The battle to rebuild Jo’burg’s historic laundry buildings has finally been won

On the corner of Barry Hertzog and Napier streets in Richmond, Johannesburg, a dilapidated shed occupies an otherwise vacant piece of land. The buildings that once stood there were demolished in 2008.

In the late 19th century, the location marked the growth of black entrepreneurship. Zulu men from KwaZulu-Natal travelled to Johannesburg, latching on to any opportunities the fledgling mining town presented.

The West Rand’s mining industry was growing and, making use of the stream that flowed through the area, these migrants washed the clothes of black mineworkers to earn a living and became known as AmaWasha.

Washing took place along the banks of the Gas Works Spruit – that is, until Rand Steam Laundries rolled in, leaving the AmaWasha without work. Some of the migrants were forcibly removed to sites far from the blossoming business area, signalling the beginnings of colonial segregation.

The company was based there until it was shut down in 1962. The buildings, some of the first examples of industrial architecture in the city, were declared provincial heritage sites and protected.

But Imperial Holdings demolished the buildings in 2008 to make way for a car dealership.

Civil society reacted strongly. The Johannesburg Heritage Foundation led the backlash. Plans to turn the site into a motor showroom were halted and the foundation successfully pushed for the City of Johannesburg to put a stop to any development on the site for 10 years, leaving Imperial to pay rates and levies on land they could not use.

“The decision [to halt development] was taken because the PHRA-G had never received any application from Imperial. The demolitions were done without approval and were therefore illegal,” said the Gauteng department of sport, arts, culture and recreation.

Although Imperial did not face any legal penalties for demolishing a heritage site, the foundation’s vice-chairperson, Flo Bird, says the decision cost the company.

“Imperial didn’t walk away unscathed. For eight years they paid rates on the building and they weren’t allowed to develop. That’s very heavy actually, and they [have admitted] that it cost them a fortune.”

The foundation says it had negotiated an agreement with Imperial for the buildings to be reconstructed, along with a commemoration site for the AmaWasha. Bird says the company tried to make amends but it couldn’t make the numbers work and was forced to sell the land.

“Reconstruction is very difficult and it’s not something that people do willingly. No heritage person will willingly agree to reconstruction but, in this instance, we don’t have a choice. The buildings are gone.

“We were determined that no one was going to get away with demolishing buildings that had been provincially protected and then do nothing about it,” Bird says.

A large billboard, for the Moolman Group, now occupies a spot on the site: “Rand Steam Laundries, new retail office/development coming soon… TO LET”.

Willem Reitsma, Imperial’s group treasurer, says the company’s attempts to rebuild the heritage buildings and commemoration site were aborted when Imperial was hit by declining motor sales in 2015. This, and increased building costs, left them with no option but to sell the property.

Bird estimates that Imperial would have had to have dropped their sale price by at least R85-million – the projected cost of the rebuilding. She says the project may take 10 years to complete but “it would be worth it to reconstruct the Rand Steam Laundries as they were in their original form”.

Brian McKechnie of McKechnie Keeling Heritage Consultants, who is involved in putting together a conservation plan for the site with the aim of replicating the original structures as closely as possible, says the buildings were one of a kind.

“There aren’t really other good examples of turn-of-the-century steam laundry buildings in Johannesburg,” he says.

The buildings were characterised by their large warehouse structures, double-volume interiors and red brick exteriors. The ventilation structures on the roofs were also typical of industrial architecture of that time.

But it’s not just the design and construction of the buildings that were lost in the demolition.

“There’s also social history that was lost in terms of erasing that whole landscape where the AmaWasha site was as well,” McKechnie says.

The best way to penalise developers is to levy a financial penalty on them, he says.

“The only way you can fine a developer is if you go to court and the judge would have to determine the value of the fine,” he adds.

After years of negotiations, Imperial and the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation reached an agreement and the town splaning scheme was amended. This sets out the rules and regulations for developments in Johannesburg.

This means the Rand Steam Laundries buildings must be reconstructed and a commemoration site built – and the property’s owners have to foot this bill.

“It has been a long time that we have had to suffer with this bare land but, you know, you have got to jump through these hoops,” Bird says.

The most important lesson is that heritage is always worth fighting for, and the battle can be won no matter how big the opponent, she says.

At the site, cigarette butts, empty wine bottles and other rubbish are strewn around. The grass is overgrown. The only echo of the burgeoning industry that once existed there is a filtration tower and a shed.

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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