THE construction dust will soon settle and Johannesburg residents will be able to savour the open-air square in the centre of town.

“Beyers Naude Square is a heritage site formerly known as Market Square and was traditionally a rallying point for strikers,” says Paul Arnott-Job, a senior development manager at the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA).

Mary Fitzgerald, who became known as Pickhandle Mary, claimed her nickname in the square when she stuck her hatpin in the rear of a pickhandle-wielding policemen’s horse during the infamous tramway workers’ strike in 1911. Although there is a square in Newtown named after her, it was at Beyers Naude Square that she in fact gained notoriety.

The space was originally called Market Square as it was Joburg’s first market place; but in 1913, the market moved to Newtown, where the Market Theatre and Museum Africa now stand. Since then, the site has been known by various names, including Market Square Gardens, City Hall Gardens, Library Gardens and Harry Hofmeyr Gardens. It was only renamed Beyers Naude Square in recent years.

“In 1968, a three-level basement was constructed, linking the library to the legislature. The lowest level was, and is, used for library archives and the other two levels for parking,” Arnott-Job says.

“In the 1980s, the City built a strange structure semi-enclosing the square, which rapidly deteriorated due to lack of maintenance, and became a haven for the homeless and for criminal activity.”

So it was decided that change was necessary. In 2004, the Gauteng provincial government planned to demolish 10 buildings in the surrounding area to create a government precinct. This was to include a street underpass, skywalks linking buildings, underground parking and a Heritage Square to adjoin the existing Beyers Naude Square.

However, these plans did not bear fruit as the heritage community objected to the demolition of the buildings.

The JDA stepped in during the 2008/09 financial year with plans of its own. A professional team was appointed based on the concept of:

  • Improving accessibility of the park and providing disabled access to the park;
  • Highlighting and improving access to the basement parking garage beneath the park;
  • Flattening or improving park levels, including highlighting some increased level flowerbeds;
  • Demolishing all steel structures in the park to create open spaces and improve visibility; and
  • Implementing a well-researched public artwork that is relevant to the park, its context and history.

With its objectives clearly set out, work on the site began in May 2009.

“The JDA demolished the structures on behalf of the City and rebuilt the old stairwell structures,” Arnott-Job says. “It was discovered that the expansion joints in the old slab were leaking water into the basement and would cause extensive structural damage over time if not addressed.”

The budget for the 2008/09 year was R3-million; it was increased to R8,2-million for the 2010/11 financial year.

“In 2010/11, work continued and the square was designed as a more people-friendly space which would also accommodate strikers and other gatherings,” he says. “A contractor commenced work on 9 February 2011 and will complete the works by the end of June.”

Waterproofing, landscaping and paving are now being carried out. Beyers Naude Square is bounded by Market, President, Simmonds and Sauer streets.