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Johannesburg’s oldest communications hub in the city

7October, 2016

In tracing the heritage of the site upon which The Exchange is founded, one comes face to face with the concept of the oldest communications hub in the Braamfontein/ Vrededorp district.

“The interesting point which needs to be made here is that the Braamfontein Railway station and marshalling yards, the Smit Street Compound, Telkom Site, railway sidings and the Gasworks were all used to divide the poorer sections of the town from the rich central and northern suburbs. The poor whites and the black sectors were effectively fenced off by these major industrial sites. Donald Trump could not have done it better. The role which the new Telkom housing development will play will contribute to breaking the divide in line with the concept behind Corridors of Freedom – it will stitch one patch of the city together. The barrier was one not only of race, but very much of class. The latter has not been given much attention in planning Johannesburg.”

Flo Bird, Johannesburg Heritage Trust, 2016

The buildings which have been converted into residential lofts have an important role to play in the history of the city of Johannesburg. The original small post office building which makes up the Old Exchange complex, was the place where the residents of Vrededorp (or ‘Fietas’ as it was known) would have served as a communications hub in the neighbourhood. It was a place where Joburg dwellers could use the telephone, since there were few, if any, telephones in homes at that stage. In addition, this was the collection place for parcels from family living far away. Other services offered by the little Post Office would be certification of important documents by the Postmaster, who was always a Commissioner of Oaths.

Exchange lofts, the oldest communications hub in Johannesburg

Unfortunately, this charming little structure did not remain the neighbourhood post office for long. It was too small and not sufficiently central. The new suburban office was erected in 11th Street (according to Salma Patel of Fietas Museum), and this was to serve as the new communications hub for the ever-expanding city.

The Exchange development borders on the Braamfontein Cemetery, which also has an interesting and colourful past. The cemetery has the earliest graves bodies of Johannesburg pioneers were exhumed from the original city graveyard in Harrison Street and reburied here – and many founders and famous personalities are laid to rest within the walls of this green haven. Included in the ‘heroes section’ are Enoch Sontonga, Cornelius Broeksma, and struggle heroes Valliamal Munusamy, Nagapen and Chow Kwai For, as well as soldiers who died in the Anglo Boer War. There are even some graves of men who died while serving with the SADF in World Wars I and II. Artists, authors, actors are all buried here, alongside thousands of black mineworkers whose graves have been covered with soil and then grassed to conceal their existence.

In this section it has been recorded that a number of a number of miners who died in accidents on various mines have been laid to rest here. All of these mines have since closed but the graves remain a valuable historic record of those early mines like Village Deep, Main Reef and Crown Deep Mines.
There are a number of tall, beautiful Blue Gum trees bordering the development, planted in the greenbelt between The Exchange and the Enoch Sontonga Cemetery. These provide a ‘green edge’ for the new residential area. They have a special heritage significance in the cemetery as for many funerals of black people wreaths were made from their leaves and placed on the graves along with seeds. Since the graves of black mineworkers were concealed with soil the gum trees remain as markers of the mourners who brought wreaths for the dead.