The ghost of Crown Mines: is the end nigh for Jozi's forgotten heritage site?

Johannesburg's historic village of Crown Mines is a heritage site, but you won't find a blue plaque on its neglected homes

23 September 2018 - 00:00
Yonela Mkalipi and her son, Omphile Makubung, outside their home in Crown Mines village.
Yonela Mkalipi and her son, Omphile Makubung, outside their home in Crown Mines village.
Image: Alon Skuy

Finding Crown Mines village is not easy. I am searching for a ghost village. A spectre of a place hovering between the passage of time and history, somewhere to the left of Main Reef Road. A road that runs like a seam through the heart of Johannesburg.

If you don't believe Joburg has a heart then believe it has a belly - and this now fallow seam of gold set off the mad hungry rush that has kept generations of high-stakes gamblers and all the rest of us punters in its thrall.

I eventually phone a friend. He brought me here 10 years ago. In his telling, the elusive village haunted by Welsh miners, 1980s activists and returning exile heroes still stands next to Main Reef Road, between a former mine dump and a new-fangled Chinese super development.

Like rotten teeth, the miners' cottages frame the old village hall

And so it is. Two rows of crumbling cottages dating from 1909 are still holding out in this constantly changing Joburg landscape. Like rotten teeth, the miners' cottages frame the old village hall. Antique signs for an old photographic studio and general store are quaint reminders of a different time. Now the dust blows, the rubbish piles up, and an open sewer leaks steadily.

But an avenue of stately plane trees still girds the northern side of the village. The east row has been overtaken by informal shack dwellings.

Somewhere to the left of all the cottages was the doctor's house, a bourgeois Victorian beauty that would have pride of place in Parktown. No sign of it now. Just a fenced-off area - waiting for some kind of redevelopment. This is a provincial heritage site. But no blue plaques adorn these houses.

It's nine in the morning. On a small piece of open land a man in white robes, holding a staff, administers benedictions to a man on his knees. A house on the corner is preparing chisa nyama, the meat sizzling enticingly. A few people and lots of children are gathered in camaraderie in the busy yard.

Next door Mihloti Siyewa has set a small assembly of pots on top of a makeshift fire. She tends to them periodically. There has been no electricity for three months. In front of her house a dashing, shiny scrambler is parked and the washing flaps between the house and the plane tree.

LIMBO

Her neighbour Florence Mayekiso stands at the top of her steps. She has a warm, authoritative demeanour. Almost like the mayor of the village. An alderwoman of sorts. She is grounded in this place. She says she has lived at Crown Mines all her life. She went to school here. She met her husband, a miner, here. They married in 1975. He worked in the mine and then moved to 17 shaft. When he was retrenched the mine moved them from the hostel into this house. That was 30 years ago.

Florence Mayekiso on the stoep of her home.
Florence Mayekiso on the stoep of her home.
Image: Alon Skuy

She invites us in. Her teenage and adult kids are home. Zoe Mayekiso is hesitant to be photographed, caught unawares on a Monday morning - she claims she is a mess. In the neat establishment with all the charming features you would expect from such an old home - pressed ceilings, wooden floors, an ornate fireplace - the TV and appliances are silent. A gigantic bulldog on a chain stalks the back yard.

Florence explains that the village, through its community structures, has attempted to rectify the neglect. Consistently. There was a brief flare-up of hope in 2004 when someone from the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation engaged with them, but nothing came of it. She hints at darker forces at play. They cannot work out who owns the land. This administrative limbo enables flagrant violations, like the demolition of the doctor's house. She points to the squatters and says the village believes they have been moved in, in order to hasten its demolition.

Security used to be supplied by the mine. Now they don't know if the owner is Indian or Chinese, but whoever it is, they want to eliminate them. Hard to fault her reasoning.

Zoe Mayekiso and one of her siblings inside their Crown Mines home.
Zoe Mayekiso and one of her siblings inside their Crown Mines home.
Image: Alon Skuy

The fight for electricity seems to be symptomatic of the malaise or the plot. The mine installed a prepaid system. Now, in this ownership limbo, nobody is prepared to take responsibility. Winter was hard.

"We feel neglected. We want this heritage. We want a fence so nobody can get in here, we want to see the houses renewed. We are the last ones standing ... My thoughts are the heritage site can't stay without electricity. It is really sad - we have memories here."

FLOWERS

A very pretty house with a blue trim sits adjacent to the town hall. Two pieces of antique mine machinery on either end of the stoep are filled with flowers. A young mother, Yonela Mkalipi, and her chubby infant son Omphile Makubung stand proudly at the door. Her husband is at work. The house reflects that.

At a loosely constructed squat attached to a house in the second row of cottages, four young men are having a breakfast beer. Two of them used to be miners. They stare at me balefully as I ask about the village. Thabile Mogale speaks for all of them. But what to say? There is no work, it is the common refrain.

Paseka Samuel Chanchane ambles past in a florid pink jacket, with his friend in leopard print. We chat next to the blue corrugated-iron church, thrown up haphazardly to the right of the town hall. Under a blossoming fruit tree, he explains his peregrinations in search of work for the past couple of years. He lives here with his wife and child in a shack - they took a year off and went to the Free State but he is back now. Hoping for work.

Lebogang Kekana, a security guard, is on her day off. She stands in her magnificent garden and explains: "I like planting flowers. I water them every two days." Her garden is an eclectic assemblage of hundreds of pots, statuary and shiny baubles. A jungle of whimsical topiary. Four chairs are arranged in the heart of her garden - testament to social pleasures.

"I moved in 12 years ago - I found it empty and came to stay here. I took it as my home and I have been here such a long time."

I ask her what she thinks of Heritage Day, and resignation creeps in. "I don't even know the meaning of that day, I don't want to lie."

WORN DOWN

Her neighbour Mathapelo Emily Ramela is an unemployed chef. She is curious and charming, but looks worn down. Her home of five years has suffered the knocks of poverty - the front door is missing, replaced by a makeshift piece of metal. "I have four children. If only I could get an RDP house I would be the happiest woman in the world."

Lillian Rigala is now standing chatting urgently with Florence Mayekiso. She too has a chained dog in her garden, an Alsatian surprisingly called Spotty. Rigala has been here for 22 years. These elder ladies of the village, neighbours in arms, still have some fight in them. But it is being heavily tested.

Brothers Parkson and Solomon Muvi in the yard of their home.
Brothers Parkson and Solomon Muvi in the yard of their home.
Image: Alon Skuy

"It seems as if we are not existing. Our councillor does not care. Please expose it. Look at our place and what it looks like - they have done this on purpose. They just want us to move out and demolish it."

I drive away, unsure what to make of this village. Perhaps no-one really cares about the unnamed ghosts of the past. History and heritage buildings are about the great and the good. Places with blue plaques celebrate success, money and political supremacy on this golden reef. This village has always been about the faded aspirations of the unnamed working class. Perhaps a heritage site for the non-working class is just that much more easily erased from sight and from memory.


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