Heroes of Newtown

12 May 2017

Labelled Joburg’s ‘cultural precinct’, the downtown area of Newtown has been in a constant state of renewal since the first mining camps pitched here in the 1890s. Slums housing mineworkers and brick makers, as well as tanneries, slaughterhouses and rough and ready taverns soon followed. In the early 20th century the area was razed to make way for the city’s main fruit and vegetable market (now Museum Africa) and power station (today an outstanding events space Turbine Hall) as well as many warehouses and a migrant workers’ hostel (now the Workers Museum). With economic shifts the area began to decline, briefly springing back to life in the late 1990s and 2000s, then a hangout for artists and musicians. Now a new injection of commercial investment, which includes the opening of Newtown Junction mall, is pushing Newtown to make its ‘cultural precinct’ status meaningful again.
Here's a look at are some of the places and personalities that continue to shape Newtown.

The mythical Charles Glass founded the Castle Brewery (now SAB Miller) in Newtown in 1894 when satisfying thirsty miners became big business. Learn about the history of beer (dating back to ancient Egypt) on a fun and informative SAB World of Beer tour.

Newtown’s Mary Fitzgerald Square is named for Mary ‘pickhandle’ Fitzgerald, a fiery Irish-born trade unionist who inspired striking miners during the Rand revolts of the early 1900s. Always wielding her pickhandle, she was known for climbing atop counters at the city’s pubs to deliver rousing speeches calling for better conditions for miners.

In 1991 returning exile and artist Kim Berman and Nhlanhla Xaba, an up-and-coming Soweto artist, founded Artist Proof Studios to develop talented artists from disadvantaged backgrounds. Tragically Xaba died in 2003 in a fire that destroyed the studio. Its new location at the Bus Factory contains many salvaged works.

In 1989 now world-renowned photographer David Goldblatt founded the Market Photo Workshop, a leading photography school specialising in social commentary and offering support to photographers from disadvantaged backgrounds. Highly successful, the school counts famous photographers such as gay rights activist Zanele Muholi and World Press Photo winner Jodi Bieber, as alumni.

A Newtown cultural icon, eccentric jeweller, artist and musician Prince Twala – aka The Prince of Newtown – has been a permanent fixture in the neighbourhood for more than 20 years. His ingenious jewellery range, fashioned from antique cutlery, is produced out of a Newtown studio. He also plays in the Studio Waste Band, regular Thursday night performers at Kaldi’s Café on Mary Fitzgerald Square.

Brenda Matshoba from Flair Vintage is Newtown’s unofficial vintage queen. An excellent stylist, the rails of her small market stall near Mary Fitzgerald Square are stuffed with a handpicked range of clothing from years gone by, sold at knock-down prices. For a custom-made dress from brightly coloured traditional African fabrics, visit Thembi’s Pride, a tiny tailoring studio that also sells handbags and shoes designed and made by Thembi and her colleagues.

Writer, playwright and theatre director Barney Simon helped found the Market Theatre in 1976. From the start it staged controversial contemporary works, with multiracial casts, for mixed audiences, earning it the title of South Africa’s ‘Theatre of the struggle’. It is still considered to be the city’s leading drama theatre today. One of its stages is named after the late Barney Simon, the other for celebrated actor and playwright, John Kani, who helped found the Market Theatre Laboratory – a community theatre centre and drama school.


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