Built Heritage

About blue plaques


Dotted around the city is a number of circular blue plaques attached to buildings or monuments. These mark the heritage of the various sites and remind people of the complex history of Johannesburg.

Moses Kotane, the late general secretary of the South African Communist Party, once lived here
Moses Kotane, the late general secretary of the South African Communist Party, once lived here

JOHANNESBURG marks its history through distinctive blue plaques, placed on buildings and memorials, in particular places of historical significance, or where important people once lived, worked or played.

These plaques record the growth of Joburg, from its pre-colonial history reaching back to the Stone Age to the gold rush and the founding of a mining town, from the first brick buildings to the struggle against an oppressive apartheid government, from the nefarious characters to the world-renowned icons.

Along the Melville and Lonehill koppies are the remnants of Iron Age occupation, while mining equipment can be found along the Reef, marking what was once the world’s largest gold rush.

Different styles of building testify to the architectural history of the inner city, while around the town is evidence of its diverse communities. These can be seen in the range of religious buildings and neighbourhood houses, from the mansions of the Randlords to the shacks and hostels of the workers.

In the townships, plaques commemorate hard-won battles against unjust laws.

The plaques also mark the absence of tangible evidence of specific times and places: they mark where Sophiatown and Fietas once stood – both multiracial, vibrant neighbourhoods destroyed by the apartheid government.

Placing a plaque at the cave on the Melville Koppies where people sought shelter over aeons
Placing a plaque at the cave on the Melville Koppies where people sought shelter over aeons

Mary Fitzgerald Square, the stamp battery in Main Street, several houses in the suburbs, on a number of fine examples of art deco buildings, on several monuments, at a fire tower – all have a blue plaque. Some 100 have been erected in Alexandra alone.

The plaques are made from a variety of materials, and the bright blue background and white writing are easily recognisable.

Mary Fitzgerald Square

Mary Fitzgerald - “Pickhandle Mary” – made her name in Johannesburg for her trade union activities and for a number of firsts – first woman trade unionist, first woman printer and first woman city councillor. Born in Ireland in 1885 she moved to Johannesburg in 1902 where she worked as a shorthand-typist with the Mine Workers' Union. She became increasingly concerned with workers' rights and was involved in the miners' strikes of 1913 and 1914.

In 1911, Fitzgerald took part in a tramway strike. Leading the strikers, they met the police in market square in the city centre. The police were armed with pickhandles. In the chaos, with the police trying to avoid the wheelbarrows that the strikers had positioned to block their horses, the officers dropped their pickhandles, which were grabbed by the strikers. They carried them to all future protest meetings.

Fitzgerald became the leader of the Pickhandle Brigade, earning the nickname “Pickhandle Mary”.

In November 1915, she won a seat on the city council – the first woman to hold public office in Johannesburg – at a time when women did not have the vote in South Africa. She served on the council until 1921, becoming chairman of the public health committee and deputy mayor, as well as acting mayor in 1921 when required.

White women got the vote in South Africa in 1930. Fitzgerald died in 1960, at the age of 75. She was buried at Brixton Cemetery. In 1986, the square in Newtown was renamed Mary Fitzgerald Square.

Langlaagte stamp battery

The stamp battery in Main Street once crushed rock to extract the gold
The stamp battery in Main Street once crushed rock to extract the gold

The Langlaagte stamp battery in Main Street was brought to the Witwatersrand in 1886 and used to crush gold-bearing rock extracted from the earth.

Placed in Main Street in 2004, the battery was moved from George Harrison Park in Langlaagte, where it was damaged in a fire in 2003. The park marks the site where the first outcrop of gold was found by George Harrison in 1886, considered by many to be the person who discovered gold on the reef.



The battery was brought to the reef by oxwagon in the 1880s by the Langlaagte Estates Gold Mining Company, and was buried in one of the dumps south of Johannesburg in 1912. This strange decision was taken by Sir Joseph Robinson, one of the town’s mining magnates.

After a six-year search, it was found in 1935 and was positioned at the entrance to the Chamber of Mines pavilion at the Empire Exhibition. Sometime later, the city council asked the Johannesburg Consolidated Investment Company to donate the battery to the people of the city and it was placed in the park in Langlaagte.

Charlotte Maxeke

A plaque at the Nancefield Road Cemetery, inscribed with the words “The Mother of African Freedom in this Country”, honours the legacy of activist Charlotte Makgomo Maxeke.

In 1901, Maxeke became the first African woman to graduate from Wilberforce University in the United States with a Bachelor of Science degree. On her return to South Africa, she introduced the African Methodist Episcopal Church to the country. She was also the first female member of the South African Native Congress, which later became the African National Congress.

Unveiling the plaque at Dr AB Xuma’s house – one of two left standing in the destruction of Sophiatown
Unveiling the plaque at Dr AB Xuma’s house – one of two left standing in the destruction of Sophiatown

As an activist, Maxeke led the first anti-pass march to Botha’s Hill in KwaZulu-Natal in 1913; later she founded the Bantu Women’s League. She lived in a house in Kliptown, which has a plaque in her memory.

Satyagraha

A plaque at No 4 prison on Constitution Hill acknowledges Mahatma Gandhi and the birth of satyagraha in Johannesburg.

Gandhi lived in Johannesburg for 21 years, and it was in this city that he developed his philosophy of satyagraha, or soul force, a practice of passive resistance. He had arrived in Durban from India in 1893, a young lawyer, and had moved to Joburg in 1903.

Van der Bijl Square in the city centre was renamed Gandhi Square in his memory. There are other places that carry his mark – homes, a farm, the Old Fort and a crematorium all contain memories of him and his influence on the development of Johannesburg and South Africa as a whole.

Hugh Masekela

A South African music icon, trumpeter Hugh Masekela lived in Alex as a young boy after his father took up a position as health inspector in the township in 1947. His former home is marked with a plaque.



Related stories: