Johannesburg

Joburg History – 13 decades, 13 personalities

more than a year ago
created 25 Apr 2016
Clockwise from top right: Sunnyside Park Hotel, Hector Pieterson Memorial, Anglican Church of Christ the King, Chancellor House, Satyagraha House
As the city marks its 130th year we asked Brett McDougall of the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation for the lowdown on the key personalities that have shaped Johannesburg’s built environment and sensibilities.
By Brett McDougall


1886 to 1896 – Lionel Phillips
George Harrison may have discovered gold, but Phillips ensured Joburg did not become a ghost town by introducing a more efficient gold extraction process. His memory lives on in the magnificent Herbert Baker-designed Villa Arcadia (now headquarters of Hollard insurance company, and formerly Joburg’s Jewish orphanage) and in the copper-domed Corner House of 1903 – still downtown Commissioner Street’s grandest building.
Villa Arcadia, Federation Road, Parktown.
Corner House, 77 Commissioner Street, City Centre.


1896 to 1906 – Lord Alfred Milner
After British victory in the South African War (1899-1902) Milner undertook administration of the two Boer states. Surrounding himself with like-minded Imperialists he radically overhauled the administration of the city and colony, extending his influence as far as education and architecture. Kitchener’s Carvery at the Lord Milner Hotel in Braamfontein is where he met with General Lord Kitchener in 1902, while Sunnyside Park in Parktown was his seat of power.
Kitchener's Carvery Bar, 71 Juta Street, Braamfontein.
Sunnyside Park Hotel, Princess of Wales Terrace & Carse O'Gowrie Rd, Parktown

1906 to 1916 – Mohandas Gandhi
Gandhi, a lawyer and activist, arrived in Joburg in 1903. Here he crystallised the philosophy of satyagraha (or non-violent civil disobedience) that helped sweep British colonial rule from the Indian subcontinent. It was his leadership of a 3 000-strong protest in 1906 against the pass law extension that marked the start of the resistance campaign later known as Satyagraha. His spirit can be poignantly felt at The Kraal, now Satyagraha House boutique hotel and museum, built by his great friend Hermann Kallenbach, and where they stayed from 1908-09.
Satyagraha House, 15 Pine Road, Orchards.

1916 to 1926 – Mary Fitzgerald
Exposure to mining’s appalling working conditions awakened the fiery Irish temperament of dutiful wife and shorthand typist Mary Fitzgerald who became South Africa’s first woman trade union organiser. Famous for brandishing her pickhandle - used in the 1911 tramway strike - in rousing speeches delivered from the bar counter of the Ferreirastown Hotel, Fitzgerald was the first woman to hold public office in Johannesburg (1915). The old market square, where she led the Pickhandle Brigade, is now Mary Fitzgerald Square, and the bar counter can now be found at the Radium Beer Hall in Orange Grove.
Mary Fitzgerald Square, Newtown, Johannesburg.

1926 to 1936 – Isidore Schlesinger
Enthralled by the vibrancy and energy of New York, Joburg by the end of the 1930s was a city of art deco skyscrapers. Isidore Schlesinger, a Jewish New Yorker, transformed Commissioner Street into Johannesburg’s Broadway. His home in Killarney, an Italian Palazzo that he named The Ritz today survives as the residential block Whitehall Court.
Whitehall Court, 2nd Avenue, Killarney.
His Majesty’s, Cnr Commissioner Street and Eloff Street, City Centre.


1936 to 1946 – James Mpanza
Drawn to the mines by promises of wealth, and driven from rural areas by punitive laws and taxes, thousands of black South Africans made Joburg home. Finding a place to stay was almost impossible, and living conditions were appalling. James Mpanza was a convicted murderer redeemed by religion. He could not ignore the plight of the homeless, and in April 1944 persuaded 8 000 people to follow him to create a new township called Sofasonke (“we shall all die”) in what is now Orlando East, Soweto where he was the unofficial mayor. By 1946, 20 000 squatters were paying Mpanza a fee to join the camp and to maintain basic services. Sadly, the plight of the city’s homeless is as pressing today.
James Mpanza House, Mooki Street, Orlando East, Soweto.

1946 to 1956 – Father Trevor Huddleston
As priest-in-charge of the Anglican Mission in Sophiatown and Orlando, Soweto (1943-1956), Huddleston made a profound impact. With the passing of the Group Areas Act (1950) he led protests against forced removals in Sophiatown and refused to hand over St Peter’s School in Rosettenville for government use under the Bantu Education Act. On 9 February 1955 troops removed Sophiatown’s 60 000 inhabitants. Only three buildings remained of the once vibrant suburb, two houses and the Anglican Church where Huddleston had bravely ministered.
Anglican Church of Christ the King, Cnr Good Street and Herman Street, Sophiatown.

1956 to 1966 – Helen Joseph
‘On 31 December 1956 I moved into my little cottage…delighted to have a home of my own…’ (Joseph, 1986). Joseph’s move to 35 Fanny Avenue, Norwood was an act of faith and optimism as she was arrested days before that, charged with treason, and would be on trial for four harrowing years. Banned four times, jailed four times, she spent much of her life under house arrest. The actions of a brave group of anti-apartheid activists, including Joseph, defined the 1950s and 1960s in Johannesburg.
Helen Joseph House, 35 Fanny Avenue, Norwood.
The Drill Hall, Joubert Park, City Centre.


1966 to 1976 – Hector Pieterson
Sam Nzima’s image of the limp body of 12-year-old Hector carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo, and accompanied by Pieterson’s grief stricken sister, Antoinette, has seared itself into the South African consciousness. June 16, 1976 proved to be the beginning of the end of Apartheid rule. The actions of Pieterson and others are today immortalised in the Hector Pieterson memorial in Orlando West, Soweto, but the struggle for quality education for all remains as relevant as ever.
Hector Pieterson Memorial, 8287 Khumalo Street, Orlando West, Soweto.

1976 to 1986 – Barney Simon
South Africa’s bleakest decade followed the 1976 riots. In that time Barney Simon bravely decided to open a theatre in the city’s abandoned former fruit market in Newtown’s desolate industrial landscape. The Market Theatre was created as a space for the conception and production of indigenous African performance. Working under racial segregation laws, without state subsidies, Simon was under constant threat of arrest for staging controversial contemporary plays performed by multiracial casts for multiracial audiences. The Market Theatre remains a vital city institution today.
The Market Theatre, Newtown.

1986 to 1996 – Michael Rapp
In the late 1960s the city centre appeared invincible. Michael Rapp’s announcement of plans to build a 20-storey office tower and 30 000m2 mall called Sandton City in the heart of the mink-and-manure belt north of the city was met with disbelief. But by 1986 his vision seemed prescient: a state of emergency was declared in July 1985 and increasingly fearful whites abandoned the downtown Joburg for the safety of the suburbs. By the mid-1990s this momentum appeared unstoppable, and today Joburg’s centre of gravity has moved decidedly north.
Sandton City, Sandton

1996 to 2006 – Arthur Chaskalson
Chaskalson was a member of the Rivonia Trial defence team, and in his long and illustrious career was instrumental in drafting democratic South Africa’s constitution. He also served as the first president of the Constitutional Court. When the court chose a permanent home, it was symbolically at the Old Fort, which had served as a jail for many political prisoners. The brief was to create a building to reflect the values of a new constitutional democracy, rooted in the South African landscape. There is no more enduring monument to his vision than the Constitutional Court building that stands today.
The Constitutional Court, Constitution Hill.

2006 to 2016 – Nelson Mandela
Following Mandela’s death in 2013 thousands gathered outside the Houghton home where he spent his last weeks. Mandela arrived in Joburg in 1941, serving articles at a Joburg law firm and attending Wits University. He opened his famed law practice with Oliver Tambo at Chancellor House. He would be key to the anti-apartheid struggle until his arrest in 1962 and even then, imprisoned on Robben Island, would inspire generations to fight for justice. Rising from humble origins to achieve extraordinary things in the most challenging circumstances, in many ways he is the Joburg Everyman.
Nelson Mandela House, 9 12th Avenue, Houghton Estate, City Centre.
Chancellor House, Cnr Fox Street and Gerard Sekoto Street, City Centre.


Brett McDougall chairs the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, a non-profit organisation, founded in 1985, dedicated to championing the often lonely cause of exploring, documenting, protecting and restoring the city’s heritage. The foundation offers a monthly programme of fascinating tours. To join in, see www.joburgheritage.org.za
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