Brickfields' tumultuous contribution to past recal

© The Star

By Anna Cox

It took more than 6-million bricks and 500 tons of concrete to build Brickfields.

And one of the original bricks manufactured on the same site at the turn of the century was presented to President Thabo Mbeki on Friday when he officially opened the site.

According to Neil Fraser of the Central Johannesburg Partnership, Newtown, in relation to the central city, was historically something of an ugly sister and almost always mired in controversy.

Fraser relates the history of the area: "It fell outside of the initial city boundaries - early maps of the city reflect the area as "uitvalgrond". It was "goldless" and made up of quartzite and shale covered by a deep layer of clay.

"It was the clay that attracted many poor people to the area. Unable to get jobs directly in mining, they set up clay mixers and drying kilns to produce bricks for the burgeoning mining town - this background is what provided the name Brickfields for the Johannesburg Housing Company's development.

"By 1896, just 10 years after the gold discoveryâ the population in Brickfields was 7 000, 1 500 of them brickmakers. But that period also saw the beginning of the demise of brickmaking, as the government of the time wanted the northern area for goods yards for the new railways.

"The brickmakers were moved onto the balance of the land stretching up to Fordsburg, with the area becoming known as Burghersdorp or Veldskoendorp, with sections designated for various 'locations' on a racial basis.

"Burghersdorp and the contiguous locations comprised a very rough and tough area - crowded with shacks and roads that were no more than tracks meandering between open clay pits. It was also an area for stabling the horses used for transportation and cabs.

"The area developed into a sprawling multiracial area and in the early 1900s the multiracial nature, as well as the poor quality of the environment, became anathema to the British colonial government. In 1904 plague broke out in the Indian 'location'â and over 100 people died and this gave the colonial government an excuse to forcibly remove the population to Klipspruit, near the sewage works.

"The shacks and buildings that were left were set on fire, taking three days before all them were destroyed. Following the fire, the cleared area provided the authorities with the opportunity to start building what they now called the Newtown.

"It became the site of the city's fresh produce market - now Museum Africa; a livestock market and abattoir, workers' housing - now the Workers' Library and Museum; a massive power station - the Turbine Hall, whose buildings were converted into an art gallery and corporate head offices for AngloGold Ashanti; the Electric Workshops that have already been converted into Sci Bono, the state-of-the-art Science and Technology Centre, and a large shed to house the city's trams - now known as the Bus Factory and housing a superb arts and crafts display.

"The area also attracted early entrepreneurs who established trading companies, banks, a fishery, the Imperial Cold Storage, Premier Milling and a brewery, among others.

"The early 1900s saw Newtown emerge as the scene of strikes and political agitation. Feisty Mary Fitzgerald, a socialist political activist, later to become the city's first female deputy mayor - today memorialised by the Square of her name - threw her first brick at a policeman here, as well as organising a large number of women to lie on the tram tracks to prevent scab drivers from manning the trams.

"By the 1950s Newtown was the city's main industrial area and was a hive of activity. But by the 1960s many of the functions provided in Newtown had been relocated to other parts of the city. The cooling towers were imploded, the power station closed, the abattoir and market facilities moved elsewhere and Newtown went into a total decline.

"In the early 1990s the city council of the time decided that the area should become the cultural hub of the city but provided only limited and token funding, and a variety of their revitalisation claims provoked little but a cynical response from most."