Through the pages of a newspaper: a century of SA history
Radical changes and interesting events in the shaping of the country are highlighted in a commemorative book that was recently sold on auction
It was an Australian who stumbled on the richest gold reef in the world while taking a leisurely walk on the farm Langlaagte one Sunday in February 1886, according to the book Like It Was: The Star 100 Years in Johannesburg (Argus Publishers, 1987, third edition).
George Harrison was building a house for the farm’s owner, and was in a hurry to finish the job. He was a prospector and wanted to move on to the goldfields in the Eastern Transvaal. He came across an outcrop of lichen-speckled rock, known as "pudding stone" which can contain gold.
Harrison, who had been a prospector in Australia, recognised what the rock was. He broke off a piece, which he panned; it formed a tailing of gold. He was rewarded with a free gold-seeker’s licence, which he sold for £10.
News of the discovery of the gold reef travelled around the world. Hordes of people, mostly diggers and prospectors, arrived on the scene. A township was laid out and within four years it had become the second-largest in SA.
Among the early arrivals were the Sheffield brothers, Thomas and George, owners the Eastern Star newspaper in Grahamstown. George arrived in 1886 with the publication’s printing press. The paper was printed in Johannesburg from the next year. It was later renamed The Star. In 1987 the newspaper brought out the book Like It Was to commemorate the centenary.
Thomas Sheffield marvelled at the rapid developments taking place. Fifty new buildings were erected in three weeks.
The first property auction in The Camp, as the township was known, was held in December 1886. Stands sold for a few shillings; many were offered for three shillings. One property was offered for a down payment of one shilling and 12 months to pay the balance. It received no offers.
The Sheffield brothers bought property on the corner of what are now Sauer and President Streets — the site The Star still occupies today.
Suburbs grew apace, and the later "elegance and ostentation" displayed in the great mansions of the Randlords were a match for anything in the world.
By 1904 about 2,000 new houses were being built every year and suburbs north of Hillbrow developed.
According to the book, advertisements in February 1902 offered six good stands in Turffontein for £600 and a further six stands in La Rochelle for £250 pounds.
In 1904 the controversial recruitment of Chinese labour for the gold mines was introduced. Eventually there were 50,000 workers.
The mines were accused of employing slave labour. A photograph of Chinese workers on motor cycles they had bought appeared in The Star at the time with the caption "The so-called slaves".
According to advertisements in the paper in 1909, you could buy a solid walnut bedroom suite from Geen & Richards for £36 and 10 shillings. A walnut sideboard went for £15 pounds and 15 shillings.
Mechanical toys cost from one shilling to four shillings and sixpence.
The 1913 miners’ strike started on the Kleinfontein gold mine when 18,000 white miners from 63 mines came out on strike. Mary Fitzgerald played an active role in it. She had been given the nickname Pickhandle Mary in 1911, after she had led a group of women who broke into a hardware store armed with pick handles. She led a sit-in on tramlines during the same year.
The mineworkers came out on strike again in January 10 1922, ostensibly for higher wages, but it soon developed into a revolt, with the workers accusing the mine owners of planning to replace the white miners with black workers. Planes, artillery, armoured cars and machine guns were used to subdue the rebels, who were bombed, shelled and machine-gunned. The rebels surrendered on March 22, when the strike leader, Percy Fisher, shot himself.
A few years later, on September 5 1928, Johannesburg was declared a city. Quite an achievement for a town that nobody thought would last.
Johannesburg celebrated its jubilee in September 1936 with the Empire Exhibition, which was attended by Prince George, Duke of Kent.
House prices had continued to rise. In 1935 a double-storey house in Westcliff Extension with eight rooms came on the market for £1,850.
In the 1930s the city was transformed by "wild development", which continued until 1937. The Star reported that tall buildings transformed whole streets "into sunless canyons", and that all streets looked alike.
It was during this period that prime minister JB Hertzog opened the "huge slab" building of the Jeppe Street post office. It used up every centimetre of its stand, and "grey walls met a blank grey pavement".
This was the era of new movie palaces. The 3,000-seater Metro in Bree Street opened in 1932. The Empire movie house was rebuilt for the third time in Commissioner Street. The "magnificent" Colosseum, which opened in 1933 with its "starlit" ceiling, was one of the first of the atmospheric cinemas.
A Terraplane car would cost you £275 in 1934. It was the fastest car in its class at the time.
In 1934 the Depression, a serious drought and a locust plague forced many rural people, black and white, to move to towns. This led to the problem of "poor whiteism". Of the country’s 1.2m Afrikaners, a quarter were living in slum conditions.
On the brighter side, women’s fashions changed for the better. The "zany" fashions of the 1920s were replaced by more elegant and feminine styles.
The start of World War 2 caused a split in government, with factions for and against it. Gen JBM Hertzog, the prime minister, opposed SA going to war. The motion was lost by 12 votes.
The end of the war was announced at 3pm on May 8 1945, when the voice of UK prime minister Winston Churchill, relayed from the city hall, gave the news to the assembled crowd.
Houses in the suburbs were in demand. An eight-room house in Houghton sold for £7,000, and a three-bedroom house in Bezuidenhout Valley was priced at £2,250.
The highlight of 1947 was the royal visit of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. It was also the year Christian Dior introduced his famous New Look dress design.
It was during this period that SA golfer Bobby Locke was regarded the biggest drawcard in the US and one of the best in the world.
Apartheid became official government policy in May 1948, when the National Party, lead by DF Malan, beat the United Party of Jan Smuts in the general election.
The Black Sash was launched in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg in the 1950s and attracted many upper-middle-class women, who expressed silent mourning for the rape of the SA constitution.
In the 1950s the Liberal Party was established — with Alan Paton a prominent member — and the Freedom Charter was signed in Kliptown. The Pan Africanist Congress was founded by Wits lecturer Robert Sobukwe.
A 1952 Volkswagen Beetle would cost you £540.
Sasol, the oil-from-coal producer — the first of its kind in the world — was founded in 1950.
Parking meters appeared in 1951, as did parking garages.
In 1950 you could buy a house in Melrose with seven rooms and two bathrooms for £14,000. A double-storey house in Dunkeld went for £9,500. You paid less in Robertsham, where "a well-built" house could be bought for a deposit of £250 and monthly instalments of £17.
Penny Coelen was elected Miss World in 1958 and 21-year-old Gary Player won the Ampol Golf Tournament in Australia in 1956.
Frederick John Harris, at 17, was awarded the first bursary of the Rosebank Parents-Teachers Association. He was hanged in 1964 for planting a bomb in the Johannesburg station.
Vic Toweel won the world bantam-weight boxing title, unseating Manuel Ortiz, on May 31 1950.
British prime minister Harold Macmillan made his Wind of Change speech in 1960. SA prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated at parliament in 1966.
Louis Washkansky received his heart transplant on December 3 1967 at the Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, where he was operated on by Dr Chris Barnard.
The information scandal of 1978 brought about the resignation prime minister BJ Vorster. He was succeeded by PW Botha, who from 1984 to 1989 was SA’s first executive state president.
The book was sold through the online auction site www.jellyfishtree.com recently.