ca. 2003: “Whose Town is Newtown?”

As noted elsewhere, anarchists from Bikisha Media Collective (BMC) played a key role in the Workers Library and Museum (WLM), a non-sectarian labour service organisation then based in Newtown Johannesburg, from the late 1990s into the early 2000s. The WLM was run by an elected committee, with various subcommittees, and BMC members were active in these structures. Some more information on this here and here. As the building used was the property of the Johannesburg town council (later the Greater Johannesburg Meropolian Council), use the buildings depended a good deal on the municipality’s goodwill. In the early and mid-1990s, the municipality was effectively willing to provide the building at a nominal cost (the users were charged for water and lights, and were responsible for maintenance and investment) . The building was part of a former power station complex, which had been closed in the 1970s: the redesign of the old housing section for use by the WLM was an award-winning project by left-wing architects Henry Paine and Alan Lipman.

As neo-liberalism kicked in, and the Newtown Precinct was rethought (by the municipality) as a sort of investor-friendly, hip tourist and middle class hub, there was increasing pressure to charge the WLM full rates or push it out. This eventually succeeded; the WLM eventually merged in the mid-2000s with its partner (Khanya College, which from the late 1990s sub-leased from the WLM in return for maintenance, upgrading a section of the buildings for use, and providing administrative support with rental of rooms), and moved to Kerk street, where Khanya bought a building. Before then, there was an effort to build a popular campaign against the eviction. Here is one leaflet developed by the WLM at the time:


The current drive to evict the Workers Library and Museum, and Khanya College is the latest salvo in the Johannesburg’s council’s drive to privatise Newtown. In place of an independent centre of working class activity – the Workers’ Library – and a labour/ community  college  – the council wants restaurants for the wealthy “culture vultures” that it hopes will flood into the proposed Newtown cultural zone.

This evection is the latest in the current push to drive artists, the homeless, NGOs and residents out of Newtown. It is also, tragically, the latest in a century of evictions and forced removals from Newtown. Every regime in South Africa has attacked the working class of Newtown- it is time to say “Enough is Enough.”

Newtown reflects the history of working and poor people of all races. It started out as a racially mixed working class district where bricks were manufactured. In the late 1890s, the brickworks were removed to make way for the Kazerne Marshalling Yard. The residents were opposed to moving and decided to protest against the government’s plans. A Brick-Makers Association was formed and a number of petitions were sent to the government.. In spite of these efforts, the land was taken over by the Netherlands Railway Company and the residents were forced to vacate the area.

Poor Afrikaners were accommodated in Burgersdorp and Indians lived in the nearby Location (the only place in Johannesburg where Indian people could legally own property).  Families in Burgersdorp and the Location rented out rooms to African people and once again the area became a place where workers and poor people of different colours, cultures, and religions came together and lived side by side.

Although government authorities were aware of the appalling conditions in Burgersdorp and the Location, nothing was done to improve the situation. Once the British had taken control of Johannesburg in 1900 during the South African War, authorities again focused their attention on the squalid conditions in the area. They were not worried about the residents, but rather believed that the land was far too valuable to be left as a slum.

Burgersdorp and the Location were declared `Insanitary Areas’, allowing the Johannesburg Town Council to expropriate land and demolish buildings. Using the spread of disease as an excuse, African and Indian residents were forcibly removed in 1906. The Council moved the African residents to Klipspruit and the displaced Indian residents were moved to Pageview. (Later during the 1950s, the residents of Pageview were also removed.) With the poor out of the way, the Johannesburg Town Council decided to name the district Newtown and amarket, mill, abattoir and power station were erected in the area.

Newtown experienced another drastic change in the 1970s when both the market and the power station were relocated. The Market Theatre and Museum Africa moved into the area and many of the cities poorer people also made Newtown their home. Later other organisations such the Workers Library and Museum, specifically dedicated to providing resources to working class organisations and communities, moved into the premises previously occupied by the power station.

At present, the Gauteng Province is upgrading Newtown and once again the area is being contested! Will the new democratic government repeat what was done in the past? Will they rather upgrade the area than improve conditions for the poor?

At the moment there is also talk that the Workers Library and Khanya College will be evicted. This is an attack on the working class.

Formed in 1987, the Workers Library has occupied the premises from 1994 onwards. It has transformed the abandoned and derelict municipal compound into a vibrant workers’ centre, open to all workers, employed and unemployed, complete with bookshop, meeting rooms and museum. Khanya College moved into the premises in 1999,  forming a fruitful partnership that has seen further expansion in the centre’s facilities, including a computer centre.

Years of sacrifice and hard work, years of steady and consistent activity, years of fundraising and bitter struggle have kept the Workers’ Library centre open.

Now the council wants to close it all down with the tick of a bureaucrats pen. And this, just so Sandton and Parktown larnies can can discuss “theatre” and “art” in the cosy class confines of a luxury resturant, while the poor are safely evicetd from Newtown, and the Workers Library and Khanay a College are out in the cold.


We demand that the Council to halt this process immediately and demand
the following:
·      To improve conditions for the working class and people living in Newtown – rather than remove them.
·      To stop, imediately, with the eviction plans, and allow the Workers Library and Museum, and its partner, Khanya College, to stay where they are at a flat rent.
·      To allow the unhindered development of an independent working class resource centre and museum that will capture the history of workers and the poor in Newtown and elsewhere.