Exhibits in three Johannesburg buildings provide historical context to life in the city

Shell House, the Rand Daily Mail house and Solly Sachs House in Johannesburg has been converted into 1,100 accommodations, with amenities such as football pitches, netball courts, homework rooms, playgrounds, gymnasiums, laundries and unlimited Wi-Fi.

Hosken Consolidated Investments (HCI) Property worked with the Apartheid Museum to create permanent exhibits in the buildings. The company has its own management company, Live the City, to keep the buildings running smoothly.

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 has been largely forgotten. HCI renamed it after the newspaper, developed 253 housing units and an exhibition space that spills from the foyer to the sidewalk. Images and texts printed on glass trace the history of the Rand Daily Mailkey political moments and topics discussed during 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 composing each word.

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

There are several theories. One is that the Rand Daily Mail misunderstood the situation and refrained from provoking a national crisis. Although the photos were offered to the Rand Daily Mailthe paper allowed the DailyMirror to publish them first and three days later publishes an editorial on the Sharpeville massacre.

One of the reasons for the Rand Daily MailThe reluctance of , according to a source, is that the newspaper’s political journalist, Benjamin Pogrund, was not at the scene, so the information was relayed by the judicial journalist, who relied on the police to get information.

Irwin Manoim, co-editor with Anton Harber of Weekly Mail then the Courier and Custodian, says he became interested in how “the media initially misunderstood a sudden shock event, in part due to misinformation from official sources; and then, how, due to other social currents of the time (local and international), the event becomes mythologized, while other similar events are ignored”. Manoim believes Pogrund was with anti-apartheid activist and Pan-Africanist Congress founder Robert Sobukwe and was not in Sharpeville when the bullets flew.

Pogrund says he had been with Sobukwe in Soweto since the start of the day and followed him to the Orlando police station. Later that morning police reporter Harold Sachs arrived and told him about a shooting in Bophelong and the two men decided to go there. From there, Pogrund, accompanied by a photographer, Jan Hoek, followed the Saracen police to Sharpeville and sat in the middle of the crowd listening to people’s grievances. Pogrund and Hoek left after being attacked by a mob.

Then-editor Laurence Gander made careful decisions about how to present the news and, while we can speculate on his reasons, the story was on the front page with a cropped image showing the massacre, claims Pogrund.

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 moved its headquarters to Luthuli House, the building was largely abandoned and vandalized. Renovating the building was a monumental effort. Three levels of the parking lot were under water and every bit of copper wire and anything of value was stripped. “There was nothing left. Ripped ceilings, basements filled with sewers, colonies of birds living in the old offices. Despite this, HCI managed to recover some important pieces, such as a poster containing a working clock in Mandela’s office, which has been restored and is part of the exhibition,” explains Nandi Ross, of Live the City.

From the top of the 23-story building, “you can see Soccer City, you can see Ellis Park – you know, north, south, east, west,” Ross says. “We have 530 apartments in this building and at least 2,000 people live there, so it’s like a small city within a city. It is not a fact, but I am convinced that it is the busiest square kilometer in southern Africa,” she adds.

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

“It is flanked by the MTN taxi stand and the rue De Villiers market. Foot traffic is incredible and our stores thrive on commuters and shopkeepers. And when I say you can buy anything at Shell House, I mean, if you need a cell phone blanket, a TV, a blanket, eucalyptus oil, you can get just about anything there,” Ross says.

The lobby exhibit places Shell House in the history of the City of Gold, and in 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, formerly the Union Grounds, which was initially a recreation ground and later also used for military parades.

It was once the center of the city and, together with Joubert Park and the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which was built later, it was the great green lung of the city. When Park Station was built, the sports fields were moved north to Corlett Drive.

Shell built its offices in the town 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 played a central role in South Africa‘s democratic transition, with much of the ANC’s groundwork taking place here.

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

Historical significance has been given to the Solly Sachs building. The building has no historical interest apart from its location near City Hall where the famous garment worker protests took place in the early 1950s. HCI General Manager Johnny Copelyn said proposed to name the building after the legendary trade unionist and founder of the union which eventually morphed into the South African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu).

Active in the labor movement from 1926, Solly Sachs founded the Garment Workers Union of South Africa and organized mostly white Afrikaans women, helping them fight for decent working conditions and job security. A member of the Communist Party of South Africa, he was expelled from the party in 1931 because his trade union activities with white women were not considered radical enough. Nevertheless, he succeeded in using the courts and strikes to improve working conditions for the union’s 7,000 members in 1938. His activities led to his arrest and temporary ban. 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 offices of Sactwu and the Clothing Trading Council are located here.

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

Work in progress, the exhibition at Solly Sachs House consists of a stunning 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.

About Mitchel McMillan

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