Named after Paul Kruger’s deputy – Christiaan Johannes Joubert – Johannesburg was the town that grew like Topsy.  Ten years after the discovery of a gold outcrop on the farm Langlaagte in February 1886, more than 100,000 fortune-seeking Europeans and a burgeoning black mine worker force had been drawn to the town, like pins to a magnet.  By the turn of the century, gold had catapulted the Witwatersrand[1] into one of the largest, wealthiest and fastest-growing markets south of the Sahara, with production from its reefs accounting for more than one-quarter of the world’s output.[2]

By then, the bare ridge on which the city fathers had created their settlement had been transformed from one of the ‘…bleakest and most elevated spots in the Transvaal, where land for agricultural or pastoral purposes was of so little value that farms changed hands sometimes for the value of a team of oxen…’ to a ‘…town crowded with gums, trees, big, healthy trees which would never strike the onlooker as being youthful Uitlanders.’[3]  The eucalypts, a fast-growing species that was also useful for providing mine props, had travelled all the way from Australia.

While the gold-bearing strata of the Rand were extensive, the percentage of gold contained within them was very small.  Extensive plant was required to crush, grind and drill the ore, and a skilled workforce to operate it.  This workforce was augmented by a phalanx of accountants, hotel-keepers, teachers, lawyers, doctors etc., most of whom were imported from Britain, Europe and the Cape; due to poor education standards in the Transvaal, there were few suitably qualified contenders from within the ranks of the local population.[4]

The growth of the city was accompanied by a proliferation of gambling dens, liquor outlets and prostitutes.  In 1895, there were 97 brothels in central Johannesburg with more than one-third being of French ‘nationality’.  In the same year, it was estimated that between 750 to 1,000 liquor canteens could be found on the Rand. [5]

For almost the entire duration of the Anglo-Boer War mining production was suspended, causing losses of £25 million.  Even when restrictions were lifted in December 1901, having to mine high-grade ore at greater depths with a reduced cheap black labour force mitigated against restoring output to pre-war levels.  In an attempt to arrest the industry’s decline, tens of thousands of indentured Chinese mine workers began to arrive from 1904; it would take another two years before their efforts sparked the industry’s recovery.

While Pretoria and Johannesburg had been connected by road and rail since 1893, the logistics of commuting between the two towns was a far cry from the 40 minutes it takes to get from Johannesburg’s Park Station to Pretoria Station by Gautrain today.[6]  Writing at the turn of the century, Mackenzie refers to ‘…the general practice of (travellers wanting to alight where no stations existed) is simply to jump off the moving train into the red dust of the veld.  Of course, the trains do not move extremely rapid.’[7]  The 32-mile road trip allegedly took anything up to two days by ox wagon.[8]

Perhaps this was the trigger, or family pressures, or the lure of opportunity, or something I haven’t thought of.  For whatever reason, in June 1907 Harry transferred his business from Pretoria to Johannesburg.  In the same month, he was admitted and enrolled as a law agent in the Court of the Resident Magistrate at Johannesburg.  His arrival in Johannesburg coincided with a period of heightened political activity in the Transvaal.

On 12 January, Britain had granted responsible government to the territory, an outcome influenced by Winston Churchill in his role as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies.  On 26 February, Louis Botha’s Het Volk Party won a majority in the new parliament and on 2 March, Botha became Premier of the Transvaal with Jan Smuts as Minister of Education and Colonial Secretary.

One of the first decisions of the new government was to pass the Asiatic Law Amendment Act on 22 March.  Identical to an Ordinance passed by the colonial government in 1906, this Act required all male Asians to register and be finger printed, and carry ‘passes’ at all times.  It mobilised Indians to  Gandhi’s Satyagraha[9] campaign which, over the next seven years, protested the Act’s requirements and argued, both at home and abroad, for their repeal.

In June, the government sent 50,000 Chinese mine workers home.  By now, with increasing numbers of black workers being recruited to the mines through the Witwatersrand Native Labour Association, the labour shortage had eased.  The repatriation of Chinese workers was backed by the new Liberal Government in Britain whose supporters had been unhappy about inadequate living conditions and low wages paid to these workers which, coincidentally, had driven down black workers’ wages. [10]

In July, the Immigration Restriction Bill provided education tests to be imposed on all future immigrants to the Transvaal and established the Immigration Department to check illegal Asiatic entries.  While framed with these targets in mind, this law was widely used by the Transvaal police to start deporting pimps, prostitutes and other unsavoury characters from the Rand.  The gap was filled by working-class Afrikaner and black women, desperate to make ends meet at a time when opportunities for regular employment were scarce or paid too little.[11]

In the same month, the Orange River Colony was granted self-government, cementing the road to a unified South Africa.  Botha’s Het Volk would take a lead role in this process.  While ostensibly an Afrikaner political party, it preached conciliation between Afrikaners and English-speakers.  In the Transvaal, Botha had taken two English-speakers into his six-man government and been careful not to replace too many English-speaking civil servants with Afrikaners.  Smuts’ education legislation provided for the progressive introduction of English into the curriculum and mandated that it become the medium of instruction by the sixth school year, bar two subjects that could be taken in Dutch.[12]  To many Afrikaners, these moves were a betrayal of all they had fought for, and would take another 40 years to set right.

[1]      Also known as the Rand.

[2]              Charles van Onselen Studies in the Social and Economic History of the Witwatersrand 1886 – 1914 Volume 1 New Babylon Ravan Press Johannesburg p1.

[3]              W. Douglas Mackenzie South Africa: its history, heroes and wars Horace Marshall & Son London p364.

[4]              Frank Welsh A history of South Africa Harper Collins 2000 p302.

[5]              Van Onselen, p112, p57.


[7]              Mackenzie, pp364-5.

[8]              Celia Joy Martins Fire and Ashes, Iron and Clay 2015, p233.

[9]              Loosely translated means, ‘insistence on truth’.

[10]             Luli Callinicos Gold and Workers 1886 – 1924 Ravan Press, Johannesburg 1980.  Chapter 14

[11]             Van Onselen p105, pp145-6.

[12]             Hermann Giliomee The Afrikaners: biography of a people Hurst & Co, London.  Pp272-3.


2 thoughts on “Johannesburg

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