For thousands of years the high-lying hills of Johannesburg were home to African hunters. Then black farmers and later Voortrekker families settled there. But in 1886 the discovery of a gold-bearing reef – the Witwatersrand – set vast changes in motion. In mid-1886, 300 diggers arrived in the initial run. By the end of the year the number had swelled to 3000.
By 1896, Johannesburg, this brash and uncouth upstart, was believed to be the largest urban space in Africa, with a population of 102 000.
By 1913 the Rand mines produced 40% of the world’s gold supply. From its inception the city was a magnet for people from across South Africa and all over the world. But African migrant workers, who dug out the gold, formed the largest category of people who came to the city.
By 1910 over 200 000 migrants arrived on the Rand each year. These men hailed from all over southern Africa, including Mozambique and Malawi.
The workers were housed in compounds designed to maximise the control of mine owners and minimise the possibility of unified resistance by the workers. These compounds were located away from the city centre, so the city was shaped by racial segregation from the beginning.
Black people could only enter the city centre on terms laid down by whites.
The drive to maintain and deepen divided living areas, for blacks and whites, intensified in the 1920s and 1930s, and many black residents were removed from areas close to the city centre and forced to live far from the city.
One of the places the inhabitants were dumped was Klipspruit, 16 kilometres from Johannesburg. This was the first step in creating the cluster of African locations that eventually formed the basis of the South West Townships, which came to be known as Soweto.
While Indian and coloured families were often affected by these processes, their removal came later with the Group Areas Act in 1950.
The act was a cornerstone of the apartheid system. The election of the nationalist government in 1948 initiated a drive towards even more systematic segregation – apartheid.
Racist politicians and voters refused to accept that the movement of black people to the cities was unstoppable. Apartheid planners, with their harsh and inhuman polices, imagined that they could stem or even reverse the tide of people moving from rural to urban areas.
But there was a growing demand for workers in the mines, factories, offices and homes in Johannesburg. Coupled with this was inadequate land and employment for Africans in the rural areas, so ongoing movement to the cities persisted.
From the 1940s large numbers of black women moved to the cities and were a powerful factor in promoting permanent settlement in the urban areas. But there was nowhere near enough housing to meet their needs.
The acute demand for urban housing manifested most dramatically in the squatter movements of the 1940s and the expansion of existing townships like Soweto.
The numbers of families on the housing waiting lists swelled, as did the number of homeless.
Another feature of the apartheid system was the construction of single-sex hostels for migrant workers who were viewed as temporary urban residents. Some migrants lived in hostels located on the fringes of the industrial areas. Many others lived in the “locations in the sky” that had developed from the servants’ quarters on the roofs of medium- and high-rise buildings.
While their living conditions were bleak, they had the great advantage of proximity to work and city life. From 1956 a partly effective programme of removals from the “locations in the sky” was initiated.
These individuals, along with other migrants, were forced to move to hostels constructed in the expanding townships. This created tensions between urban communities and migrants. Large concentrations of single men with predominantly rural backgrounds were often seen as an alien and threatening presence by their more urbanised neighbours.
In the 1960s the South African economy boomed and the Johannesburg city centre became still more opulent and elevated. New building regulations allowed superblocks and skyscrapers to increasingly dominate the central Johannesburg skyline.
But by the 1970s there was a massive shortage of accommodation for black people in and around Johannesburg and many lived in very poor, crowded conditions.
A variety of practices emerged – especially the use of white nominees – which allowed black tenants and white landlords to circumvent the Group Areas Act.
Actstop, an inner-city movement, helped tenants resist evictions under the Act. From the 1980s the process accelerated and changed. Those most desperate for accommodation were lower-income and unemployed people.
By 1985 the housing shortage for African people in the Johannesburg area was estimated at between 121 000 and 141 000 units. Individuals and families increasingly found places to live in the oldest, already deteriorating apartments, vacant offices and industrial spaces. They stayed in old rooftop servants’ quarters.
At this point, the apartheid laws governing black people living in the city were increasingly ignored. Multiple occupations of cramped, small spaces allowed poor people to pay the rent but also put huge pressure on the infrastructure of buildings. Some landlords didn’t maintain their properties. Others disappeared.
Electricity and water supplies were cut off too, and in more and more of these buildings, slum conditions spread rapidly. They provided fertile ground in which drug trafficking, prostitution and organised crime could take root.
By the end of the decade, building societies and banks began to redline the area. Increasing numbers of buildings were thus excluded from the possibility of mortgage finance. This development predictably accelerated the downward spiral of areas like the city centre, Hillbrow, Joubert Park, Berea and Yeoville.
After the democratic elections of 1994 there were great hopes that these inner-city areas would be revived and restored. There were some attempts by the Johannesburg Development Agency to rejuvenate the inner city but with limited success. There are currently initiatives to revive sections of the inner city, and to find solutions to the provision of low-cost accommodation for the homeless and for the many migrants who come to Johannesburg.
This story appears in Vaya: Untold Stories of Johannesburg – The people and stories that inspired the award-winning film. R300, Bookstorm. Available in all good bookshops and online as an ebook.