So what happened about Rietfontein?

So what happened about Rietfontein and the proposed development? For readers who have no idea what this is about, I suggest you first go do some reading:
**Update 08/2018**
It appeared that the whole development was put on hold indefinitely following a Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality tribunal hearing on 4 October 2017 (
However in July 2018, there was activity on the site. Access roads are being cut across the property, with some roads close to the known graveyards, and heavy machinery is being used to clear the undergrowth for these roads.

Update ends.
Other older posts:

Graves in the Veld: Rietfontein
Reitfontein Just Won’t go Away
The Last Word

In short a developer came forward with a plan to develop this site and erect over 8000 “low cost” houses on the site of the unused area alongside the N3 highway, between the Modderfontein and Linksfield road off ramps. A number of concerns were raised by residents and other interested and affected parties.

Of concern to me was the 3 known graveyards that existed on the site, and the uncertainty that there may be more unmarked graves or burial areas in the affected area earmarked for development. The biggest problem that we all faced was a lack of records regarding the burials at the site, these were supposedly destroyed by a fire many years ago. There was also evidence of  a Jewish cemetery that did not show up on maps. Unfortunately boots on the ground did not show where this cemetery was, although so many years after the fact it is possible that any physical evidence has been destroyed or removed.

Recently the final Environmental Impact Assessment was released by Bokamoso Environmental Consultants, and it makes for very interesting reading. I spent a whole afternoon wading through it and trying to make up my own mind. The deadline for submissions and comments was March 08, and this has now passed (these links may not work anymore). 

One of the main issues raised was the possibility of a pathogen being released by the construction work, and I have to admit I was concerned about it myself. A number of experts were consulted by the consultants who performed a number of tests around the site, and the conclusion was that there no real risk as long as the correct protocols and procedures were followed. The main one being the non disturbance of the existing graveyards, and if graves were uncovered what was to be done. I am not a biologist and much of what I read was way above my head, however my fears were allayed somewhat. The major concerns were for an outbreak of Anthrax and Smallpox, but the evidence shows there is a minimal risk, as long as no active pathogens were encountered. What was disturbing was the results of tests done in the water of the Jukskei River that runs parallel to the highway, and that points to a breakdown of services.

Once the graves and diseases had been dealt with it seemed the usual spectre of crime, lack of services, property values,  traffic, noise, air pollution, and overcrowding raised their heads. And here there were many valid concerns, all of which were dwelt on by the consultants in the report. Unfortunately they were dealt with in a way that seemed to indicate that the city of Johannesburg was competent and that the many departments associated with infrastructure would do their job, that money was available, and that all the substructures were in place at the building site, as well as the required reticulation, sewerage, water etc was handled as proposed. We all know that this rarely happens. South Africa is already facing a huge issue with electricity generation, and adding another 8000 light bulbs is not going to make the load smaller.

Unfortunately, I have always been of the opinion that the development will go ahead irrespective of all the objections, and some of the comments that I read in the report just serve to further my opinion. I will however admit that the consultants did a good job with the report, and that they were really facing a very difficult task given how heated the debate became.  Again though, it is their report, it is not the final rubber stamp.

I am pretty sure the residents will still continue the fight, as is their right to do so. I am also sure that in the 8 years that it is going to take to complete all phases of the project they will continue to object and raise Caine. But at the end of the day, whether the development is anything like what has been proposed and whether all the services are provided as proposed will remain to be seen.

Fortunately it appears as if the graveyards will be safe as they are not in the area to be developed. They will probably be fenced and a monument will be erected to the nameless that are buried here. It appears as if that number may be roughly 7000.  Sadly, parts of the Sizwe hospital will probably be demolished, and the site which has seen so much suffering and death will cease to serve the community that it has served for so long. Realistically this hospital played a very large part in the history of Johannesburg, but because it was not in the northern suburbs has not had the attention it deserves from a heritage point of view.

And there you have it. Rietfontein has not been forgotten, it is really just at a point where a nameless bureaucrat has to apply a rubber stamp, and I suspect that rubber stamp will read “approved”. Johannesburg will loose an important part of its history, the traffic will flow even slower than it currently does. Crime will get worse, people will move away from their homes and new people will move into the area. 10 years down the line the cemetery will once again be neglected, the infrastructure will be inadequate, and each time it rains heavily floods will occur downstream in Alex, and I know that the heritage of Dr Mehliss will be just another page in a history book, and I will be staring at my computer screen and saying “what did I tell you?”

© DRW 2015-2018. Images migrated and links corrected 27/05/2016

Rietfontein just wont go away.

Last year I was fortunate enough to do a lot of grave hunting in the Rietfontein area, and blogged about it on a number of occasions. For those that are not aware of it, this small piece of Johannesburg is the site of at least 4 cemeteries associated with the Rietfontein Infectious Diseases Hospital.


It is a very pristine and unchanged environment which is only really marred by people who use it as a dump site. There are also in excess of 7000 people buried on the site. I was able to catalogue 3 individual burial areas with headstones, but was unable to really know the extent of the burial areas, or where the other burial areas were situated. From what I read there was a Jewish Cemetery, a Plague Cemetery and a burial area where diseased animals were buried.  My last visit was in late November last year, and I recall that I did feel that all it really took was the wrong person at the wrong time with the wrong motive. 

The irony is that squatters will not even settle on this piece of land, so it must have something to hide? 
However, I did receive a link today that pointed to somebody who was going to develop on this site. There was mention of two schools, a community and youth centre, low cost housing, a police station and so forth. All, at no cost to the government. Assuming the link doesn’t go down you can read about it here . I can hear myself saying “I told you so” all the way in the UK! (Link still active 03/2016)
I won’t comment further, except to say that when they turn the soil I want to be very far away. I don’t know what the life of pathogens is like in soil, but I don’t think I would like to find out, because the people who are buried at Rietfontein did not die of old age, and it wasn’t called an infectious diseases hospital because they didn’t have another name for it. 
Let us see how far this goes. I bet that quite a few people are smiling all the way to the bank already. 
© DRW 2013-2018. Images recreated and links repaired 09/03/2016

Graves in the Veld: Rietfontein Hospital.

Many of the  odd cemeteries I have encountered are found through conversations I have had with people. I heard about the Rietfontein Infectious Diseases Hospital Cemeteries after my brother went on a tour in that area. Unfortunately, finding the physical cemeteries would be a hit and miss thing because, as usual there is very little information to go on.
The area where the graves are supposed to be is bounded by Club Street, Linksfield, Modderfontein Road and the highway which is really a very large patch of open veld. The current Sizwe Hospital and the Edenvale Hospital are both in this area and the cemetery is tagged to the former.
Naturally my first port of call was Sizwe, and it was like visiting another planet. This hospital was founded in 1895 and consisted of a number of tin shanties. It’s first superintendent was Dr John Max Mehliss (1868-1927), and he laid the groundwork for the institution that eventually became Rietfontein Infectious Diseases Hospital.  
The hospital would see a cross section of patients suffering from a variety of diseases, many of them contagious, and with the potential for decimating populations. In short, a cemetery (possibly more than one) was created to bury those who perished from diseases like Smallpox, TB, Bubonic Plague etc.
There are supposedly 3 separate cemeteries to find, and the first one I have found so far is close to the intersection of Club and Linksfield. After so many years it is really just a collection of randomly placed graves surrounded by builders rubble, grass and trees. I was able to photograph 20 distinct graves, of which some were unmarked or with toppled stones.  One of the graves may be that of the wife and possibly a son of Dr Mehliss .
Guthrie Family graves

There are also a number of largish mounds in the area, but they seem to be too big to be mounds from graves. I have no idea how many people are actually buried in this spot. Not too long ago there was talking of erecting low cost housing at the site, but then somebody remembered that many of the people laying there had died from highly infectious diseases, and there was no real way of knowing whether pathogens were still viable in the ground so the idea was shelved. 

Just outside the admin building of Sizwe hospital  there are 3 graves surrounded by a fence, these are are the graves of Dr JM Mehliss, Matron Mary Middler and Nurse Emily Blake. These 3 graves were moved from one of the 3 cemeteries to their present position a few years ago when the hospital turned 100 years old. 
Somewhere is this large area of veld there are still 2 cemeteries to find, and  the only real clues I have is that they face North-East looking across the valley onto the highway. On the opposite side of the highway there are buildings from the original farm Rietfontein, and somewhere in this area there must also be a farm cemetery associated with the farm.
Members of the Mehliss family.

The problem with finding the other two cemeteries in Rietfontein is that I was not too sure where to find them. This is a large overgrown area and given how well graves tend to blend in with their surroundings I stood very little hope of success. However, during my subsequent visit to the area I got talking to a security guard and he said there were graves about a kilo behind the old Superintendents house. The area he pointed to was past a burnt log that was the only feature midway up a hill, and while I couldn’t see anything from where I was I decided to start exploring from there.
Rietfontein  2.
Parking my car I headed off into the bush, it was a hot day, and I soon discovered that this area was really an upwards slope with a lot of dead ground. On my way I spotted an African minister and I asked him if he had ever seen any graves but he wasn’t able to help, however, one of his congregation pointed towards a clump of trees and said they were “by the trees”. The stump proved to have nothing around it though, so I climbed the slope a bit more, almost towards the top of the hill, traversing the area as I walked, hoping to spot a headstone.
The first headstone I encountered was a newish stone, and looking around me I was able to spot random headstones that dotted the area in front of me. 
As I walked and photographed I kept on finding graves, many were really only mounds, while some had simple unmarked stones on them. What struck me though was that this was quite a large area and if there was full of graves then there must have been a lot of people buried here. The headstones dated from around the 1940’s although it does not mean that there were not earlier graves here.
People did seem to visit here too, because I did spot evidence of visitations, and some of the old headstones had been replaced with “modern” stones, I was able to photograph about 25 graves, (or spots that I could positively ID as being a grave). But how many simple headstones have gone missing or been vandalised I cannot say. 
I am now happy to report that 2 out of 3 (possibly 4) cemeteries at Rietfontein have now been found and recorded and they are no longer “graves in the veld”. As for cemetery number 3 (4)? I don’t know, logic says it should be close to the hospital, but this will take a lot of investigation, and whether I will find it is another story for another day.

The story is not over yet, I did explore a spot near Linksfield Road, but it turned up nothing, although given the vandalism and general state of decay in this area all I may find at any potential gravesites are the remains of graves in the veld. A conversation with one of the security guards may just have revealed the whereabouts of one of the other cemeteries, and I will investigate that next week.

It has been a fascinating journey into the history of a little known institution, and the question begs asking, did any of soldiers end up here? did any of the survivors of the East African campaign die of blackwater or malaria within these walls? I will probably never know.
The Scope of Rietforntein.
In my previous blog posts about Rietfontein I was unaware of the sheer scope of the cemeteries associated with this 15 hectare site. It is one thing looking at the area with Google Earth, and then trying to translate that into physical features on the ground. Fortunately, a comment made on the blog has provided answers to a number of questions, and created even more questions.
One of the anomalies on the satellite view of the area are a series of terraces. I traversed the one terrace during my third visit when I found the second cem associated with the hospital. The security guard that had originally told me to look at the area around the burnt log had been correct. That whole area of terrace may be a mass burial site, and there are two sets of terraces on that 15 hectare site. From the ground you can’t really discern any detail because of the high grass and nature of the terrain, but I was told that there are some sort of demarcations and this area definitely needs further investigation.
The other question I had was, where is the other cemetery? Again the answer was provided by my correspondent. There is a dirt track/road that runs roughly parallel to the river and highway, crossing it at a small bridge. The cem is roughly North of the bridge,  and in the 2001 Google Earth photograph was surrounded by trees. By 2004 the trees were gone. The biggest problem facing a photographer is actually accessing the cem, there are no real roads, and parts of this area are fenced. 
However, there may be thousands of people buried here (Rietfontein Necropolis?),  and the register is long gone so there is no way of knowing who they may have been unless a headstone is present. The fact remains that the area where the two cemeteries that I found are, is rapidly becoming a dumping site. I do not know how many headstones have already been lost under piles of building rubble. I do know that there may be as many as 6 cemeteries and not 3 in that area, although I expect they can all really tied to each other, and I know that those who are buried here are in a very pretty place which is relatively unspoilt. 
The danger is that one day somebody will scheme, bribe and plot and suddenly lots of townhouses will pop up overnight. And unless we can further document this area who knows what the future may bring. 
Thanks to Dave for all the information

Further information. 
I did revisit the site and was able to document some of the other cemeteries. These are on my blog as follows:   “Rietfontein, The last Word” “So what happened about Rietfontein?”

Images of the graves that I managed to photograph are at Eggsa.
Rietfontein 61_1
Rietfontein 61_2 
Rietfontein 61_3
Rietfontein 61_4

Update: The final Environmental Impact assessment was made available in 2015 and was available to download from the consultants. (link may be no longer valid) The deadline for submissions was 8 March 2015.

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