The seething masses : housing, water and sanitation in the lives of Johannesburg's poor, 1886-1906
Zangel, Valerie Anne
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This dissertation is a study of the lives of the poor in Johannesburg during the period 1886 to 1906, with an emphasis on housing, water and sanitation. These three elements are essential to the lives and well-being of all people, and form major components in their standard of living. The use of Johannesburg as the setting for this study is interesting due to its establishment primarily as a mining town, in a location entirely unsuitable for any other purpose. Most large cities are located on a river - this was not the case in Johannesburg. Already in this fact alone there are pointers to the sentiments of the first pioneers. Many of them were hungry for the riches of the earth, and anxious to use it for whatever gain could be deprived from it. Initially, water was obtained from small streams and shallow wells. This was however not sufficient to sustain the needs of the rapidly expanding population. With the nearest viable source of supply being the Vaal river, located 70 kilometers outside of the city, entrepreneurs were quick to realise the financial potential of providing water to the residents. Water so essential to life for drinking and hygiene became a commodity to be sold. The poorer sectors of the population, without the financial resources to purchase water from tanks and water vendors, remained reliant on shallow wells and whatever the natural environment could offer. With increasing pollution following the rapid urbanization, this constituted a serious health hazard. During periods of drought, such as that in 1895, the reality of the lack of water began to seriously affect the lives of residents. Thereafter it became clear that water was too important to be left in the hands of concession companies. This led to the establishment of the public utility company, Rand Water, who have supplied Johannesburg's needs since 1903. Housing is a further need which is essential to all people. In the early years of Johannesburg's existence, the necessary building materials were obtained from the natural environment. Due to the fundamental principle of law that the ownership of land determines the ownership of the improvements on that land, speculators realised that there was a profit to be made in the purchasing of large tracts of valuable land in close proximity to the city centre. This had a profound effect on the housing market. Much of the available land was held in the hands of speculators and township companies. Overcrowding was a result. Other major forms of housing in early Johannesburg were the compounds for unskilled labourers used by the mines, railways and council. Boarding houses were favoured by many single white men. The lack of town planning, especially in areas such as Brickfields (later known as Burghersdorp), and the crowded conditions, led to the deterioration of many parts of the city. It is in the arena of housing that the true sentiments of the residents with regard to issues such as racial divisions became clear. Ultimately the decision was made that persons of 'colour' should reside in their own separate areas. In the city, residents are dependent on the council for their sanitation infrastructure. The lack of provision of services of a satisfactory standard leads to a lack of dignity on the part of the population. This was particularly true with regard to the lack of facilities provided to the poorer residents of Johannesburg. Not only did the council fail to accommodate the fact that different cultures have varied habits with regard to their ablutions, but in many cases services were kept to the absolute minimum. By focusing on housing, water and sanitation in the first two decades after its founding, it is possible to obtain a perspective on the lives of the 'ordinary' people living in Johannesburg. These people contributed in large measure to the city's early growth, yet their contribution has largely escaped the historical record. This study seeks to bridge that gap, and to draw some comparisons with the already well-documented lives of the wealthier citizens of the city.
- Humanities