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Martyrs graves at Braamfontein
08 September 2011

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The old Braamfontein Cemetery, filled with the city’s founders and freedom fighters, as well as ordinary citizens, reigns supreme as the grand old dame of Johannesburg’s cemeteries.

SURROUNDED by fencing and stone walls, and filled with towering angelic figures, meticulously crafted crosses and massive granite headstones, Joburg’s Braamfontein Cemetery has been around for over 100 years.

The crematorium was built in 1932The crematorium was built in 1932Planted with large eucalyptus trees and lush grass, this majestic green lung is filled with history, told through the remains of grave stones and maps that indicate the tales behind the different sections in the cemetery.

In its Cemeteries and Crematoria handbook, City Parks describes Braamfontein Cemetery as “a lovely old cemetery with long lanes of trees. Braamfontein has a peaceful, regal air, and its history traces back through to the birth of the city.

“The roads through Braamfontein Cemetery once carried horse-drawn hearses, where mourners of all creeds, colours and religions came to bury their dead. There are few spaces as sacred as an open old cemetery, and Braamfontein reigns supreme as the grand old dame of Johannesburg’s cemeteries,” it notes.

“The narrow pathways, once wide enough for a horse carriage are now just sufficient for the large groups of schoolchildren who come to learn their country’s history through the stories of the graves.”

Located at the west end of Braamfontein and bounded by Smit and Graf streets and Enoch Sontonga Avenue, it is Joburg’s most esteemed cemetery, notes the handbook.
 



Religious sections

The cemetery is laid out in neat, straight roads with designated religious sections, which include Dutch Reform, Church of England, Roman Catholic, Hindu, Muslim and Jewish. The Jewish and Muslim sections each have their own entrances, and there is a crematorium at the corner of the cemetery for Hindus, which was built in 1932.

The Enoch Sontonga Memorial The Enoch Sontonga Memorial The first burial here was in 1888; since then, several notable people have been buried in this cemetery, including the founders of Joburg – Von Brandis and Jeppe – as well as Enoch Sontonga, who composed the country’s national anthem, Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

Initially sung as an act of defiance against the apartheid regime, it was adopted by the ANC by 1925 as its closing anthem after meetings. Sontonga died at the age of 32.

In 1994, the National Monuments Council became aware that Sontonga had been buried at Braamfontein Cemetery. Nelson Mandela asked that his grave be declared a national monument, the highest honour bestowed upon a site of historical and cultural significance.

But while Sontonga’s song is part of our collective culture, finding his grave proved to be a huge task. At the time of his death, blacks were buried in the Christian Native section of the cemetery. While City Parks knew that his grave would be in that section, identifying the exact location was not simple, it notes.

Finding a historical grave is like being a sleuth; one must search for details, understand the old patterns, borrow technology, and employ all resources.

For Alan Buff, the utility’s technical specialist, and his team it meant going through historical records to find the date and cause of death.
 



Archaeological digs

Infra-red aerial photographs of the cemetery helped pinpoint the location of the bodies in the Christian Native section and under Professor Tom Huffman from the University of the Witwatersrand, shallow archaeological digs were made.

Artwork is dotted around the cemeteryBeautiful artwork can be found in the cemeteryCoffins in this section were covered with sticks of fragrant eucalyptus. These sticks grew into a forest over time and had to be cleared.

Finding Sontonga’s grave took over a year. According to Buff, he could not find a map with grave numbers until vandals damaged Braamfontein’s Memorial Wall, in an entirely different area. Looking through the plans for that wall for repairs to be done, he came across a map of the Old School of Mine” section. It was only then, that Sontonga’s grave was found.

On 24 September 1996, the country’s first Heritage Day under democratic rule, a memorial was unveiled by Mandela for the grave of Sontonga. This is now his final resting place.

The main entrance to Braamfontein Cemetery is on Graf Street. Entering here, the graves of the city’s founders line either side of the road. They are adorned with tall headstones; many have angels or crosses, carved from granite, and epitaphs that have faded over time.

At the archway offices, found just past the entrance, hand-drawn maps have been mounted in hinged wooden frames on the wall. Each map covers a different section of the cemetery and shows plot numbers for graves, paths and fences. Old leather-bound registers can also be found here, which date back to the cemetery’s establishment.
 



Dynamite explosion

Further down the road is a tall memorial spire, the 1896 Dynamite Explosion Monument, which was placed in memory of the 71 people who died in an explosion at Braamfontein Station on 19 February 1896.

To the right of that monument, is Valliamma Avenue, which leads visitors past the Anglo-Boer War graves and the small Chinese section. It goes on towards the graves of two passive resistance martyrs – Valliamma Munusamy Moodaliar and Swami Nagappen.

A memorial wall for creamted personsA memorial wall for creamated personsMoodaliar was a 16-year-old girl who died in 1914 after being released from prison; she was heralded as a hero by Mahatma Gandhi. Nagappen died in 1909. According to the City Parks handbook, the two symbolise the spirit of the mass satyagraha movement of 1913 to 1914, “which forced generals Botha and Smuts to negotiate a settlement for the Indian community”.

Gandhi the lawyer arrived in South Africa in 1893 from India to help with a legal case. He stayed on in Joburg, and founded the non-violent resistance philosophy of satyagraha. For Gandhi, it was more than simply passive resistance; and its non-violent methods were used by the ANC and other groups in the struggle against apartheid.

The City Parks handbook notes that it can be said of Moodaliar and Nagappen: “They shall grow not old. As we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them. Nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun. And in the morning. We will remember them.”

In the northernmost corner of the cemetery is the Muslim section, which is marked on the old maps as the Mahommedan area. Notable Muslims such as Mahomed Renzi Bey, the general-consulate of the Ottoman Empire, are buried here.
 


Temple
There is a small temple in the section, for prayers to honour the holy that lie in the cemetery. “This area was designated in 1900 by [then] President Kruger, when the Malays of Vrededorp requested a piece of land for a place of worship, which became the 23rd Street Masjid [Mosque] and burial ground for this section in Braamfontein.”

Vrededorp and Pageview, which lie west of the CBD, are together known as Fietas. This area housed Joburg residents of Malay, coloured, Indian, Chinese and black heritage.

Next to the Muslim section is the fenced off Jewish area; the first person to be buried here was Albert Rosettenstein in 1887. Later on people such as Max Langerman, one of the 64 “Reformers” imprisoned in Pretoria in 1896, were buried here.

The Chinese sectionThe Chinese section“In the small Chinese burial grounds lies Chow Kwai For, who registered under the new law requiring racial registration, unaware of the protest in the Chinese community,” notes the handbook. “When he realised what he had done, he committed suicide at the age of 24. His grave stands with his letter of apology (written in Chinese) engraved on his headstone.”

To the west of the cemetery, next to the Chinese section, underneath huge eucalyptus trees, is a grassy section with a massive black granite cube. Beneath the grass, in this section, are the graves of 12 000 blacks, which incorporated the School of Mines. This part is now known as the Enoch Sontonga Memorial Park.

“It seems fitting that the founder of the national anthem lies beneath a canopy of trees, [that in turn is responsible for] turning an area of unmarked miners’ graves into a place of sacred memorial.”

In the southern quadrant of the cemetery, are the firemen’s and policemen’s graves, as well as a circular path of headstones marking the burial sites of priests and nuns. They surround the grave of the Roman Catholic bishop.
 


Paupers graves
And then, against the south fence of the cemetery, are the paupers graves, which are unmarked. It was here that the miners killed in the Miners’s Strike of 1922, were buried. Nearby are the graves of the once-infamous Foster Gang, the group of criminals who once gripped the public’s imagination with tales of wild chases, and other feat. The gang members were killed in a shoot-out with police in 1914.

The leafy and quiet Braamfontein Cemetery provides a heavenly resting place for the departed The leafy and quiet Braamfontein Cemetery provides a heavenly resting place for the departed Journeying back to the main entrance, visitors pass the crematorium. Here it was mainly the Hindu community that would congregate for funerals.

“To walk through Braamfontein [Cemetery] is to honour our past, and recognise what it brings to our future,” concludes the Cemeteries and Crematoria handbook.

Johannesburg City Parks is responsible for over 35 of the City’s cemeteries, which are filled with a fraction of the 2 million trees that grow in Joburg’s parks, cemeteries, nature reserves and conservation areas.

First burials and second burials (which are burials in the same grave about 12 years after the first burial) are available to family members, as are reduction burials at its cemeteries. There are also mausoleums and crematoriums. The City has crematoriums at the Lenasia Cemetery, the Brixton Cemetery and the Braamfontein Cemetery.

As Joburg grows, so does its need for burial space. With this in mind, in 2006, the City set aside R20-million for the development of new cemeteries.


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