A billboard of Herman Charles Bosman will be placed in Gandhi Square, on the site of the old Magistrates’ Courts. It was here Bosman was brought after shooting his step-brother.
HERMAN Charles Bosman, a Joburger and one of the country’s most talented writers, is to be recognised by the City in a large billboard.
The High Court Building where Bosman had an office in the 1940s (Photo: Sally Gaule)The High Court Building where Bosman had an office in the 1940s (Photo: Sally Gaule)Measuring 9,9m in height and 6m across, a total of 59,4m², the billboard is to be placed on the High Court Building in Gandhi Square.
The site has significance because it’s in the old Magistrates’ Courts on the square, then called Government Square, where Bosman was brought after he accidentally shot dead his step-brother, David Russell, in the Joburg suburb of Bellevue.
He spent four months at the Old Fort prison in Hillbrow before he was convicted and sentenced to death in the Supreme Court, now the Johannesburg High Court, in Pritchard Street.
He spent an agonising nine days on death row at Pretoria Central Prison before his sentence was commuted to 10 years’ imprisonment. Of this, Bosman served three years and nine months.
After release, in 1930, he settled in Johannesburg, where he lived mostly until his death in 1951, at the age of 46. He was born in Kuils River, just outside Cape Town, in 1905, and was educated in Joburg – at Jeppe Boys High School in Kensington and then at Wits University.
After he was sentenced, Bosman read a statement that included the line: “In that tragic moment, the happenings of which are still unclear to me, I was impelled by some wild and chaotic impulse in which there was no suggestion of malice or premeditation.”
His time in jail was not entirely wasted – almost 20 years later his poignant account of it, Cold Stone Jug, was published in 1949.
The Magistrate’s Court when Lord Roberts marched in to Joburg in May 1900, in a drawing by Harry GruzinThe Magistrates' Court when Lord Roberts marched in to Joburg in May 1900, in a drawing by Harry GruzinBosman is best known for his wry and charming Oom Schalk Lourens and Voorkamer stories, set in the bushveld. They were based on his six-month teaching sojourn in the sleepy town of Groot Marico in North West. Indeed, it was while visiting his family for the school holidays when he shot his step-brother.
The old court building was demolished in 1948, just another of many Joburg buildings that have, over the decades, been carelessly pulled down, a fact that distressed Bosman. He lamented the constant tearing away at the heart of the city’s heritage, and the reaction of Joburgers, who hardly seemed to notice this destruction.
The building had been in use until the late 1930s, when the court was moved to the new Magistrates' Court in Ferreirasdorp, which opened in the early 1940s. By the late 1940s the building was run down and dilapidated.
In his essay Old Johannesburg is Vanishing, Bosman recounted how he tracked down a “Johannesburg pioneer” who wasn’t very upset about the demolition: “I saw the first sod being turned there for the foundations, when the place was still surrounded with bluegums. I saw that site as a vacant stand, before they put up the Magistrates’ Courts. And one of these days I’ll see it as a vacant stand again. That’s how it goes.”
He was right. The site was levelled and became a bus terminus, called Van der Bijl Square. It housed the terminus for the next 50 years. In 2003, the square took on a new identity – it was renamed Gandhi Square in recognition of Mahatma Gandhi’s presence as a lawyer in the courts, before he went back to India in 1914.
Gandhi is acknowledged with a tall bronze statue, installed in the square in 2003. It is now a people place, with restaurants and coffee shops spilling out on to the square, and buses passing through the site, taking Joburgers to and from their homes.
Billboard of Herman Charles Bosman walking in Joburg (Photo: Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas)Billboard of Herman Charles Bosman walking in Joburg (Photo: Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas)Bosman’s memories of the court were understandably raw: “The prisoners’ yard was very cramped. And a fact you can’t deny was that the toilet facilities were cramped in the extreme. That old blue wash-basin in the corner. And the piece of cracked mirror that you glanced into very hurriedly when your name was called.”
It was no surprise that the public was nonchalant about the demolition of the court, he reflected.
Bosman said in his essay entitled The Standard Theatre: “Because I know Johannesburg. And I am satisfied that there is no other city in the world that is so anxious to shake off the memories of its early origins.”
The billboard will add another layer to the history of the square. “Some such addition would help not only to bring a sense of greater historical depth, but also to make the site more reflective of diversity and inclusive of a wider range of meanings and memories,” Eric Itzkin, the deputy director of immovable heritage in the City’s arts, culture and heritage department, wrote in a 2008 report.
The five-storey High Court Building, so named because it housed the rooms of a number of attorneys, has survived the demolishers. Bosman took a second-storey office in the building in the 1940s. The building still has offices on its top floors, with retailers on the ground floor.
19 Isipingo Street
Bosman’s memory is also to be recorded at the house where he shot his step-brother, 19 Isipingo Street, in Bellevue.
The house, dating from around 1916, was built for William Russell, an engineer from Scotland. It was unconventional in that it was positioned with its back to the street, with a spacious verandah hugging its eastern edge.
Herman Charles Bosman is buried in Westpark Cemetery in Westdene. His grave is marked by a thin, pyramid-shape headstone with the simple inscription: “Die Skrywer, The Writer, Herman Charles Bosman, b 3.2.1905, d 14.10.1951”.
The grave number is 3942/3 in section DRM Block A, on the corner of Second Avenue and Second Road in the western side of the cemetery. The cemetery is open from 6am to 6pm.
Bosman’s mother married Russell and moved into the house in 1925, to join Russell’s adult children, David, Peggy and Jean. A year later, Bosman’s brother Pierre joined the household, putting pressure on the three-bedroomed house.
At home from Groot Marico for the July holidays, Bosman shared a small bedroom with 23-year-old David.
“The household was torn apart at 1am on the night of 17 July when Herman shot David Russell with a hunting rifle he brought back from the Marico,” records Itzkin. “Bosman fired into the darkened bedroom where David and Pierre were embroiled in a fight. He then walked in a daze towards the kitchen where he immediately attempted suicide by slashing his own throat with a carving knife.”
But the house is significant for other reasons too: It became the home of the Myersons, who lived there for 50 years. Among their friends was the lawyer and Communist Party leader Bram Fischer, who was imprisoned for his opposition to apartheid.
The room where the murder took place was also where the Russell family offered a hiding place to Julius First, the father of journalist and activist Ruth First. Ruth First was the wife of Joe Slovo; she was assassinated in Mozambique by a letter bomb sent by the apartheid security forces. The house will carry a plaque memorialising its link to Bosman.
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