Category: Johannesburg

OTD: The Braamfontein Dynamite Explosion

One of the many events that occurred in the fledgling city of Johannesburg was the Dynamite Explosion that occurred on 19 February 1896 at Braamfontein Station. A memorial was erected in Braamfontein Cemetery to commemorate the event, and the over 70 people that lost their lives in it. An explosives train, carrying dynamite, had been left standing for 3 days in searing heat in what was then Braamfontein goods yard; the massive explosion occurred when this train was struck by another that was shunting. It left a crater over 60 m long and 8 m deep and was heard 200 km away. The exact number of casualties was never ascertained, and over 200 people were seriously injured. Some 3 000 people lost their homes and almost every window in the town was shattered. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact site where the explosion occurred but a period map puts it on the bend where Braamfontein Vapour Depot now stands.

I have spotted at least 5 physical graves in Braamfontein cemetery that have explosion related inscriptions on them, and it is probable that most of the casualties are buried in this cemetery, the majority of the funerals being held on the 20th and 21st of February. I can physically identify 46 names in the registers as being marked as “dynamite explosion”, and all are buried in the DR section. There is also supposedly a mass grave in this plot where unidentified severed limbs are buried.


Apart from the devastation that the explosion created, it would have also tested the fledgling cities ability to manage a disaster of this magnitude. Braamfontein Cemetery was relatively new when this happened and it would be here that the victims were buried. It is certain that there were African victims too, and they are also probably buried here in an area that has been ploughed under. I was not able to check against the register because I did not find a register for that area. There may also be victims buried in the Jewish section of the cemetery, but the register for that was not available at the time.  It is an interesting piece of history though, albeit one that has been almost forgotten.

DR Walker ©  2011-2020. Recreated and expanded 23/05/2016. 

OTD: Commemorating Neil Aggett

On This Day:  05 February 2020 is the anniversary of the death of Dr Neil Aggett. I found his headstone a few years back while gravehunting in West Park cemetery, and it was one of those jarring moments in time. I briefly blogged about this in 2013 but in the light of the new inquiry into his death felt that a relook may be in order.


The irony is that on the  27th of November 1981, Neil and his girlfriend, Liz Floyd, were seized and both ended up in the notorious John Vorster Square.  However, she may have heard his screams as he was brutally tortured by the police in an adjoining office in the police station. A team of policemen led by (names withheld) regularly covered his head with a wet towel, tieing it so tightly that the young prisoner struggled to breathe.  They also used electricity on him, abusing their power and driving him to allegedly commit suicide on 5 February 1982. Aged 28, he was the only white South African to die in detention. 

38 years after his death, the death of Neil Aggett is once again being investigated and hopefully more light will be shed on his death and those who caused it by their brutality in the name of the government. Make no mistake, there is an element of sadism in what they did, and I often wonder whether they enjoyed what they did. I did not know him in person, but the name was familiar from the early 80’s and finding the grave left me feeling very ashamed that I lived in a country that allowed things like this to happen.  The fact remains that he did not die an easy death, and while the official verdict was suicide, it is easy to view his death in the same way as that of Steve Biko.  However, nobody was ever prosecuted for the torture that he suffered, and many of those who committed the atrocities on behalf of the government of the day are still living amongst us.  

Personally I cannot see how many of these “men” that abused their power can really live with themselves. I cannot see how they went home after a long days torture and abuse and sat down to dinner with their families, or how they could sit in church and listen to the Dominee all the time thinking that on the next day they would back in there with their rubber hoses, shock machines and other instruments of violence. They share the same part of history as members of the Inquisition, witch finders, Nazi’s, concentration camp guards, serial killers and  terrorists.

I have recently been doing a lot of reading about the Russian Revolution and the reign of terror brought about by Stalin and his executors, as well as the murder of the Russian Royal Family.  The abuses of power are beyond comprehension, it makes for terrifying reading and all I could think was “There but for the grace of God go I”

I hope that someday, somewhere, somebody has to answer for what they did, and I hope that retribution will happen. There is a lesson in Neil Aggett’s death, and it involves facing the ghosts of the past. Currently we are hearing about those ghosts and it is just a pity that it has taken so long.

The Sunday Times, as part of their centenary, had commissioned an artwork  to commemorate the eight people who lost their lives in this notorious police station.  It is a powerful piece, stark in its simplicity, but sombre at the same time.  The artwork, entitled “Simakade” (the Zulu for “forever standing”), is by Kagiso Pat Mautloa.

I have tried to put names to the 8 detainees that lost their lives as a result of their detention at John Vorster Square and have the following so far:
  • Ahmed Timol fell to his death from the 10th floor of John Vorster Square on the afternoon of October 27 1971
  • Neil Hudson Aggett supposedly committed suicide on 05 February 1982
  • Wellington Tshazibane, 11 December 1976. Found dead in his cell, where he allegedly hung himself
  • Elmon Malele,  Arrested 10 January 1977 and died 10 days later of a brain haemorrhage at a nursing home in Johannesburg where he had been taken after he had allegedly lost his balance after standing for six hours and hitting his head on the corner of a table
  • Matthews Mojo Mabelane,  15 February 15, 1977, fell from the tenth floor of John Vorster Square, landing on a vehicle parked below.
  • Ernest Moabi Dipale, Arrested 5 August 1982 and held at John Vorster Square. Three days later he was found hanging dead in his cell.
  • Maisha “Stanza” Bopape.  Supposedly died of a heart attack. Police claimed that he had escaped from custody. During the 1997 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, however, the police admitted that he had died in detention, His body was never recovered. 
  • Clayton Sizwe Sithole: 30 January 1990 (12 days before the release of Nelson Mandela)  Sithole was found hanging from a water pipe in the shower.
DRW ©  2020. Created 05/02/2020. I did a lot of reading while trying to find out more information about the deaths in detention and the majority of the information comes from South African History Online.  There are a lot of newspaper articles currently about the reopening of the inquest on 20 January 2020 but nothing that I could really quote at this time. 

OTD: Television comes to South Africa

Officially television came to South Africa on 5 January 1976, and I believe we were amongst the last countries in the world to experience this wonder of “entertainment and information”, although in our case it was a wonder of propaganda and local rubbish. We had been watching short test transmissions since May the previous year, mostly in shop windows, because very few people took the risk of buying a television set until they were absolutely sure that the SABC and the National Party wasn’t going to change their minds,  or be influenced by the verkramptes in the censorship board. Rhodesia had TV before South Africa did and yes, it is true, we did all gather in front of the shop windows to gawk at the goggle box in amazement.

And woe betide any shop which did not turn up the volume so that we could hear what was being said!  I recall seeing episodes of the “The Bennie Hill Show” and “Musikladen” (A German music programme) while sitting on bus stop bench outside the Russel’s furniture store in Mayfair. We did not think it strange at the time, because we were not the only ones who did it.  Just before the big switch on day arrived my family purchased a TV, it was a 61 cm “monochrome” Telefunken which we paid the unearthly sum of about R350-00 for (payable on HP over 24 months). Colour TV’s were out of our budget range; the Rolls Royce of TV’s being the Sony cabinet model which I seem to recall cost about R700-00.  A very nice young chap installed a VHF aerial for us (complete with earth spike too) and when the big day arrived we were there waiting for TV to start.

Remember that opening logo? how do you describe it? some people said it resembled a toilet bowl, make your own decision on that one. I do know it had the colours of the national flag on it accompanied by an impressively boring signature tune. I only saw it years later in colour so I could be pulling your leg. The first presenters were Dorianne Berry and Heinrich Marnitz and there were only 37,5 hours of TV per week and each evening the broadcast was half English and half Afrikaans, alternating each day.

Anyway, here the 4 of us sat staring at the idiot box. Amongst the stuff we saw in those early days has long slipped out of my mind, but most people will recall “Haas Das se Nuuskas” (YouTube link) which featured the voice of Riaan Cruywagen (soon to be stalwart newsreader) and his sidekick Piet Muis.  On Tuesdays the award winning documentary “The World At War” was shown. This stunning series was preceded by a local documentary called “Ons Argitektoniese Erfenis” which would not have won an award even if it was the only TV programme available. We still had much to learn in South Africa about TV, the Equity ban on South Africa meant that we were denied all of the good BBC material available. Strict government censorship meant that we were denied anything even vaguely considered risqué, and our news bulletins would have a pro National Party slant to them.

Daily Schedule TV1, 26/06/78-02/07/78 (1500 x 583)

It took quite a long time before our first TV advert was shown, the winner being for “Big T Beef Burgers”. Our first “real” American soap/drama was “Rich Man Poor Man”; the country ground to a halt when it was on and we all hated Falconetti with a passion. “Dallas” was still in the future and we never even realised that somebody would shoot JR and that Pamela had such long drawn out dreams. Our local series were a mixed batch; “Willem”, “Doktor Doktor” and “The Villagers” were amongst the first ones made in this country. They were amateurish in their concept and the stories were often full of holes and improbabilities. However, the Afrikaans dramas were always better than the English ones and we were all avid fans of them. Many of the kiddies programmes ran for years, “Wiellie Wallie” with Bennie Boekwurm seeing to have survived the many axes which fell over the years (YouTube link). Naturally sport featured quite high in the priorities of the SABC, although it was mostly rugby, cricket, boxing, horse racing and occasionally soccer.  A whole new crowd of people came into our living rooms too, Michael De Morgan, Heinrich Marnitz, Dorianne Berry, Nigel Kane, David Hall-Green, Betty Kemp, and a few old faces from Springbok Radio made the transition to acting too. Much of the best stuff which was available from the BBC was dubbed into Afrikaans. Programmes like “Thunderbirds” (“Redding Internasionaal”), “Space 1999” (“Alpha 1999”), “Sweeney Todd” (“Blitspatrolie”) and numerous others all suffered the hand of the SABC’s dubbing department. The biggest joke was when “Rupert the Bear” was dubbed into English, although it was already in English when they bought it! 

Pop music on TV was rare, but eventually they flighted “Pop Shop” to try placate the hordes of clamouring teens but it was a poor attempt, only 20 minutes long with at least 5 of that being the logo music. Alas, we would have to rely on the radio for our musical interludes, but that’s another story. 

Back then SABC had no competition in the TV department. When Bophuthatswana became an “Independent state” they launched their own TV station called “BOP-TV”  in 1984, and it was so much better than the boring old SABC that we were watching. Launched on UHF it could be watched if you installed a UHF antenna and were in the overflow area that included Mayfair and parts of Johannesburg. The government was not amused and the signal was altered as much as possible to exclude everywhere but Bophuthatswana and Soweto. BOP-TV was a revelation because it really showed what a small operation was capable of. The SABC shut it down in 2003.

When the video machine arrived it changed our lives because we could now hire movies and record off the TV (especially pop music), although we only acquired a video machine in 1984. I bought my first TV in 1984 too, and it was a Philips monochrome portable.  Colour portables were quite rare and expensive though, and we were never able to get our hands on those small handheld TV’s that we often saw in the movies.  I disposed of my portable in 2014 when I cleared out my furniture. It was still working and had never really seen a lot of use.  

The image below shows the popular Sony Cabinet model and the image on the right is a Telekunken mono portable that could be powered by batteries. 

It is now many years later and I have seen so much mediocre and bad TV that it all seems to blend into nothingness. Strange, there is a whole generation that has not known how it was before TV came to South Africa. Watching reruns of shows like “Night Rider” or “The A-Team” makes me wonder how starved we must have been for entertainment. “The World at War” has been back on TV at least 5 times since 1976 and I still enjoy it today. Today TV in South Africa still has a ruling party slant to it and the only difference is that the programmes are a different class of drivel, and there are 4 free channels to not watch instead of 1. Unfortunately mismanagement has driven the SABC almost into bankruptcy and there are those who say that would be a good thing too.  

In 2007 it was announced that South Africa would be broadcasting in digital by 1 November 2008, Unfortunately due to incompetence and mismanagement digital migration has still not happened as at February 2020 and South Africa will be amongst the last countries in the world to use analogue transmission instead of digital.   

I last watched South African TV in 2004, and even now do not even watch the BBC; I still prefer a good book or Netflix. TV does not really interest me, and reality TV is one of the most inane ideas to come out of the TV world.

There is quite a lot of material out there about South Africa’s introduction to the world of TV.  A very good breakdown of history of TV in South Africa may be found at Wikipedia and there is a short clip of that first broadcast on YouTube.  The first TV advert in South Africa is also available on YouTube

DRW © 2020. Created 26/02/2020. This post is really about how I experienced TV in South Africa and does not reflect official policy and is not an official history of TV in South Africa. It was first posted on AAS in 2010 and blogged on 17/05/2014. TV Schedule from Family Radio and TV Magazine 26 June  – 2 July 1978.