In 2011 I did a number of photowalks in and around Newtown in Johannesburg and blogged about them, and as a result I started using the blog more and more as I found even more uses for it. The end result in 2019 is quite large but I never really utilised it as much back then, and during one of my periodic searches for images I rediscovered the images from the Newtown Municipal Compound and decided to do a retrospective of them. Once again I am not an expert in this field, and I really want to show what I saw back then because it is quite important to acknowledge our heritage (as horrible as it may be) if we want to understand more about the present and why we are where we are. I am afraid that things were very different back then and our sense of right and wrong really changed over the years as people began to recognise that even the lowliest needed consideration.
I recall walking though this complex and was horrified, however, had I been walking through here in 1950 what would my attitude have been? Sadly the African labourer employed in the mines and in industry where labouring was done on a large scale probably faced these sort of conditions as a matter of course, it was the norm rather than the exception. Remember that back then pass laws were enforced too. No pass could result in arrest and a stay in Number 4 Jail.
The complex forms part of the area around Newtown that encompasses Sci-Bono, Museum Africa, the Market theatre and the former old market in Johannesburg. This area has been extensively redeveloped since 2011 and I did not recognise it when I passed through in 2016.
The image below was stitched from 2 separate images and shows the layout of the compound. This image and subsequent key were on an information board at the compound.
1. Domestic quarters
2. Compound manager’s house: the manager had to be available at all hours and was housed directly behind the compound.
3. Sleeping quarters: the compound was designed to accommodate 330 workers. No mattresses or lockers were provided. Rooms would be strung from side to side by clothing, washing, and other possessions. Each room had a small coal stove for heating
4. White staff houses
5. Lock-up room: Used to lock up workers who broke the rules, they were often chained to the wall and the only toilet was a bucket.
6. Ablutions: the toilet room had 16 squat holes. No partitions or doors separated the toilets
7. Induna’s room: the Induna was the compound manager’s right hand man.
8. Showers: there was 1 cold shower for every 165 workers, and one latrine for every 55. Hot water was only available in buckets.
9. The courtyard: space provided where social interaction could happen
11. The Tree: if the lock-up room was unavailable unruly workers could be chained to the tree.
12. Compound manager’s office: the compound manager kept control administration and law enforcement from this small office. He was assisted by the Induna, an admin clerk, and the municipal police.
13, Veranda: There were no cooking or eating facilities in the compound. Workers could go eat at eateries catering for black workers or use the counters for food preparation. Sinks were provided for washing clothes and dishes.
14. Stables and Kennels: over 750 draught horses were stabled here. The horses pulled the wagons used for refuse and sanitary waste removal. Cart drivers and animal keepers were also housed at the compound. The stables were demolished in the 1930’s.
The interior is grim, and was probably much worse when it was occupied by men who came from all around the country, sleeping in dormitories, sharing communal ablution facilities and exposed to diseases such as TB. The record states that at one point there was 1 shower for every 165 workers and 1 latrine for 55.
I do not know what era the building represents, but it is probably quite close to what it may have looked like to those luckless migrant workers who ended up here.
A reproduction of a pamphlet issued in 1946 paints the following picture:
The paragraph above is an extract of a speech presented by Hilda Watts at a meeting of the Johannesburg City Council in November 1946, reproduced in a pamphlet published by the Communist Party.
One of the sleeping area upper levels has a display of “luggage and possessions” which I thought spoke volumes about the men who lived here.
Naturally fights would break out and there was even a handy “lock up room” (marked 5 on the layout image above). How much abuse of power happened in that small room is unknown.
Just image a place like this after a long days work with primitive facilities and a lack of privacy. From what I read this particular compound was much better than some that were in use by the council.
We are fortunate that places like this still exist so as to give us a glimpse into a different era and an almost invisible group of workers who swept streets, emptied dustbins, collected night-soil and performed other menial but important work for a pittance, often supporting wives and children far away. They were the faceless and nameless that helped make Johannesburg what it is today. Inside the compound is a statue of an orange clad worker launching his spade up high with arms outstretched, almost reaching for the sky. It is quite a fitting tribute to those workers who eked out a living in such a deplorable place. I am glad I saw it, but am ashamed at what I saw.
DRW © 2011 – 2019. Created retrospectively 13/05/2019. Some information from the information board and displays at the compound.