Workers’ Museum

The Newtown Compound is one of the last surviving examples of municipal compounds for black male workers. The City Council built the compound in 1913 to house migrant workers who worked first for the Sanitary Department and then at the nearby power station. The men who lived in this compound were some of the many thousands of migrant workers who were recruited through informal and formal channels from throughout Southern Africa to work on the mines and in towns and factories. They left their wives and children hundreds of miles away in the rural areas and each night they returned to their dormitories where they slept side-by-side in double-storey concrete bunks with nine workers per level. There was no privacy and the Compound Manager exercised total control over their lives.

On the north side of the compound, a row of houses was built for skilled white workers with tiny quarters in the yards for black domestic workers. The sharp contrast between the living conditions for white and black workers shows the racial segregation that characterized the lives of these two groups. The working class was divided on colour lines, with black migrants subjected to slave-like conditions in compounds.

Today, the compound and the houses stand as a poignant reminder of the migrant labour system. Elsewhere, many of the old compounds are disappearing, and more and more hostels are being converted into family accommodation. In 2010, around seventy government compounds and hostels were still operation in Gauteng.

Did You Know?

Did you know that the Jeppe Street Power Station in Newtown had to be continually extended between 1927 and 1967 as it could not keep up with Johannesburg’s demand for electricity and that the city experienced regular outages?