Johannesburg’s distinctive blue heritage plaques recognise everything from the Rand Revolt of 1922, the rich history of Alexandra township, and the route followed by protesting students on 16 June 1976 to the city’s art deco buildings, churches and Iron Age pre-history on Melville Koppies.
“For ten years now Johannesburg has been acknowledging special buildings and sites, historic struggles, remarkable personalities and other pieces of history by means of blue heritage plaques.”
So wrote Executive Mayor Parks Tau in 2013, in a booklet marking the placing of close to 120 City of Johannesburg heritage plaques across the city. Together with plaques put up by other heritage organisations, Joburg now boasts almost 200 plaques.
“Every year we install a good few plaques, spread over a variety of sites, and this year is no exception,” says Eric Itzkin, deputy director of immovable heritage in the department of arts, culture and heritage. “Demand for new plaques is high, and the plaques have proved popular … we plan to keep going with this.”
The distinctive plaques recognise everything from the Rand Revolt of 1922, the rich history of Alexandra township, and the route followed by protesting students on 16 June 1976 to the city’s art deco buildings, churches and Iron Age pre-history on Melville Koppies.
The plaques are the standard circular blue, an internationally recognised heritage symbol. Each contains the City of Joburg logo, and they are made of a moulded resin composite, with the text printed on glass. Other plaques around the city are made of glass, ceramics, metal and granite.
HERITAGE PLAQUES IN THE INNER CITY
Recent plaques to go up are for the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Jeppestown, dating back to 1902; the trendy arts and residential development at Arts on Main, housed in five converted warehouse buildings on the east side of the city; two Parktown houses, Ridgeholm and Wynnstay, dating from 1902 and 1913 respectively; and the elegant Cape-Dutch gabled Norscot Manor, built in 1936.
Other plaques in central Johannesburg commemorate the following:
- The Central Pass Office, an infamous checkpoint for apartheid’s notorious influx control system. The “Dompas” which controlled the movement of African people was issued here. Denied a place in the city, many were ordered to leave Johannesburg. This building opened in 1954 as the Non-European Affairs Department and was greatly enlarged in the 1960s. Converted into a women’s hostel in 1994, it was renamed Usindiso Women’s shelter.
- Mary Fitzgerald Square, Newtown. Mary Fitzgerald – “Pickhandle Mary” – made her name in Johannesburg for her trade union activities and for a number of firsts: first woman trade unionist, first woman printer and first woman city councillor. White women got the vote in South Africa in 1930. Fitzgerald died in 1960 at the age of 75. She was buried at Brixton Cemetery.
- Gandhi Square in the city centre, which was renamed from Van der Bijl Square, marks the site of Mohandas Gandhi’s law offices. The original building no longer exists. A number of other places – homes, a farm, the Old Fort and a crematorium – contain memories of him and his influence on the development of Johannesburg and South Africa as a whole.
- Satyagraha House in Orange Grove, the modest home that Ghandhi shared with architect Herman Kallenbach, who designed the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Saints Constantine and Helen. Ghandi lived here between 1908 and 1909, formulating his philosophy of non-violent struggle. The home is now run as a guesthouse by French travel company Voyageurs du Monde.
- A plaque at No 4 prison on Constitution Hill further acknowledges Mahatma Gandhi and the birth of the Satyagraha philosophy in Johannesburg.
- The Langlaagte Stamp Battery at the Main Street Mall on Hollard Street. The battery went into operation at the Robinson Mine in Langlaagte in 1886, making it among the first on the Witwatersrand.
- The JC Cook and Cowen Art Deco masterpiece His Majesty’s Building. Completed in 1945 after being delayed by the Second World War, it was built as a theatre on the corner of Joubert and Commissioner Streets, topped with crowns that lit up at night. At one time, former Umkhonto we Sizwe chief of staff Joe Slovo had his law offices in the building.
- Broadcast House on Commissioner Street. The home of radio in South Africa, the building was designed in 1935 by J.C. Cook & Cowen for I.W. Schlesinger.
- The Transvaal Chinese United Club. Founded in 1909 by Johannesburg’s small, pioneering Chinese community, the club offered rooms for newcomers as well as attractive social amenities. Funds were raised to uplift the local community. The Club remained financially successful, building a block of flats on the adjoining stand in 1940 which is one of the city’s architectural gems.
- Dorchester Mansions in Rissik Street, which boasts an elaborately decorated façade, and on the same street the National Union of Mineworkers building, formerly Hudaco House, which became the union’s headquarters in 1995.
- Dawson’s Hotel on President Street. Designed in about 1935 by W von Berg for the Dawson family, this seven-storey building has been a hotel ever since. Bordering on what was then the theatre district and smartest shopping street in Africa, the dining room and cocktail bar were popular venues for visitors to the city.
- Turbine Hall and the Jeppe Street Power Station in the new AngloGold Ashanti headquarters in Newtown. The two plaques are positioned on a plinth in Turbine Square, on the edge of a small garden in the heart of the western CBD.
- The lintel from Cullinan House that fronts the Standard Bank Tower building. The lintel is all that remains of the 1904 Leck and Emley-designed building that was demolished in 1966.
HERITAGE PLAQUES IN SOWETO
Sites in Soweto that now bear the City of Johannesburg’s blue heritage plaque include:
- The house of James Mpanza. The “father of Soweto” led squatter movements claiming land for dispossessed people, founded the Sofasonke Party in 1935, and began the Sofasonke Township, a self-governing settlement of 20 000 people. His house is also a provincial heritage site.
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s house in Vilakazi Street in Orlando West. The street is celebrated as the only street in the world to contain the homes of two Nobel Peace laureates – Nelson Mandela’s house is several blocks up the road.
- The house of the parents of 14-year-old Hastings Ndlovu, who was shot by the police on 16 June 1976 while on his way to join the marching students. He died several hours later.
- Meadowlands High School. Two members of the school board were dismissed when for opposing the imposition of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction at the school. On 17 June 1976 students co-ordinated a march from the school to Orlando Stadium.
- Orlando Stadium. Opened in 1959, the stadium was Soweto’s home of soccer and other sports, as well as an entertainment venue and place of political events, for almost 50 years. The original stadium was demolished in 2006 and a new stadium built as a training venue for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.
- Nancefield Road Cemetery. The plaque, inscribed with “The Mother of African Freedom in this Country”, honours the legacy of activist Charlotte Makgomo Maxeke. In 1901, Maxeke became the first African woman to graduate from Wilberforce University in the United States with a Bachelor of Science degree. She was also the first female member of the South African Native Congress, which later became the African National Congress. As an activist, Maxeke led the first anti-pass march to Botha’s Hill in KwaZulu-Natal in 1913; later she founded the Bantu Women’s League. She lived in a house in Kliptown, which also has a plaque in her memory.
- The Zethania Mothopeng house in Orlando West, which honours this stalwart of the Pan Africanist Congress and was occupied by him and his wife from 1941.
- A plaque is being prepared for the Regina Mundi Catholic church, which acted as a refuge for activists against the apartheid police.
HERITAGE PLAQUES IN ALEXANDRA
Over a 100 heritage sites have been identified in Alexandra, acknowledging individuals, groups and historic events in the 102-year-old township. The first batch of 16 plaques went up in the past year or two, with more soon to follow.
Perhaps the most significant site is Mandela’s Yard, a single back room in a house at 46 7th Avenue, owned by the Xhoma family, where Nelson Mandela stayed for a short while in 1941 and ’42.
Other sites that have been recognised include:
- The former home of world-famous jazz musician Hugh Masekela, who lived in 12th Avenue as a young boy after his father took up a position as health inspector in the township in 1947.
- The Methodist Church and School, which offered boarding facilities and classes to matric. When the state took over mission schools after 1953 this school refused to relinquish its control, and retained its independence. It became a private school in 1988.
- The Amalgamated Primary School, dating back to 1927, was built by the Apostolic Church. It was established when a number of small mission schools amalgamated. Many prominent Alexandrans attended or taught at the school.
- The offices of HB Papenfus, the person who started Alexandra in 1912.
- The site of the home of former first lady Zanele Mbeki, who spent her childhood in Alexandra. The original home was demolished, but a plaque has been mounted on a plinth. Two other buildings – the Serote family home, belonging to Alinah and Wally Mongane Serote, and the Twelve Apostles Church of Africa – were also demolished, but have now been honoured in the same way.
Other sites due to be recognised include:
- A number of sites of the struggle against apartheid, among them: the Madala hostel, Beirut, Betty Mampa’s house, Freedom Square No 2, Bessie Mandita’s house, the Wynberg Police Station, and Roosevelt Street, where pass books were burnt.
- The Msomi Gang headquarters in 8th Avenue, from where the gang conducted it reign of terror over township residents in the 1940s and ‘50s. The ANC also used the building at the time.
- Kings Cinema in 2nd Avenue, once the busiest cinema in the township. In the 1940s and ‘50s the Alexandra All Star Band and the Jazz Maniacs performed here.
- The Coloured Church and School, and the Gordon Community School, both of which catered mainly for the township’s coloured community – the first home owners in Alex. The community, which lived mostly in 2nd, 3rd and 4th avenues, was relocated to areas like Noordegesig, Eldorado Park and Rabie Ridge in the 1960s and ‘70s.