/ 5 August 2022

Exhibitions in three Johannesburg buildings give historical context to city life

Remembering: The old Rand Daily Mail building now has 253 apartments and photos of the news of the day are displayed

Shell House, the Rand Daily Mail House and Solly Sachs House in Johannesburg have been converted into 1 100 housing units, with amenities such as soccer fields, netball courts, homework rooms, play areas, gyms, laundries and uncapped wi-fi. 

Hosken Consolidated Investments (HCI) Property has worked with the Apartheid Museum to create permanent exhibitions in the buildings. The company has its own management company, Live the City, to ensure the buildings run efficiently. 

Rand Daily Mail House was the first building to be converted from offices to residential units. The building was called Future House and its history was largely forgotten. HCI renamed it after the newspaper, developed 253 housing units and an exhibition space that spills from the foyer to the pavement. Pictures and text printed on glass depict the history of the Rand Daily Mail, key political moments and topics covered during the course of the life of the newspaper and the building. 

In the early years the newspaper was printed in the basement of the building. Photographs in the lobby show white men physically typesetting every word. 

The Rand Daily Mail’s courageous editorial policy is reflected in its coverage of events such as the 1976 Soweto uprising, with pictures by Peter Magubane. But there are question marks about the paper’s coverage of Sharpeville. Why were the pictures of the massacre first published by the Daily Mirror in London? 

There are several theories. One is that the Rand Daily Mail misunderstood the situation and was cautious not to provoke a national crisis. Although the pictures had been offered to the Rand Daily Mail, the paper allowed the Daily Mirror to publish them first and three days later published an editorial about the Sharpeville massacre. 

One of the reasons for the Rand Daily Mail’s hesitation, according to one source, is that the paper’s political reporter, Benjamin Pogrund, was not at the scene, so information was relayed by the crime reporter, who relied on the police for information. 

Irwin Manoim, co-editor with Anton Harber of the Weekly Mail and then the Mail & Guardian, says his interest was in how “the media first misunderstand a sudden shock event, partly due to misinformation from official sources; and then, how, due to other social currents at the time (local and international), the event becomes mythologised, while other, similar events were ignored”. Manoim thinks Pogrund was with anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, Robert Sobukwe, and was not at Sharpeville when the bullets flew.

Pogrund says he was with Sobukwe in Soweto from early on in the day and followed him to the Orlando police station. Later in the morning crime reporter Harold Sachs arrived and told him about a shooting at Bophelong and the two men decided to go there. From there Pogrund, accompanied by a photographer, Jan Hoek, followed the police Saracens to Sharpeville and sat in the midst of the crowd listening to people’s grievances. Pogrund and Hoek left after they were attacked by a mob. 

The editor at the time, Laurence Gander, made careful decisions about how to present the news and, although we may speculate on his reasons, the story was the front-page lead with a cropped picture showing the massacre, Pogrund asserts. 

In Shell House is an Angus Taylor sculpture of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.

Shell House was the second building HCI tackled. After the ANC relocated its head office to Luthuli House, the building was largely abandoned and vandalised. Refurbishing the building was a monumental effort. Three levels in the parking garage were under water and every piece of copper wire and anything else of value was stripped. “There was nothing left. Ceilings ripped down, basements full of sewerage, colonies of birds living in the old offices. Despite this, HCI managed to retrieve some important pieces, like a poster containing a working clock in Mandela’s office, which has been restored and forms part of the exhibition,” says Nandi Ross, of Live the City. 

From the top of the 23-floor building, “you can see Soccer City, you can see Ellis Park — you know, north, south, east, west”, says Ross. “We’ve got 530 apartments in that building and at least 2 000 people living there, so it is like a little city within the city. It is not a fact but I am convinced it’s the busiest square mile in Southern Africa,” she adds.

Shell House now consists of 530 residential units and 31 shops, as well as extensive amenities for tenants, including children’s playgrounds, and now a mini-museum. 

“It is flanked by the MTN taxi rank and the De Villiers Street market. The foot traffic is unbelievable and our shops feed off the commuters and the traders. And when I say you can buy anything at Shell House, I mean, if you need a cell phone cover, a TV, a blanket, eucalyptus oil, you can get just about anything there,” Ross says.

The exhibition in the lobby locates Shell House in the history of the City of Gold, and the history of the struggle for democracy. The Noord Street Taxi Rank, a stone’s throw away, is on the site of the old Wanderers Club, once the Union Grounds, which were initially recreational grounds and later also used for military parades. 

This was once the centre of the city and, together with Joubert Park and the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which was built later, it constituted the big green lung of the city. When Park Station was built, the sporting grounds were moved north to Corlett Drive. 

Shell built its offices in the city in the 1970s and sold the building to the ANC in the 1990s. The ANC occupied Shell House for five or six years before moving to Luthuli House. Shell House was central to South Africa’s democratic transition with much of the ANC’s preparatory work taking place here. 

A prominent feature of the exhibition is a work by sculptor Angus Taylor of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu sitting on a bench; there was a time when all three men worked in the building. Visitors or tenants can sit between them and have their picture taken. Photographs and text explain the history of the building and the area. 

Historic significance has been bestowed on the Solly Sachs building. The building is not of historic interest apart from its location being near the City Hall where the famous clothing workers’ protests took place in the early 1950s. HCI chief executive Johnny Copelyn proposed naming the building after the legendary trade unionist and founder of the union that eventually morphed into South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu). 

Active in the trade union movement from 1926, Solly Sachs founded the Garment Workers Union of South Africa and organised primarily white Afrikaans women, assisting them to fight for decent working conditions and employment security. A member of the Communist Party of South Africa, he was expelled from the party in 1931 because his union activities with white women were not seen as radical enough. Nevertheless, he was successful in using the courts and strikes to improve working conditions for the 7 000 union members by 1938. His activities led to his arrest and temporary banning. Much later, in 1952, Sachs was harassed, arrested and banned by the apartheid government and in 1953 he went into exile.

Fifteen years after Sachs left, Copelyn joined the Textile Workers Industrial Union, which later became Sactwu. Copelyn spent 20 years  there, becoming its general secretary. 

The building consists of 300 apartments, 30 shops, offices on two floors and a school. The Sactwu offices and the Clothing Bargaining Council are situated here. 

“The building is near Gandhi Square, with easy access to the highway and easy shopping at Solly Sachs or around the corner,” Ross says. 

A work in progress, the exhibition at Solly Sachs House consists of a magnificent wall hanging by artist and textile designer Yda Walt. The triptych depicts the building and its surroundings, and details key events in Solly Sachs’ life.