Brixton and Fordsburg – The 1922 Strike – 17 July 2022
A group of 20 members and non-members attended this outing. We visited various sites associated with the 1922 Rand Revolt in Brixton and Fordsburg. A point that helped to make the outing historically interesting was that the grandfather of one of our visitors was one of the strikers killed during the revolt. He was buried in an unmarked grave, recently rediscovered, in the Braamfontein Cemetery.
We met at the Breezeblock Coffee Shop in Brixton and enjoyed an early morning cappuccino while our tour guide SJ de Klerk explained the background to the 1922 miners’ strike.
Meet and greet at the Breezeblock Coffee Shop
By December 1921 the Chamber of Mines and the various unions representing white mineworkers were squaring up for a fight. The Rand gold mines and the coal mines along the Vaal River were struggling to cope with increasing operating costs, diminishing coal exports and a fixed gold price. The Chamber proposed to decrease the wages of white mineworkers and give management a free hand to reorganise underground operations to improve productivity. One of its aims was to reduce the number of white mineworkers in semi-skilled occupations by about 1 000, and replace them with lower-paid black employees. The white mine workers’ unions strenuously opposed these three proposals, and the scene was set for an increasingly bitter strike.
On 1 January 1922 white workers on the coal mines went on strike, and their colleagues on the gold mines followed 10 days later. By 10 January, 20 000 white mine workers were on strike, while 80 000 black mine workers were sitting idle.
Prime Minister Jan Smuts set up a bi-lateral conference under Judge Curlewis to resolve the strike. Despite numerous meetings during January, the conference deadlocked on the replacement of white employees by lower-paid black labour. At the end of January the stand-off became yet more tense when a rumour circulated widely that shopkeepers were about to refuse further credit to striking white mine workers. Striker leaders began to organise commandos, ostensibly to keep the strikers occupied, but more likely to prevent scab workers from being used on the mines.
On the evening of 28 February violence broke out when the police used force to disperse several hundred strikers demonstrating outside the Boksburg Gaol. Three strikers were killed in the process. Events then developed quickly. On 6 March the white unions declared a general strike on the Rand. Four days later it developed into a full-scale insurrection, the so-called ‘Rand’ or ‘Red’ Revolt.
Having delayed declaring martial law for political reasons, the Government finally did so on 10 March. A number of Active Citizen Force military units were mobilised. In response, armed strikers attacked several police stations. Near Dunswart Station, strikers also attacked a company of the Transvaal Scottish Regiment which was travelling by special train to Benoni to relieve the police contingent besieged there. Twelve men of the Transvaal Scottish were killed. Simultaneously, the Brakpan striker commando attacked the Brakpan mine, killing nine mine officials and Special Police defending it. The following day, the Denver and Jeppe striker commandos attacked the Imperial Light Horse Regiment, which was mustering at Ellis Park. Five soldiers were killed.
That was something of the background that we heard from our guide SJ. He also told us that the official judicial enquiry into the revolt concluded that 153 people were killed during the fighting, but that he reckoned between 180 and 220 people were killed.
The bricks surrounding the entrance to the Cottesloe school are riddled with bullet holes. Note the blue plaque recently erected by the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation to the right of the entrance.
After organising ourselves into shared vehicles, we drove to the top of the nearby Brixton
Hill, where we viewed the bullet-riddled entrance to the Cottesloe Primary School (now New Nation School), which was built in 1917. We learnt that from the upper floor of this school, the so-called Knopkierie section of the Fordsburg commando had kept a watchful eye on the police and army contingents assembling across the valley at the Milner Park Agricultural Grounds (now the Wits West Campus). Several police posts on Brixton Hill were also besieged by armed commandos.
On 12 March the Knopkierie section hurriedly evacuated the school when the Transvaal Horse Artillery, firing from the corner of Jan Smuts and Empire Roads, placed a well-aimed shell into the upper floor corner classroom. Advancing troops, taking no chances, fired numerous shots at the entrance to the school.
To the south, at the corner of Enoch Sontonga Avenue and Annet Road, we could just see the green roof of the Milner Park Primary School (now the Matthew Goniwe School of Leadership and Governance). From this school, armed strikers had fired upon a contingent of the Transvaal Scottish Regiment advancing from the Milner Park Agricultural Grounds, killing three soldiers.
From the Milner Park Primary School, strikers fired upon an advancing contingent of the Transvaal Scottish Regiment, killing three soldiers.
From 10 March 1922 until 17 March, when the strike was finally over, it was impossible for the authorities to bury any of the casualties at the Braamfontein or Brixton Cemeteries. Accordingly, a temporary cemetery was established in the grounds of the Milner Park Show Grounds, where 34 bodies were interred. In 1924, the last of these remains were disinterred and reburied in various cemeteries.
SJ made the point that the western corner of Brixton Hill is one of the most historic locales in Johannesburg. The Cottesloe and Milner Park (1909) Schools, the Anglo-Boer War ‘oudstryders’ monument (1938), the Gerhard Moerdyk-designed church (1935), and the Johannesburg Gas Factory (erected 1927) are all in the immediate vicinity.
The Gandhi Crematorium at Brixton Cemetery
We drove to the Brixton Cemetery established in 1914.Our first stop was at the Hindu
Crematorium, where we visited the so-called Gandhi Crematorium, now disused. MK Gandhi, acting as an attorney for the Hindu community, was instrumental in obtaining land for the erection of this brick crematorium, which was built in 1918. This little building was designed by architect Allen Wilson. He also designed the 1922 Strike Monument at the Brakpan Mine, which commemorates the eight mine officials and members of the Special Police killed there on 10 March 1922. Ex-Witsies might be interested to know that Wilson designed the old Tin Temple, where the first Wits School of Architecture was located.
The approximately 200 men, women and children killed in the revolt were buried in some 22 cemeteries across South Africa. Brixton Cemetery, with 67 interments, contains the greatest number, followed by Braamfontein with 43 and Rynsoord Cemetery at Benoni with 30 burials.
At General Section N in Brixton Cemetery, we viewed the mass grave of the nine members of the Transvaal Scottish who were killed near the Dunswart Station on the railway line to Benoni and the subsequent attack on Brixton Hill. Very close to the Transvaal Scottish regimental graves is the last resting place of Percy Fisher, the driving force behind the Rand Revolt. He and his adjutant Harry Spendiff, who is buried in the nearby Catholic Precinct, committed suicide on 14 March 1922, just as the Fordsburg Market Square building was about to be captured by advancing government forces.
Tombstone of Percy Fisher, driving force behind the Rand Revolt
In Fordsburg we viewed the former police charge office, now a post office. The charge office was attacked by armed strikers on 10 March. It was defended by 10 policemen until late afternoon, when, their ammunition exhausted, they escaped to the nearby police barracks, adjacent to the Oriental Plaza.
Police Charge Office attacked, taken, and torched by armed strikers on 10 March 1922.
Walking around the historic Fordsburg Market Square, we observed with great interest the chef flinging Rumali rotis in the air prior to placing them on the large pillow visible in the foreground (see photo below). Some members of the tour commented that they would be returning to sample the food on offer in this cosmopolitan suburb. One was heard to say, ‘This is just like visiting Istanbul, only cheaper and nearer!’
On the south-western side of the Market Square, we viewed the still extant toilet block that had been used by strikers as a fortified block house to protect the Market Square. It was pleasing to note the toilets were sparkling clean and well kept.
Toilet block, used as a blockhouse by strikers in 1922. Note the Blue Plaque erected by the City of Johannesburg.
Due to some oversight, the bullet scarred urinals were removed by City Council officials during the 1980s.
For our last lap, we took a short walk to the nearby Divine Bakery building that used to serve as the Fordsburg Presbyterian Church. During the revolt, the recently established South African Air Force flew 172 missions against the strikers. It suffered two men killed and two aeroplanes destroyed. While trying to bomb the Market Square building, a SAAF plane dropped a bomb on the tower of the church.
After returning to the Breezeblock Café we enjoyed a very pleasant lunch and drinks in the winter sunshine.
Article and photos by SJ de Klerk