Inner city history lesson


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A time-line exhibition at Chancellor House.

MODERNISATION and progress are indeed important to humanity, but the preservation of the old plays a vital role in sustaining our culture. This is the view of the City manager, Trevor Fowler, who visited heritage sites in the inner city.

Fowler said that in most cases, architectural history in Joburg was a history of taking down old buildings and building the new. “There are no real old buildings [remaining] that give Joburg its 125 year old history. Thus it is important to maintain the remaining old and not build new white elephants,” he said during the tour, on Thursday, 5 July.

Eric Itzkin, the deputy director of immovable heritage in the directorate of arts, culture and heritage, agreed but said a mix of old and new was also essential for identity, taking into account the changes that had happened in Joburg over the last century.

He also highlighted the importance of immovable heritage, saying preservation of the old fitted into the City’s Growth and Development Strategy Joburg 2040, a road map charting the city’s long-term strategic course, particularly with regard to making it a liveable city, among other things.

The City’s heritage policy also “talks about the value that heritage brings to the city”, said Itzkin. “It talks about the importance of urban regeneration and social upliftment, about creating a sense of place and placing the inner city as a destination that makes Joburg unique and special.”

heritagetour side3The Shandukani mother and child health service centre in Hillbrow

Fowler’s first port of call was the Workers’ Museum in Newtown. Once a compound for migrant workers, today the museum tells the heart-rending stories of the misery of workers in the electricity industry. It was used as a temporary home for these workers from the early 20th century right up until the 1980s.

Speaking about its history, Itzkin said almost the whole of Newtown was an electricity generating centre, composed of three power stations. One stood where Sci-Bono Discovery Centre now stands, another was at the Turbine Hall and another on the grounds of what is today SAB World of Beer, the distilling museum.

In time, as the city grew, these facilities were shut down and replaced by the Orlando Power Station, in Soweto.

The compound housed about 300 people, who came in search of work from all corners of South Africa and beyond its borders. They lived in appalling conditions, with each room housing 70 men. The U-shaped structure was a prototype of the mining compounds and included quarters for black women domestic workers located at the back. To preserve its history, the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) upgraded the compound, turning it into a fascinating museum.

Chancellor House

From there, Fowler set off for Chancellor House, a modest, three-storey office block on the corner of Fox and Gerard Sekoto streets in Ferreirasdorp. In the 1950s, it housed the offices of Mandela & Tambo Attorneys, a recourse for Africans during the difficult times of the pass laws.

“It was a bustling place. People flocked here to get legal support from Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. Corridors were usually jam-packed. This was a place where people could find some sort of dignity,” said Itzkin.

Sadly, for more than a decade it was an embarrassing eyesore; squatting vagrants turned it into one of the inner city’s worst bad buildings. “The building is small miracle, having come back from the death. It was in a terrible state of degradation,” said Itzkin.

Once again, the JDA stepped in to restore some of its dignity in September 2010. The agency poured in R7-million to upgrade the block and convert it into a museum telling the stories of the life of Mandela and Tambo practising law just a few metres away from the magistrates’ courts. The time-line photo exhibition is located for all passers-by to see: “The idea is all about speaking to the people in the street,” said Itzkin.

The City is looking into the possibility of the arts, culture and heritage directorate taking up residence here. There are also plans for Advocate George Bizos, a long-time friend and advocate of Mandela, to set up legal clinic to help the indigent.

Main Street

heritagetour side3A mining headgear on Main Street Mall.

Main Street in the Joburg CBD has a plethora of interesting buildings. It is and has been the home of the mining industry, with Anglo Platinum, Anglo Gold, Goldfields and BHP Billiton, among others, as well as the Chamber of Mines, headquartered here.

“Buildings in the Main Street Mall are a mix of styles. The Anglo Platinum building has elements of Italian neo-classicism, a connection to Italian dictator Mussolini, to show a feeling of corporate power.”

In the beginning of the 21st century, Main Street, was deteriorating. This alarmed property owners in the area, who wanted to preserve its history and heritage. The Leaping Impala artwork, donated to the City by mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer, was vandalised. As part of revitalisation efforts, the artwork was restored in 1999 and several other works of art were installed along the road, including the Gold Mining Head Gear, The Wagon and The Stamp Mill.

Marshall Street Barracks

Contrasting with the improvements to Main Street, the Marshall Street Barracks is an empty, charred shell of its former self, urgently in need of attention. The building belongs to the national Public Works Department, which apparently has a restoration plan in place.

“We have made numerous appeals to the department to restore the building. They have promised to repair [it] in the next financial year,” said Itzkin.

Gandhi Square

At Gandhi Square, Fowler learned more history of Joburg. Now a Metrobus terminal, the square was once the site of the Johannesburg law courts, Itzkin told him. The court building was in the centre of the square. One of the people who appeared on both sides of the dock was Mahatma Gandhi, at the time the only attorney of colour practising law.

Like many of the places that fell into disrepair during the 1990s, Gandhi Square has since been revitalised to create a vibrant public space.

The tour passed through the CNA block, which includes historic buildings such as Shakespeare House and the His Majesty’s. Then it was off to Ernest Oppenheimer Park. Restored in 2009, it is one of the City’s model parks and contains some stunning artwork, including the Ernest Oppenheimer Diamond.

Itzkin updated Fowler on the progress at the Rissik Street Post Office, The Barbican and Stuttafords. The Barbican has been restored and stands proudly as one of Joburg’s most prized heritage buildings. There are also plans to turn three floors of the empty Stuttafords building into a hotel.

Another piece of Joburg’s history can be found at the Drill Hall, which has had many lives. In 1904, it was used as a military barracks; it was the venue of the 1956 to 1961 Treason Trial; and in the 1990s, was home to hundreds of squatters. At this time it fell into serious disrepair, and was gutted by fire twice, in which 10 people died.

Also owned by the Public Works Department, the Drill Hall was taken over by the City, and the JDA invested more than R10-million in refurbishing it. Several organisations, including the Joubert Park Project, took residence in the space, turning it into one of the inner city’s artistic hotspots. However, there was no sound management plan and the building has been deteriorating, with a lack of security leading to widespread theft of electricity infrastructure.

Today, remnants of the Joubert Park Project and Johannesburg Child Welfare are the remaining residents. The project’s Malose Malahlela said they were trying all they could to preserve the Drill Hall’s current function.

“A recent project that we held was the Con Hill to Drill Hall march, in which we involved the community and schools around Joubert Park to commemorate the 1956 Treason Trial,” said Malahlela.

Itzkin responded that the City had drawn up plans to ensure security was restored and a sound management plan was drafted.

Joburg Art Gallery

From there, the team headed east to the Johannesburg Art Gallery, where the chief curator, Antoinette Murdoch spoke about the history of the magnificent building. It was creeping towards its centenary, she said, which would be celebrated in 2015.

“One thing about the gallery is that it never closed its doors to people of colour during apartheid. Even today, lots of people come to the gallery and bring in bus loads of schoolchildren when schools are open.”

There was one problem, though, she added. There was structural damage in the new section of the gallery. “The old section [which houses the Phillips Gallery] is still intact but the new section, which was put up as an extension in 1986, is experiencing water leakage due to structural damage. We have to come up with a plan to ensure there is no further damage,” she said.

Also in the area, the once defunct Hillbrow Hospital is rising up again, thanks to a multi-pronged partnership between the City, the Gauteng provincial government and the private sector. The site is home to some of Joburg’s most architecturally significant buildings, one of which has been turned into a state-of-the-art maternal and child health facility.

Yael Horowitz, the programme manager of the Hillbrow Health Precinct, said the Shandukani Maternal & Child Health Centre would change lives in the inner city. Here, women and children would receive health care that addressed issues such as pre- and post-natal care; HIV testing, care and support; tuberculosis; and related diseases. The facility opened in June and already attended to over 200 patients a day.

“There is still more work to be done in the Hillbrow Health Precinct. We are planning to begin renovating the rest of the precinct to create a big health facility. We want to create a flagship health precinct in the inner city,” said Horowitz.


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