Newtown Surrounds

Braamfontein - Just Around the Corner

Braamfontein was originally the name of the farm to the north-west of Randjeslaagte which belonged to Gert Bezuidenhout. The earliest records show that the farm dates back to 1853 when Bezuidenhout applied to the government to have his land surveyed. In 1858, Gert sold his farm to FJ Bezuidenhout.

As was the case with many farms on the Witwatersrand, Braamfontein was subdivided and several people owned portions of the land. For example, two other Bezuidenhouts, Gerhardus Petrus and Cornelis Willem, each purchased one third of the farm in 1862, and a third part went to Frans Johannes van Dijk.

Between 1862 and 1886 different portions were further subdivided at escalating prices as by then, the Witwatersrand community was aware of the prospecting for gold that was taking place around them. Three other well-known owners were Johannes Jacobus Lindeque, who bought a section in 1884 where the Country Club was established in 1906, and Frans Eduard and Louwrens Geldenhuys, both well-known Afrikaner personalities in Johannesburg. The area became relatively densely populated with a self-sufficient farming community. Beautiful gardens around the farm houses characterised the area. Blue gums cast their shadows over a small lake near the country club.

In 1887 – a year after the discovery of gold – Lindeque sold of portion of the farm to the Government of the South African Republic of the Transvaal (ZAR) for 4 000 pounds. Land prices rose sharply over the next years. The government laid out the first suburb established on the farm in 1888 and 89. The blocks were divided by small sanitary lanes in order to facilitate the old bucket and cart system for the removal of night soil. This is the origin of the well-known alleys of Braamfontein and Hillbrow that still survive today. The area was named Braamfontein after the farm. The grid plan was used for the development of most suburbs of Johannesburg.

One of the most dramatic events in the area took place on 19 February 1896 when a devastating explosion of over fifty tons of dynamite occurred at the Braamfontein railway goods yard. Many people were killed and over 1 500 were left homeless. The dynamite in the railway trucks had been left in the sun for three days and is believed to have been detonated by the impact of a shunting engine.

Over time, the original families who owned the farm of Braamfontein sold their land to developers who included H B Marshall (Marshallstown), L P Ford (Fordsburg), Julius Jeppe (Jeppestown) and J R Robinson (Mayfair). What had originally been a thriving and wealthy farming community became a smart residential suburb in the heart of Johannesburg and later, one of Johannesburg’s premier office block suburbs. 

Today, Braamfontein is a thriving business district, education centre, and entertainment and arts hub. Just north of the city centre, Braamfontein is the fourth-largest node supplying office space in the city of Johannesburg.

The suburb contains South Africa's top educational institution, the University of the Witwatersrand (www.wits.ac.za) and its must-see Origins Centre (www.origins.org.za).

Braamfontein is home to four South African-based multinationals and important utility centres of the City Council. It also boasts the Joburg and Alex Theatres which have recently been revamped to attract new audiences.

The neighbourhood is also boasts Constitution Hill (www.constitutionalhill.org.za), home of the spectacular new Constitutional Court which was built on the site of Johannesburg’s notorious Old Fort Prison. Commonly known as ‘Number Four’, the prison operated from 1893 until 1983. It incarcerated a number of high profile prisoners such as Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela but mainly held thousands of ordinary black men and women whose only crime was contravening one of the many discriminatory laws of the day. Most people were imprisoned for not carrying the infamous pass book that allowed black people to live in an urban area. Today, Constitution Hill is one of the country’s most important heritage sites and visitor destinations. It tells the story of the country’s dramatic journey from the dark days of apartheid to one of the most celebrated constitutional democracies in the world today. 

Constitution Hill is just one of the regeneration initiatives in Braamfontein. The area has been given a new lease on life with several other large-scale regeneration projects, supported by the commercial sector and Johannesburg Development Agency. The Braamfontein Management District has transformed Braamfontein into a safe, clean area, with attractive features. Many buildings are being converted into upmarket apartment blocks and there are several restaurants and nightclubs in the area. Neil Fraser, a central figure in the regeneration of the inner city over the last decade, writes of some these transformations in his weekly on-line newsletter, Citichat:

"Adam Levy’s magnificent refurbishment of an office building into Manhattan style apartments has certainly raised the bar in regards to quality and style of residential living. He is currently building high-end retail boutiques around an internal courtyard to the north of his apartment building. Opposite Adam’s residential complex is the ‘Bridge Precinct’ another example of the transformation of old buildings to enhance the urban environment. This has been developed by three entrepreneurs, Justin and Steven Blend and Jonathan Gimpel. The R20 million development includes a showroom, office lofts and commercial accommodation, both new and renovated for the Rosebank College. The development also houses a small restaurant, The Café de la Vie, which appeared in an article in the New York Times of 14 March 2010 headed ‘SoHo Style in Johannesburg’ that enthusiastically covers ‘a new generation of design shops, restaurants, galleries and residential developments’." Citichat, March 2010

Another significant change in the area has been the massive amount of conversion of commercial buildings into student accommodation. South Point, a leading property developer, has converted over 20 buildings in Braamfontein into high-quality student accommodation. Their latest investment is the R45 million development of the Orange Hotel in the block bounded by Jorrisen, De Korte, Reserve and Melle Streets. 

Further east, the 1952 YMCA building is being refurbished by Aengus Properties into commercial and residential space. 

The area will undoubtedly change even more when the two transport initiatives currently under construction are completed. The Gautrain Station area is being built at a cost of R100 million and Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) is also planned for this area. Both are part of larger multi-billion rand transportation projects and should have a major impact on Braamfontein. Already there is talk of linking Wits University, to the north-west, with the Gautrain Station to the south-east.

For more details of these and other exciting developments in Braamfontien visit www.braamfontein.org.za.

Fordsburg

Situated to the west of Newtown is Fordsburg, which was originally established for white miners and artisans. The suburb consisted of a casual mix of houses, shops and workshops close to the railway station which played a determining role in the location of these early suburbs. Despite being set aside for white residents only, Indian, Chinese and Coloured people moved in over time and Fordsburg became a bustling mixed-race neighbourhood. The so-called ‘Coolie‘ and ‘Kaffir’ locations, just north of Fordsburg, which had been set aside for Indian and African families respectively, were also vibrant multicultural areas. It was not until the onset of apartheid that the authorities were able to enforce segregation in the way that they desired. They achieved this through the Group Areas Act of 1952 which stipulated that different racial groups had to live in separate neighbourhoods. The apartheid government began a campaign of forced removals to enforce this law. The Indian community in Fordsburg was forcibly taken to Lenasia, 32 kilometres from Johannesburg. Other inhabitants were also taken to segregated locations.

The Oriental Plaza, a well-known conglomerate of shops and stalls which stands in the heart of Fordsburg today, also has its roots in the Group Areas Act. Traders of the popular ‘Petticoat Lane’ of 14th Street in Fietas, Pageview (the area abutting Fordsburg) were forcibly removed in the 1970s along with the rest of the neighbourhood’s diverse and tight-knit community. Protests against the apartheid government’s cruelty fell on deaf ears. The traders were forced to relocate their well-established businesses to the newly built and then sterile Oriental Plaza. 

"Some of the traders unfortunately lost their businesses, however due to the surviving traders’ sales magic, determination and perseverance, the Fietas traders managed to win back many of their 14th Street customers. The traumatic history has had a huge impact on the shopkeeper … they have had to walk a long and difficult road before they could finally buy their stores. Today, the Oriental Plaza has the unique and appealing characteristic of each store being owned by the shopkeeper, which makes them all the owners of the shopping centre. This system is unusual for shopping centres." www.fordsburg.com/oriental_plaza.htm

The Hamidia Mosque at 2 Jennings Street was the site where 3 000 Muslims, Hindus and Christians led by Mohandas Gandhi, a Hindu, gathered on 16 August 1908 and burned their passes. Outside the mosque a memorial, Burning Truth, by Usha Seejarin honours this event.

Johannesburg Central Police Station

To the south east is another historic landmark, Johannesburg Central Police Station, once infamously known as John Vorster Square. In late August 1968, then Prime Minister Balthazar John Vorster opened John Vorster Square (JVS) police station. Vorster heralded the squat 10-storey blue structure that overlooked the motorway in downtown Johannesburg, as a "state-of-the-art modern police station" because it housed all major divisions of the police under one roof. He also boasted that the shining new precinct was "the largest police station in Africa".

Vorster had been elected Prime Minister two years previously, following Hendrick Verwoerd’s assassination, because of his extreme right-wing pedigree. As the former Minister of Justice, he had overseen the institution of harsh security laws designed to deal with the growing opposition to apartheid. Vorster also ensured that the Security Branch (SB) of the police acquired formidable powers. 

The offices of the command structure and the investigation unit of the notorious SB were housed on the 9th and 10th floors of the building. The detainees’ cells were on lower floors of the building. They were specifically designed for solitary confinement. For the hundreds of anti-apartheid activists who were detained in the cells, JVS was hell. Between 27 October 1971 and 30 January 1990, seven people died and many were tortured while being held in detention at this police station. 

In 1997, JVS was renamed Johannesburg Central and now functions to fight crime in Johannesburg. The bust of BJ Vorster was removed from the foyer. Despite these changes, the bleak interior and the dank smell remain the same. The ghosts of its former occupants are far from banished. An artwork symbolising resistance entitled Simakade (Zulu for ‘forever standing’) by Kagiso Pat Mautloa is situated opposite the station.

Chinatown

Also along the south east is Johannesburg’s Chinatown. The first wave of Chinese immigrants sailed to South Africa in the 1870s and many settled in Johannesburg and established what others called Chinatown. By 1903 there were almost 180 Chinese businesses in this part of the city. In 1904 the Chinese population of Johannesburg grew rapidly when the gold mines recruited thousands of Chinese labourers mainly from Peking, North China. The reason for this was that after the South African War from 1899 to 1901, there was a massive shortage of labour. The owners of the goldmines found the solution to this problem by importing Chinese as indentured labourers. They were housed in closed compounds much like those built for black migrant workers at the time. The move was politically unpopular and when the Transvaal was granted self-government in 1907, one of its first actions was to repatriate this community. The few who remained lived and worked in the area around lower Market Street. A Chinese club and school serviced this community.

The intriguing sculpture on Pigeon Square, a block from Joburg’s original Chinatown in Commissioner Street, pays homage to the Chinese community. (Make a link to public art section of the website)

The Nelson Mandela Bridge

The iconic Nelson Mandela Bridge stands at the centre of the cultural arc, physically linking Braamfontein with Constitution Hill and the Newtown precinct. The bridge was officially opened by Nelson Mandela in July 2003. Mandela’s name was seen as fitting for Johannesburg’s newest landmark because of his immense international status as well as his ‘bridging’ role in crossing the apartheid divide; and uniting the South African nation. The bridge cost R38-million and took two years of complex technical construction to span the 40 railway lines that lie spread beneath it. The bridge carries two lanes of traffic. There are also two sidewalks for pedestrians and a bicycle lane. The bridge has become one of the most photographed locations in the city, day and night. It is South Africa’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbour. 

The Eland

At the entrance to Braamfontein, on the central artery of Jan Smuts Avenue, is the imposing 50 ton, 7.5m concrete eland statue. Clive van den Berg, the artist who designed the sculpture, chose the symbol of the eland because it harked back to a time when these majestic animals roamed freely in the veld (grasslands) that characterised this area. The eland conjures the indigenous landscape before the teeming city of Johannesburg was built after the discovery of gold. The sculpture defies traditional concepts of public art. It is nothing like the stereotypical bronze-cast realistic sculptures that define public art pieces erected during the apartheid era. It employs concrete as its medium in sympathy with the buildings around it. Its commanding presence has attracted much attention from passers-by and the art world alike.

Did You Know?

Did you know that the fresh produce market which moved out of Newtown in 1974 to City Deep is still the largest fresh produce market in Africa?