Joburg’s story through buildings

Johannesburg as we know it today began in 1886 when gold was found on the Witwatersrand causing people to flood to the area. Some buildings from early beginnings of the city still stand and tell a small part  of the 129 year old city’s history . Johannesburg has transformed and grown into a central hub of South Africa. From the home of the first South African serial killer, who is said to haunt a number of buildings in the city, to the farmstead in Rivonia used by Anti-Apartheid activists such as Nelson Mandela as a safe house and resistance headquarters, the many buildings of Johannesburg have a variety of stories to tell about the city.  Here are 15 buildings in and around  Johannesburg that do just that.

1. Daisy De Melker’s house (Cnr Turf Club and President street)



Built: 1902

Legend says that Daisy De Melker, the first serial killer to be hanged in South Africa, still haunts “The White House” in Turffontein where she murdered two husbands and a son between 1923 and 1932. The infamous killer added poison  to her victims beverages, killing them so she could claim money from their life insurance policies. The house is one of few buildings in the area built in the 1900’s and has been home to a number of other owners since the murders were committed there. Most stories are linked to this house but some also say another house, a few blocks away in Tulley street, is the real house of Daisy De Melker.

2. Three Castles (Cnr Marshall and Goud street)



Built: 1894 (Official historical landmark)

Yes, as strange as it sounds there is a castle in Johannesburg. Originally a factory for “Three Castles Cigarettes”, the building has been used as a gay nightclub, rock nightclub, bra factory and piping company. It was officially opened by President Paul Kruger in 1899 who was a known pipe smoker. A fire in the the late 1990’s (rumored to be a case of arson by the owner to get insurance money) destroyed most of the building, it has not yet been restored.

3. Rissik street post office (Cnr Rissik and Albertina Sisulu street)

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Built: 1897 (Provincial heritage site)

When the post office was built it was the tallest building in the city and a imposing marker of institutional power. It now stands as a burnt shell of it’s former self. Two years after the already poorly maintained building was deserted by postal services in 1996 it was almost sold for R35-million to a Malaysian hotel developer but the deal fell through. As it stood empty the building was stripped of it’s brass fittings, including the bells and arms of the clock tower. Two days after a meeting to award a tender for the building’s restoration in November 2009, the building caught fire. A second fire in 2010 destroyed what was left of the building, only leaving the basic structure intact. Was the incident planned or simply bad luck? Investigations remain inconclusive.

4. Johannesburg City Hall complex (Cnr Rissik and Albertina Sisulu street)



Built: 1914 (National Monument)

The steps of city hall have seen protest meetings, a bomb blast and former president F.W de Klerk’s referendum to end Apartheid, the almost 70 percent yes vote was an important step towards democracy. City hall is now used by the provincial legislature, who are responsible for passing provincial laws and ensuring provincial government do what they plan to do.  The building was refurbished in 2011 and restored to it’s former proud state.

5. Johannesburg Magistrate Court (Cnr Ntemi Piliso and Marshall street)



Built: 1941

In May 1987 Twenty-four-year-old Hein Grosskopf of the ANC Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) armed wing, planted two car bombs outside the court. The first decoy bomb blast injured 15 policeman, the second stronger blast killed three policeman. The front office of the court was destroyed along with a number of cars on the street, which had been hit with debris.

Today, the court design has not changed very much. The central hallway is lined with large cream marble columns with corridors leading off on both sides to musky wood paneled court rooms. The creaking floorboards of the public gallery make it difficult to walk in or out the court without being noticed and the clanging of the underground holding cell doors followed by the clinking of chains as suspects make their way to the dock is quite eerie.

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6. Chancellor House: Mandela and Tambo Attorneys office (Cnr Fox and Gerard Sekoto street)



Built: Unknown (Occupied: 1952)

Across the road from the Magistrate’s Court is Chancellor house, the site of the first black legal firm in South Africa. The building in the “Indian Area” was leased out by the Essa family to Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo from 1952 to 1960. During this time both men were arrested for high treason, Tambo decided to leave the country and when Mandela was acquitted in 1960, after a five year long trial, he was forced to move the practice to the home of fellow activist, Ahmed Kathrada. The building has now been restored and turned into a museum celebrating Mandela and Tambo’s lives and legacy.

7. Johannesburg pass office (Cnr Miriam Makeba and Helen Joseph street)



Built: Unknown – early 1900’s (Heritage site)

Pass laws are embedded in South Africa’s restrictive history. The distribution of pass books or “dompass” to black adults was used to control the movement of black citizens in the city. When the British won the Anglo-Boer war, the pass laws were kept and became more restrictive in 1948 when Apartheid was introduced. As the need for pass books grew, the office was relocated to two new buildings in Albert and Polly streets to accommodate greater numbers. It now belongs to the Department of Home Affairs but has remained empty for a number of years.


8. Turbine Hall (Cnr Ntemi Piliso and Jeppe street)



Built: 1927

As the city grew so did the demand for electricity. Turbine Hall was the largest steam powered station out of three built in Newtown. Even though the station “used a train of coal a day” it battled to keep up with demand and electricity outages were common, which is a problem that still exists for today’s modern power stations. Turbine hall was replaced by a new power station built in Soweto in 1942. Turbine Hall officially closed in 1961. Squatters began living in the building until parts of it were redeveloped between 2005 and 2009 by Anglogold Ashanti as their international office. The rest of the building is now an event venue space . The builders took care to retain most of the original structures making the building an interesting combination of new and old.

9. Museum Africa (Lilian Ngoyi street)

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Built: 1913 (Heritage site)

Museum Africa is housed in what was originally the city’s fresh produce market building. The museum was established in 1933 in the Johannesburg Public Library and transferred to the market building in 1994. The building is a colossal barrel-vault with pink steel trusses and four open plan floors that are intricately woven together. Exhibition topics include geology, archaeology,  photography and the history of Johannesburg from dinosaurs to the present day.  Primarily a social and cultural history museum, there are hundreds of interesting trinkets and artifacts preserved in it’s vault like structure. Best of all, entrance to the museum is free!

10. The Market Theatre (Lilian Ngoyi street)



Built: 1913 (Heritage site)

Around the corner from Museum Africa, is The Market Theatre. Housed in the Indian Fruit Market, the theatre has been in operation since 1976. It is best known for being an openly non-racial theatre that defied the segregation laws of Apartheid. The Market Theatre has won a number of awards for it’s anti-Apartheid plays that show the realities of life under Apartheid also known as “struggle theatre”. It was and still is a safe haven for creatives who wish to express themselves in new ways.

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11. The Old station (Cnr Carr and Ntemi Piliso street)



Built: 1897

The steel structure of the original train station has been next to Nelson Mandela bridge since 1995 but it was first dismantled in 1952 and rebuilt in Kempton Park as a training station. Plans to make the station  into a transport museum are yet to be achieved. The glass it once had has been replaced by graffitti murals and neglect but the structure remains a reminder of the foundations of the once small mining town we call Johannesburg. It has been placed almost perfectly in line with the new Park Station, its modern counterpart.

12. Constitution Hill: The old fort, The prison and Constitutional Court (Kotze street)

The old fort and Prison


Built: 1893

The fort was built as a prison and used to protect the city from the invasion of the British during the South African War between 1899 and 1902. The main entrance to the fort is guarded by large double roller doors and angled shooting holes that formed the first line of defense in the event of invasion. Later additions to the fort building include the “natives prison”, women’s prison and solitary confinement cells. Well-known inmates include Mahatma Gandhi, Daisy De Melker, Winnie Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela. The prison was know for treating prisoners inhumanely and torturing many individuals who opposed colonial and later, Apartheid rule. Walking through the building and reading the stories of the inmates who survived the prison is an emotional experiance as they were subjected to physical and mental abuse while incarcerated. The prison was closed in 1987 and has since become a national monument.

Constitutional Court



Opened: 2004

The Constitutional Court was built on the site and used salvaged bricks from the site of the awaiting-trial block. The design of the court chambers symbolises the importance of transparency, fairness, equality and independence which are the foundation of all court proceedings. These ethics are shown through the ribbon window which allows the public to see in, the eye level of the judges bench with the attorney bench and public gallery and the individual nguni cow-hide which represents the individuality of all 11 judges.

The original court was opened by former President Nelson Mandela in 1995 but was moved to the current building at Constitution Hill in 2004. It is the highest court in South Africa for constitutional issues.

13. Johannesburg Art Gallery (Cnr King George and Wolmarans street)



Built: 1915

The largest art gallery in Southern Africa, Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG) houses one of the greatest art collections in Africa. JAG is maze of 15 exhibition halls and courtyards showcasing artworks from the 1400’s until now. The gallery was extended in the 1940’s and the extension can clearly be seen in the southern courtyard. The building itself is a cleverly designed architectural artwork with pressed high ceilings, natural light to protect the artworks and two barrel vaults that are intended to connect the gallery with Joubert Park in front of it.

14. Radium Beer Hall (Cnr Louis Botha Avenue and 9th street)



Built: 1929

The Radium, as it is affectionately known, is the oldest bar in Johannesburg. Originally registered as a tearoom, the bar functioned as a shebeen, illegally selling alcohol to black customers who were banned from drinking liquor at the time. The bar has always been know for its jazz music and slightly underground vibe. Since 1986 The Radium has been owned by Manny Cabeleira who has continued the traditional of the Radium as an all-inclusive bar. In recent years the bar has been used as the set for a number of Savanna Dry television advertisements. If this old bar could talk it would definitely have a lot of interesting stories to tell, even if some of the customers can’t remember them.

15. Liliesleaf farm (George Avenue) 



Purchased: 1961

Nelson Mandela was one of the first people to live on Liliesleaf farm, while in hiding Mandela posed as a farm worker named David Motsamayi and lived in the worker’s quarters. The farm was used by the African National Congress between 1961 – 1963 as a secret hideout, meeting place to plan covert operations and the birth place of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) armed wing of the resistance movement. The farm operated under the façade of an average white run family farm in the then rural area of Rivonia. Nelson Mandela had left the farm to travel and been arrested while driving through Howick in August 1962.  In July 1963, the police raided the farm during a meeting, arresting six of the top struggle leaders. Documents hidden in the coal shed were discovered implicating Nelson Mandela who was already serving a five year sentence for inciting violence. The arrests made at Liliesleaf lead to the nine month long Rivonia Trial in which the accused were sentenced to life imprisonment.

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