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The city without water Print E-mail
06 January 2003

M

OST of the world's great cities were founded close to plentiful water supplies. Johannesburg may be the only city whose location was chosen because there was no water.

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Beacon at the top of Boundary Road, marking the apex of Randjeslaagte

The discovery of gold on the Reef threw the Boer government of President Paul Kruger into confusion, because of the speed with which prospectors arrived and set up camp on local farms, indifferent to the rights of the landowners.

By July 17th 1887 -a date when the Kruger government had only just become vaguely aware of the gold strike - the Diamond Fields Advertiser in far-away Kimberley was already announcing to its audience of miners, the existence of a newly-discovered 30 mile-long gold reef, 50 miles south of Pretoria in a place it called "Vetvatterrand". Diggers were assured, not entirely correctly, that the place had "a plentiful supply of water".

Eight days later, JB Robinson, one of the richest of the Kimberley mining magnates, was in the Transvaal. As described by Eric Rosenthal in his book Gold! Gold Gold!, Robinson behaved "like a man demented, and scarcely lying down to sleep, he hurried from farm to farm on the Rand, taking options or purchasing for cash."

But Robinson himself had been beaten to the Reef by hordes of small-scale diggers, who formed a camp alongside the only water source, called Fordsburg Dip, on the farm Turffontein. The camp, which consisted of tents and wagons, with a few scattered corrugated iron dwellings between them, was named after its self-proclaimed leader, Colonel Ignatius Ferreira.

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Colonel Ignatius Ferreira, one of the first diggers on the scene in 1886

Despite his Portuguese name, Ferreira was a redoubtable Boer soldier - and a failed diamond digger. Aged 46, he was somewhat older than the other diggers, and used his powerful personality and military background to impose discipline on his unruly peers. Ferreira's Camp still exists today, in the form Ferreirrastown, a rather dilapidated area of small-scale industry immediately south of Commissioner Street. In July, the Diamonds Fields Advertiser was already reporting that the population of Ferreira's Town was 300 persons, and, most important, there were 14 "hotels" supplying liquor.

In September, a second camp sprang up alongside Ferreira's called Marshall's Town, named after Scotsman Herbert Marshall, who bought the land, and had it professionally surveyed and laid out as a township by a draughtsman named Simmonds, who named one of the main streets after his boss, and another after himself. Then, in defiance of government orders, Marshall announced that he would begin auctioning off stands on October 9th. The area, east of Ferreira Street, west of Delvers Street and south of Commissioner Street, is still known today as Marshall's Town.

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Map of early Witwatersrand farms, showing the Randjeslaagte triangle

One of the first to arrive in Johannesburg was Louis Cohen, a cousin of mining magnate Barney Barnato. A failure as a fortune seeker, Cohen nonetheless had a gift for words, and described his first sight of Johannesburg thus:

"The treeless tract itself seemed a mournful and sad enough - a despairing, bare, sandy veld, with hardly a sign of life except here and there a poor Boer habitation, and some carrion birds lying around a stinking bullock's trunk festering on the road and fouling the air with its poison half a mile away.

"The wind, playing with the horrible biting dust, sharp as needles - sent its irritating particles to clog nose, ears and mouth, and drove the shapeless coppery clouds from one end of the uninviting sky to the other."

The Kruger government, caught by surprise, needed to move swiftly to reign in the mushrooming of illegal settlements. A two-man commission was sent out to the gold fields to hear the objections of farmers and attempt to settle the conflicting land rights, mining claims and rights to grazing and water. Sent riding from farm to farm were acting Surveyor General Johann Rissik and Volksraad member Christiaan Johannes Joubert. Accompanying them was Veldkornet Johannes Petrus Meyer, the government official in charge of the area, who had himself been informally issuing mining rights without any government sanction. Years later, it would be claimed that either one or all of these men, each named Johannes, gave his name to the town of Johannesburg.

The tricky issue was that the village where miners were to live, needed to be situated on ground which was close to the gold reef, but did not seem to have any likely prospects for gold itself. Rissik discovered a triangle of "uitvalgrond" called Randjeslaagte, tucked between the three farms of Braamfontein, Doornfontein and Turffontein, which seemed perfect for the job. It was barren, stony, no-one owned it - and no-one wanted it.

Randjeslaagte only existed because of the rough and ready surveying techniques of rural Transvaal, where land was plentiful but qualified surveyors were rare. A system evolved in which each farmer marked out his property with temporary beacons constructed of piles of whitewashed stones, pending the day when some higher and more qualified authority would mark out permanent boundaries.

In some cases, land claims overlapped. In other cases, there were large gaps between the farm borders, which became known as "uitvalgrond" or surplus land, and which was automatically owned by the state. Randjeslaagte was a classic example, a narrow triangle about one and a half kilometres wide at its base in the south, and extending about five kilometres to its apex in the north, covering some 1 100 acres. None of the local farmers had laid claim to it, because it was unsuitable for agriculture and had no water.

But there were two glitches on Randjeslaagte's route to becoming the centre of the future Johannesburg. The first came on September 20th, when Kruger's newly appointed Mining Commissioner for the area, a German military man named Captain Carl von Brandis, officially proclaimed public diggings at a long list of local farms - including Randjeslaagte. A Randjeslaagte Syndicate was formed, and it immediately began diggings on 36 claims between today's Bree and Pritchard Streets - and even found some gold. But by December, the owners realised that the ground was not viable for mining, and they sold the property to the government.

On October 5, Rissik appointed a surveyor, Josias Eduard De Villiers, on the basis of his previous experience in helping to lay out the diamond rush town of Kimberley. De Villiers supported the choice of Randjeslaagte for the new village, saying that it was centrally placed and the preferred choice of the diggers. De Villiers noted that water was scarce, but said it could be conveyed by pipes from elsewhere once a town was established.

De Villiers completed his task in less than a month. One of the curious features of his plan was that each block was unusually small - a design that would prove a major problem for the later, traffic-bound city of Johannesburg, where small blocks meant more intersections and traffic lights. But De Villiers is believed to have laid out the town this way at the instruction of the government, which wanted many small stands, with as many of the more desirable corner stands as possible, to maximise their income from the auction of land.

De Villiers was also hampered by Marshall's Town on his southern boundary, where streets were already set out in a similar tight grid which he was obliged to follow. Commissioner Street, for example, at the very south of Randjeslaagte, had already been set out and named by Marshall - the name commemorates the fact that it was here that Commissioner Von Brandis proclaimed the mine fields.

As it happens, the auction of land in Randjeslaagte, held on 8 December 1886, was no great success. The auctioneer rejected the first bid - two shillings and sixpence for a stand. In the end, the most desirable stands, next to the market square in the south, fetched close to three hundred pounds, but less desirable stands went for as little as ten pounds - and many stands could not be sold. For most people, it was cheaper to just carry on living in next-door Ferreira's Camp, which was also closer to water.

While Ferreira's Town and Marshall's Town remain to this day, the name Randjeslaagte has vanished, commemorated nowhere. But its traces are still there to be found, if you know where to look. The northern point is just off the corner of Boundary Road, Parktown, and Louis Botha Avenue, close to Clarendon Circle. A triangular monument was erected there, now very much the worse for wear, stripped of its surface and looking a little like an oversized water hydrant. Informal traders sell tyres and motor car parts from the parking bay alongside, and use the beacon as a handy seating place.

The south-eastern corner is at the intersection of Market and End Streets, just as the highway passes overhead. End Street, which runs at a slight angle to other north-south streets, is so named because it marks the eastern boundary of Randjeslaagte. The eastern side the triangle then runs up the hill along Catherine Avenue (adjacent to Nugget Street) and through Hillbrow, meeting the top at the corner of Banket Street.

The south-western corner is at the intersection of Commissioner and Diagonal Streets. Just off that corner is the start of West Street, thus named because it marks the west side of the triangle. West Street runs along the same grid as the other north-south streets, but close to its top, it turns inwards. If you trace that inward curve on a map, you'll see that it aims straight at Hillbrow's Clarendon Place, which marks the apex of the pyramid.

That tiny area, just big enough for a village, was to become the biggest city in South Africa within three decades. Today, the northern boundaries of Johannesburg almost touch the southern outskirts of greater Pretoria, once a two day ox-wagon ride away.

 

 

 

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