Journalist Lucille Davie reveals the deep connection that famous author Herman Charles Bosman had for the spaces and places of Johannesburg. The article was first published on the City of Joburg’s website at www.joburg.org.za
Herman Charles Bosman watched as they demolished the old Magistrate’s Courts in downtown Joburg. And felt ‘a kind of silent fury’.
He wrote in his essay Old Johannesburg is Vanishing that the municipality had ‘no understanding of Johannesburg, no veneration for this city.’
He went on: ‘I don’t suppose, for one thing, that they’ve got too many genuine Joh’burg old-timers on the Council. Otherwise we wouldn’t have every Johannesburg building turned over to a demolition-gang the moment it becomes historical.’
His frustrations are an expression of his enjoyment of the city. The city where he wrote most of his work, becoming one of South Africa’s most popular short story writers. In a series of short essays in Bosman’s Johannesburg, Bosman reminisces about ‘Old Joh’burg’, where he lived in the early 1920s and again in the 1930s and ‘40s.
He had good times in the city: rioting on the steps of the City Hall, visiting the city’s pubs, seeking out old Joburgers and getting their perspectives, living on the edge of the CBD, walking the pavements and riding the trams. He was as familiar with Market Street, Commissioner Street or Rissik Street; Kensington, Lombardy East or Berea as any present Joburger.
He strolls around the city, seeking out places where he had memorable experiences. He used to have tea at the OK Bazaars’ Tearoom, looking down on the pavement outside Markham’s (still there); visit the old abandoned mine workings along the reef, which he called ‘shipwrecks’; stop in at Shanty Town, an emergency camp established alongside Orlando in Soweto, with its mealie sack-covered shanties, where he was struck by the residents’ proud struggle and dignity in the face of extreme conditions; remember the old central library in Kerk Street where, when you took a book down from one of the top shelves ‘a shower of dust would descend on you’, this was in contrast to the ‘gorgeous new building’ that is the Johannesburg Public Library but ‘not such a very good Library’; a visit to Jeppe High School for Boys elicits a ‘sweet sadness’ but also a ‘mild resentment’ at the thought that his photograph was not on the walls of the school hall.
Bosman used to enjoy the Easter Rand Show, as recounted in The Witwatersrand Show. At the show, held once a year, the people of the city used to meet, ‘all idea of race and economic difference forgotten. For a while, the people are at one and in peace – they are brought near to the soil, near to reality.’ It doesn’t last though. ‘But soon all the strife starts again and discord is abroad. And yet in those blessed days at Easter, the nation is made aware of its community of interests. That means a great deal, it means a stride towards unity.’
He bemoaned the fact that Johannesburgers have never respected their heritage very much – the city has a sad history of demolishing its buildings and landmarks within a decade or two of building them, valuing the land much more than the often magnificent buildings that were demolished. It was only in the 1990s that the city’s citizens’ desire for demolition calmed, and an appreciation for what they had inherited from their forefathers finally hit home.
Bosman laments another building that Joburgers demolished – the Standard Theatre, built in 1891 and demolished in 1949.
He says in The Standard Theatre: ‘They will pull down the Standard Theatre like they have pulled down all the old buildings, theatres, gin-palaces, dosshouses, temples, shops, arcades, cafes and joints that were intimately associated with the mining-camp days of Johannesburg.
‘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.’
Bosman was born in Kuils River, just outside Cape Town, in 1905 but spent a good deal of his life in Johannesburg, where he died in 1951 at the age of 46. He was educated in the city – Jeppe High School for Boys in Kensington, and Wits University.
It was in the Joburg suburb of Bellevue that his life moved in a direction he would never have predicted. On holiday from a teaching spell in Groot Marico in North West province, he accidentally shot and killed his stepbrother, David Russell. In 1926, he was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to death. But his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, and he was taken to Pretoria Central Prison. But three years and nine months later, he was a free man and at the end of 1930, he moved to Johannesburg, where he mostly lived until his death.
His exasperation at the demolitions is not only reserved for the city bosses. He is shocked that citizens didn’t object more loudly to the destruction of the Magistrate’s Courts in 1948. They were able to voice objections to the demolition of the ‘Wanderers or the final closing down of the Standard Theatre. With the Wanderers, especially, there was almost a revolution.’
But the courts didn’t conjure up the same ‘sense of aching void’. Then, he changes his tune, remembering ugly features of the courts – cramped prisoners’ yard, primitive toilet facilities – and begins to understand the public’s nonchalance at hearing that the courts were to be demolished.
This doesn’t mean that Bosman was opposed to all demolitions. He says in Unsocial Reconstruction that he’d like to get rid of the Wanderers cricket ground, and the railways. In place of Wanderers, he’d like to create a ‘large, unkept, much-forested park, in which dogs and children were free to run, lovers to walk, and uselessly meditative men like me to ramble.’
He suggests that ‘lovers and loafers’ need places like rambling parks in which to find themselves. In this park they ‘acquire dignity, they are positively beautiful, and they absorb beauty, in wild surroundings.’
He concludes that ‘no city is truly a city without such a park’, at the same time acknowledging that Zoo Lake in Parkview is something like what he had in mind.
Pity he didn’t live to see Melville Koppies, a back-to-nature park, proclaimed just a few years after his death, in 1959.
And as for the railways, his solution is easy: ‘I should give it to Germiston or to any other town that thrives on smoke and noise.’
Despite this criticism, there’s no doubt of his love of the metropolis as he indicates in The Johannesburg Public Library.
‘. . . I shall content myself by concluding, as I began, with a nostalgic sign for those colourful edifices that graced Johannesburg’s skyline in that past this is beyond recall. I sorrow for the buildings and the people who have gone. People and things that have vanished like hopes. All gone into the unremembering dust, familiar faces and familiar facades.’
Lucille Davie has written about Jozi’s people, places, history and heritage for many years. Take a look at www.lucilledavie.co.za