Lust, dust and power: the somewhat sordid history of Johannesburg

19 July 2020 - 00:01 By Mila de Villiers
An engraving of The Bank Of Africa, Johannesburg, 1887.
An engraving of The Bank Of Africa, Johannesburg, 1887.
Image: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Consider author Herman Charles Bosman's observation of Johannesburg's origin: "They're trying to make us lose our pride in the fact that our forbearers were a lot of roughnecks who knew nothing about culture and who came here looking for gold."

Yes, pre-JSE, the wealthiest city in Africa was a dusty den of drunken debauchery. Greed was its ancestor, iniquity its matriarch, a metropolis its progeny.

And what a lineage it has …

Picture the scene: a plateau of quartzite metamorphic rock situated in the centre of SA transpires to be a near-bottomless well of prosperity by virtue of the discovery of the most precious element on the periodic table.

The finding of gold on the Witwatersrand reef in 1886 brought miners, prospectors, and King Midas-mimics of yesteryear flocking to Ferreirastown (then known as Ferreira's Camp), where the first gold-diggings started and where the diggers first settled.

The lure of lucre was such that it drew the attention of the rapacious worldwide: a global gold rush ensued and the foundation for contemporary Johannesburg was laid.

Come the early 1890s and this mining town had mutated into a haven of wavering and wassailing - a "New Babylon", as coined by historian Charles van Onselen.

Gambling joints, brothels, bars and shebeens were frequented by the labourers, plutocrats, gangsters, and shysters who had established the highveld's El Dorado as home. The spendthrifts of New Babylon squandered their pounds on anything from horses to betting on 19th-century versions of boxers like Mikey Schultz. Cocks and colts, dogfighting and bare-knuckle bliksem'ing, cards and dice: money was being made hand over fist and the ante had been upped - by thousands.

Bar gambling, the power-hungry inhabitants of the City of Gold invested in the lucrative business of harlotry - which was exploited by South Africans and the French alike. By the mid-1890s, a region of Joburg's CBD was colloquially referred to as "Frenchfontein" owing to the number of brothels that employed French sex workers. Zut alors!

Fox Street in inner-city Johannesburg was home to one of the oldest brothel-cum-gambling joints in town, managed by locals who had ties to the French underworld. And the Francophilia doesn't stop there: Faro, a French gambling card game, was the main vice these turn-of-the-century executives profited from.

Banditry was an equally cost-effective career choice since this boomtown had birthed both lawlessness and outlaws

Banditry was an equally cost-effective career choice since this boomtown had birthed both lawlessness and outlaws. Safe-cracker, highwayman, and mercenary "One Armed Jack" McLoughlin was a notorious member of the "Irish Brigade" - a gang of expat Paddys with a penchant for bank, safe, and highway robberies. Ol' One Armed wasn't averse to the odd showdown outside houses of ill-repute either.

Polish pimp and racketeer Joseph Silver's avarice also saw him embark on a trans-Atlantic journey to the prosperous southern African city, which had become the ideal breeding ground to satiate his appetite for monetary gain via illicit means.

Apart from the French, Irish and central European crooks, the rise of organised crime in SA can be traced to the late 1890s in the Klipriviersberg hills south of Johannesburg, where the bandit Nongoloza established the gang of vagrants, burglars and petty thieves who came to be known as the Ninevites.

Fortune was their goal; highway robbery their forte. Nongoloza styled himself as Inkoos Nkulu - or "king" - of his syndicate. When it came to purloining coaches carrying valuables this skebenga reigned supreme.

The Klipriviersberg hills no longer harbour bandits, with bougie East Rand restaurants the preferred spot for the wheeling and dealing of modern-day mobsters - here's looking at Radovan Krejcir's fondness for the Bedfordview branch of Tashas.

Nor will Trip Advisor direct you to Faro houses, but rather live music venues, craft beer breweries and swanky gin distilleries.

Mines have been replaced with malls, Irish bandits with irate customers, highwaymen with high-rise buildings, New Babylon with new money: over the past 134 years, what once was a myndorp has transformed into our continent's main dorp.

Nowadays this alpha global city is synonymous with stock exchanges, urban sprawl, population growth, eminent universities, and being the economic powerhouse of Africa.

But let's not forget that the story of Egoli is one of dust, lust, and power.

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