civic Theatre, the Department of Education, Roedean School, St John’s School and King Edward VII School, the former Afrikaans Business School, the Ballet School, a number of halls of student residence, the Wits School of Business Administration, the Institute of South African Architects, the Order of St Johns, the Brenthurst Library, the Wits University Press, and the Wilds gardens and greenhouses.
  • The University of the Witwatersrand east and west campuses, together with the John Orr School, the Planetarium, Parktown and Helpmekaar High Schools, the Bensusan Museum of Photography, and the former Johannesburg College of Education, which has since been absorbed into the Wits School of Education. It must also be borne in mind that Wits University has extensive property holdings in Braamfontein, immediately south of the East Campus, which are largely used to house off-campus postgraduate students, as well as a number of other facilities.
  • In the early 1970s a second university, the Rand Afrikaanse Universiteit (RAU), was founded in Johannesburg. This was originally housed in the old Castle brewery premises opposite Wits but in 1979 it was moved to a new campus in Auckland Park, built on land expropriated from the Country Club. It has since been renamed the University of Johannesburg (UJ), in the process absorbing the former Goudstad Teachers Training College. Other facilities in this area include the UJ Auditorium, Art gallery and sports stadium, the Country Club, the Museum of Man and Science, the JG Strydom Hospital complex, since renamed the Helen Joseph Hospital, and the Coronationville Hospital, now known as the Rahima Moosa Mother and Child Hospital.
  •  The SABC complex, including the television studios and the Brixton Tower, the Municipal Fire Department’s Training School on the southern side of the Brixton Ridge, and the Chamber of Mines Hospital nearby. Connected to them, if a little tenuously, is the Garden City Clinic.

This sector begins to break down when it reaches the Hillbrow-Berea wedge where, over the years, the development of a high-rise residential suburb has made land too expensive for institutional use. However, scattered elements may still be found in this area, including the Art School, the Joubert Park complex of gardens, hothouses and Art Gallery, the former Railway Museum and Archives, and the SABC Tower in Hillbrow. The Johannesburg Technikon campus, formerly in Braamfontein and since relocated to Doornfontein under the aegis of the University of Johannesburg, brings the eastern arm of this arc to a terminus.

It is difficult to establish with any certainty whether the origins of an educational and institutional belt within Johannesburg's urban fabric were the result of historical coincidence or the pragmatic implementation of deliberate planning policies. Certainly the establishment of a hospital on the Hillbrow Ridge in 1889 indicates that even then this area was capable of fulfilling the primary requirements for institutional land use. The fact that, in subsequent years, other institutions were added to this area seems to confirm the judgment of early planners.

It is also important to point out that, during the 1970s, the development of Johannesburg’s Educational and Institutional sector was achieved largely at the expense of Parktown. Rightly or wrongly, the Afrikaner political establishment had always viewed the suburb as representative of the interests of British imperialism and Jewish finance, and had treated its residents with distrust, feeling uncomfortable with their Uitlander values and disliking the power they wielded in the South African economy.

This antipathy was transmitted, over the years, to new generations of administrators, and by the time the Nationalist Party was returned to power in 1948, right-wing nationalist politicians felt ready to act. During the 1960s the Government began to expropriate properties in Parktown and to demolish their houses, ostensibly to provide the Johannesburg College of Education, a small institution which numbered less than two thousand students, with sports facilities.

In these terms, the disappearance of large parts of Parktown cannot be seen in simple terms of the old making way for the new. It was rather the climax of four generations of rivalry between differing cultures and economic classes holding conflicting social and political ideologies. The subsequent redevelopment of the remaining parts of Parktown into a low-rise office park was thus no more than the completion of a process initiated by a bureaucracy fuelled by atavistic inferiority complexes and racial hatreds. Ironically, in more recent times, the administrators of the Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital are slowly replacing these playing fields with buildings of their own.

It is doubtful that the growth of a suburban business district so close to the CBD-Braamfontein complex would have taken place of its own accord and without the interference of a central government. It is true that many of Parktown’s formerly grand mansions had become uneconomical to maintain, and had thus become derelict. However it is probable that a heritage-sensitive town planning policy permitting higher housing densities and the subdivision of large properties, as was subsequently implemented in Houghton, would have retained the suburb’s essential residential character, allowing most of its historical homes to be conserved as prestigious corporate headquarters.

The future of this sector does not appear to be easy to predict. The CBD has always been subject to the combined forces of rising land prices, limited land availability and intensive infrastructural development. During the 1960s these encouraged the city’s centre to expand into Braamfontein and, more recently by default, into Parktown. However, in spite of the fact that institutional development is generally subject to relatively low building densities, this sector already represents a sizeable investment in terms of its specialised infrastructure.

Thus, in spite of being vulnerable to commercial redevelopment, it is probable that this sector will retain its institutional and educational character for many years to come. Pivotal to this has been the decision taken by Wits University in 1984 to remain in Braamfontein rather than relocate to a new campus on the perimeter of Johannesburg.

A critical factor to these developments has also been the decision to make former mining land south of the CBD available for low-rise commercial, light industrial and warehousing facilities. It is not certain whether this land will, in the long term, meet Johannesburg’s commercial and business needs especially since the completion of the M1-M2 motorway complex has inhibited further southward development.

It is probable therefore that the consolidation of an educational and institutional belt north of Johannesburg’s business centre will provide a solid container to the CBD’s northerly expansion, playing the same restraining role as the railway yards did prior to 1950. Unlike the 1950s however, when the CBD could move into the relatively underdeveloped areas of Braamfontein and Doornfontein, commerce and business did not have a similar option open to them, and instead chose to leapfrog surrounding residential areas by moving into low-rise, decentralised office and retail developments in Rosebank, Sandton, Randburg, Bedfordview and, more recently, Halfway House (Midrand). As a result, land formerly zoned for agricultural use on either side of the M1 motorway has been taken over by office, commercial, small manufacturing and warehouse activity linking, with little break, the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria with an almost continuous ribbon of low-rise development.

Industrial Growth and Development

The history of Johannesburg’s growth has coincided roughly with the expansion of its industrial and mining activities. The initial gold rush and its accompanying economic boom placed a strain upon the local infrastructure and created shortages of water, food and fuel. These, coupled with the exhaustion of the surface workings on the mines, produced a momentary economic slump. Improvements to the still rudimentary transport infrastructure, the discovery of coal on the East Rand and the introduction of a cyanide-based process in gold extraction encouraged the development of deep level mining. It also ensured that Johannesburg’s infrastructural and economic growth continued to be based primarily upon mining activity.

Nonetheless minor slumps were still to occur in subsequent years, the most notable being the direct result of the Jameson Raid of 1895, and of the South African War of 1899-1902 that followed. Steady progress was maintained in subsequent years, despite the setbacks created by World War I, the 1922 General Strike, the 1929 Wall Street stock-market crash and the world-wide economic recession which ensued, the devaluation of British sterling in 1931, and the ‘Great Drought’ of 1931-32. Despite these events, gold production continued to rise, achieving an all-time high during World War II. This was due, in part, to the devaluation of South African currency following upon the economic downturn of the early 1930s, which sustained the gold mines well into the 1940s, when the War effort promoted the growth of a secondary industrial sector.

It is difficult to estimate the exact point when Johannesburg’s secondary and tertiary industries began to relax their dependence on the gold mines and expand in their own right. This is likely to have occurred during, and immediately after, World War II, when many industries engaged in the war effort began to diversify and expand. During this time the influx of workers, both White and Black, to the Johannesburg urban area increased to provide a skilled and unskilled labour pool, as well as a captive market for locally-manufactured goods. The gradual easing of gold production during the war continued during the 1950s with the closure of many of the Reef’s older gold mines. Thus, while the mineral has continued to play an important role in the Rand’s economy, the region’s status as southern Africa’s premier centre of business and industry has increased rapidly since that time.

Favourable factors such as a relatively reliable water and power supply, access to a consumer market provided by South Africa’s largest population concentration, and the local replacement during WWII of many manufactured goods previously imported from overseas, led to the creation of a seller’s market in consumer goods. This, in its turn, stimulated the Rand’s industrial and commercial activity, leading to yet further population increases. It is probably even more difficult to determine the exact point when Johannesburg’s economy entered its next stage of development, when the focus upon secondary industry began to be replaced, in its turn, by tertiary economic activity with strong international links. This does not appear to have been the result of any single event, but was rather the culmination of a series of factors which facilitated the change. These include the following:

  • The geographical focus of the gold mines moved from the Witwatersrand to the northern Free State.
  • The region is endowed with a well-developed and long-established communication network.
  • The Reef retains access to an extensive labour pool with a wide range of skills.
  • An availability of relatively cheap industrial land, located on established and well-developed transport routes, facilitated the expansion of an existing secondary industrial sector.
  • The failure of central Government, since 1948, to successfully implement its more extreme ideological objectives, most particularly the establishment of autonomous ‘homeland states’ involving the creation of a separate Black citizenship, and the decentralisation of industrial and manufacturing activity.

The influence exerted by these factors probably reached a climax in the period between 1964 and 1974, when the city’s fabric underwent a number of radical alterations in its infrastructure, as well as its patterns of urban development.

Although Johannesburg’s economy has long-since been weaned off its staple diet of golden ‘royal jelly’, provided by the gold mines, its links to the industry remain. It was this sector which laid the foundations for the city’s continued prosperity once gold production on the Reef began its predictable decline. To date, Johannesburg remains partly reliant upon the mining houses for its economic growth, but this is now more of a market alliance which bears little resemblance to the ‘company store’ relationship of old. In some cases, the mining companies have begun to play an increasingly active role in property development as parcels of their former mining land are being cleared of their industrial superstructure and are being made available for light industrial and residential use.

Development beyond the Municipal Boundaries

During the 1950s, a limited amount of residential development took place beyond the city’s northern borders, most of the stands being 4000m² or more. By the 1960s, a reticulated infrastructure had been installed in these areas permitting the development of higher-density suburbs with stands between 1000m² and 2000m² apiece. At the same time a small number of duplex flats were permitted in Sandown, a move which encouraged developers to apply for, and receive, more flat rights. This gained further impetus during the 1970s after the introduction nationally of sectional title ownership rights.

It is interesting to note that these residential developments north of Johannesburg are a continuation of the ribbon of middle and high-income townships originally established north of the Parktown Ridge. They extend from Parktown and Houghton to the south, through to Melrose, Dunkeld, Hyde Park, Sandhurst and Sandown in the north. In more recent times, however, there has been a rising demand for smaller and more affordable erven in these areas.

The cost of living in Houghton, for example, has become prohibitive for most families owing to a combination of high municipal rates, labour and maintenance costs. As a result many of Houghton’s older mansions have been allowed to fall into disrepair, or have been converted into communes or illegal business premises.

Faced with the prospect of urban decay, Johannesburg’s planners have had little alternative but to condone the subdivisions of its stands into smaller residential plots. Other suburbs such as Melrose North have also followed suit. This does not denote a lowering of economic or living standards so much perhaps as a change in people’s values and lifestyle. It was not uncommon during the apartheid era for a middle-class White family to employ two or even three live-in Black servants, while such behaviour has become virtually unheard of since 1994.

The phenomenal growth experienced by the residential sector in areas surrounding Johannesburg was also boosted by parallel trends towards decentralisation of the business district. In many ways, the Johannesburg City Council failed to plan for the tremendous expansion of both population and the CBD which took place during the 1960s.

This led many businesses and professional practices to move out of the central core, at first to Braamfontein, and later even further, to Parktown, Rosebank and the new municipalities of Randburg and Sandton. This trend has been complemented by the concept of regional retail outlets, which have reinforced the move away from the CBD and into the suburbs.

Originally the peri-urban areas, which have since become the municipalities of Randburg, Bedfordview and Sandton, were vociferous in their demands for inclusion within an extended Johannesburg municipal structure. However the Johannesburg City Council regarded this move as being potentially dangerous to its own tax base, and feared that the demand for new roads, lighting and sewerage would over-extend its municipal budget. Ultimately a compromise was reached and new municipalities were established in all of these areas, although, to all intents and purposes, they are still regarded as falling within the suburban fabric of a larger metropolitan Johannesburg.


It is clear that although the Group Areas Act was repealed in 1991, the component elements of apartheid planning remained indelibly etched into the urban fabric of our cities. It is probable that their effects will continue to be felt for many years to come, and that their traces may never be entirely expunged from the South African urban fabric. Changes are not likely to take place through a long-term, liberal, free-market exchange of land, but will probably require a series of stringent land and price controls orchestrated through a city government committed to strong democratic values, community empowerment and the generation of wealth.

This is not a philosophy likely to find favour with the broad White electorate, nor with White Liberals or the country’s neo-Democrats, all of whom benefited extensively from the implementation of apartheid’s economic measures in the past. However, the ‘apartheid city’ was the creation of a doctrine-driven central government, and was only achieved through the imposition of extreme hardships upon Black families. It would be true to say that apartheid willfully set out to beggar the Black community for the benefit of the White. Consequently these families are now entitled to a form of restitution, and one of the ways in which this could take place is through an improved quality of housing, of life, and of economic opportunities.

To use an architectural metaphor, the edifice of apartheid was only made possible by a structure, scaffolding, of inter-supporting laws and edicts. Once the building was completed and could stand alone and unassisted, then the scaffolding could be dismantled and removed. It is true that, after 2 February 1990, the Nationalist Government began to assiduously remove its legal props to apartheid, but the substantive structure of economic inequality inherited from that system is still very much in place in the fabric of our cities. Its granite face will not be affected by rubber mallets, but will require a demolition tool made of sterner materials.

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