Photographs and text by JFC Clarke | Contributions by Darryl Accone, Johnny Masilela and Zwelakhe Mthwethwa



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Marabastad: A Story of Adversity and Survival
JFC Clarke
6th Street, Marabastad, 1970

Marabastad has been in existence for over 120 years. It was one of the first of many satellite communities to spring up on the peripheries of towns and cities that were established in the interior of southern Africa during the course of the 19th century.

The history of Marabastad is about change, relocation and urbanization. It is a history of migrants, refugees, job-seekers, entrepreneurs and commuters seeking a new and better life and of people who became the unwilling subjects of a political ideology. As such, Marabastad reflects the history of South Africa's racial, social and economic divisions, of white control of urban centres to the exclusion of other racial groups.

Marabastad was once an expanding township on the edge of the city of Pretoria. It was inextricably linked to Pretoria but, at the same time, it was never allowed to be an integral part of the city. As Pretoria expanded in size Marabastad became surrounded by urban and industrial development. The township slowly diminished in size as inhabitants were forced to move to new racially segregated residential areas that were established outside the city limits.

Pretoria has now been absorbed into a greater urban conglomerate of the City of Tshwane Metropolitan Municipality. The City of Tshwane falls within the northern sector of the industrial and economic heartland of South Africa that includes Johannesburg, the Witwatersrand and industrial nodes to the east and south. Almost miraculously a remnant of Marabastad, in the form of the old Asiatic Bazaar, has survived into the 21st century and will hopefully be conserved as an important part of South Africa's heritage (many other communities, similar to Marabastad, such as District Six in Cape Town, were destroyed during the apartheid era). Nearby, Bel Ombre, the enormous bus, taxi and train terminus, built within the precincts of Marabastad, stands as a symbol, not only of mass commuting, but also of relocation and change and is a reminder of the struggle associated with South African urbanization and the laws of apartheid.

For thousands of years people have inhabited the valley where Pretoria is now situated. Hunter-gatherer communities left behind many petroglyphs depicting the wild animals that shared the valley with them. Later Iron Age Nguni and Sotho- Tswana speaking peoples, migrating from the north with their domesticated animals, spread into southern Africa and groups established themselves on both sides of the mountain ridge that was known as the Cashan Mountains and later named the Magaliesberg.

The Sotho-Tswana settlements of the Bakwena (Crocodile People), who populated this region, varied in size, but most of them could be referred to as villages. There were also examples of what could be termed African Iron Age large towns or cities. Archaeologists have identified Kaditshwene and Molokwane near present day Zeerust and Rustenburg respectively as examples of 'mega-sites'. A period of relative stability that allowed these communities to grow and prosper ended some two centuries ago and a period of upheaval in southern Africa known as the Difaqane heralded a state of flux that has persisted to the present day.

Imagined view of Schoolplaats
The above sketch is based on information gleaned from drawings by Hendrik Pierneef and a painting by Frans Oerder. The two artists lived in Pretoria in the late 19th century and early 20th century and made many sketches and paintings of the landscape and dwellings in and around Pretoria. Schoolplaats appears to have been a picturesque village with white-washed or earth coloured thatched cottages surrounded by trees and vegetable gardens. The architectural style of the Schoolplaats houses was similar to that of the very first houses erected in Pretoria around Church Square - as depicted in the earliest known painting of Pretoria, executed in 1857 by Marian Churchill.


The Ndebele, originally from the Zulu kingdom that had come to dominate the southeast coastal plain, invaded the interior plateau of southern Africa in the 1820s, under their chief, Mzilikatzi, and subjugated the Sotho-Tswana and other inhabitants of the Magaliesberg and the surrounding area. The arrival of the Voortrekkers from across the Vaal River in 1836 resulted in a series of clashes with the Ndebele. The Voortrekkers were the descendents of European settlers and had migrated north from the Cape, seeking to establish a republic outside the boundaries of the British Empire. By 1838 the Ndebele had been forced to move north across the Limpopo river into what is now Zimbabwe.

The Voortrekkers, as they settled, became known as the Boers and claimed the land vacated by the defeated Ndebele - to the detriment of the previous inhabitants of the area, some of whom had allied themselves with the Voortrekkers during the conflict. Tension and further conflict followed as the Boers increasingly dominated the other inhabitants of the region and expanded territorially.

In 1855 Pretoria was established as the capital of the newly formed Transvaal Republic. The chosen site for the capital was on the south side of the Magaliesberg where a river, named the Apies River, fed by an exceptionally strong fountain, traversed the fertile valley. The streets of Pretoria were laid out on a grid pattern with a church at the intersection of the main axis roads.

The original Marabastad village was surveyed and laid out along the banks of the Apies river in 1888 (see map). This church and the adjacent school building (on the western side of the church and not in the photograph) are the only buildings that remain of the settlement. The rest of the original Marabastad village was demolished by 1920. The church is possibly the oldest religious building still in existence in Pretoria.. It stands, disused, in what is now the Daspoort Sewerage Farm. It is not known for certain which Christian denomination built the church. It may have been built by Wesleyan missionaries, the Church of England or the independent African Church. The church may also have been linked to the Berlin Missionary Society at Schoolplaats.


To the north-west just beyond the straight streets of Pretoria, near the confluence of the Apies River and a tributary stream, Steenovenspruit, was the kraal of Chief Maraba, head of the local Mashashane clan of the South amaNdebele. Historically, the South amaNdebele were not part of Mzilikatzi's Ndebele, although they probably also migrated from what is now KwaZulu Natal. They were already living in the vicinity of the Magaliesberg at the time of the Difaqane. The first chief of the South amaNdebele was Musi, and his son was named Tshwane. It has also been stated that Tshwane was the chief of a group known as the MaPhuting. In more recent times, the South amaNdebele have become world renowned for their distinctive decorated homesteads and intricate beadwork.

Two residential areas developed in close proximity to Chief Maraba's kraal. It can be surmised that from the early years of Pretoria's existence an informal community began to establish itself around the chief's kraal on the Apies River. Labourers and domestic workers employed in Pretoria would have gravitated to Maraba's kraal to find accommodation and they were probably joined by an ever changing gathering herdsmen, wagon drivers and stable hands employed to tend and manage the teams of oxen and horses essential to the transport system of the time. In the 1870s, a village-like community with a school and large church that came to be known as Schoolplaats was established by the Berlin Missionary Society on the property Frischgewaagd north of Boom Street and east of the Steenovenspruit. Although the informal settlement around Maraba's kraal already existed, Schoolplaats was the first established residential 'township' for black people associated with Pretoria. The houses at Schoolplaats were laid out in six rows and water was obtained from wells and a water furrow. The residents were able to grow crops and cultivate vegetable gardens. Many members of the approximately 100 families that were accommodated on the property had been inboekselings. Their later descendants were known as the oorlams. Inboekselings were indentured black children, who had either been orphaned or separated from their parents as a result of on-going hostilities between Boers and neighbouring communities. The children grew up within Boer households on farms. They spoke Afrikaans, identified with Boer culture and were used as a source of farm and domestic labour. They also acquired skills and, as adults, adapted readily to urban living on Schoolplaats under the supervision of the Berlin Missionary Society. The daily lives of those within the Schoolplaats community were probably not unlike those of many nearby families resident inside early Pretoria.

As both settlements grew the Berlin Missionary Society impressed upon the city authorities the need for a new formal township. Marabastad, named after Chief Maraba who had been employed by the Landrost of Pretoria as a translator, was proclaimed in 1888. The township was laid out along the south bank of the Apies River between Steenovenspruit and Skinnerspruit, close to Maraba's kraal. This was the first formal township to be directly administered by the Pretoria Town Council and was in some ways a less restricted, easier community to live in than Schoolplaats under the B.M.S. The township grew quickly and developed its own urban character as increasing numbers of work seekers converged on Pretoria.

The first Asian settlers from India established themselves in central Pretoria in the early 1880s near the old market square. In 1903, the Asiatic Bazaar was formally proclaimed in the area west of the Steenovenspruit and south of the original Marabastad. It was intended that the Asian community develop a separate business and residential area away from central Pretoria. Some Asian businesses, such as M. Keshavjee & Co. mentioned in the Preface, were tolerated, at best, in central Pretoria by white officialdom until the late 1960s. The surveyed stands were no larger than 50 by 50 feet - in contrast to the very much larger city blocks of Pretoria. The intimate scale contributed to the distinctive character of the Asiatic Bazaar that is still evident today. The main road through the centre of the Bazaar was a westerly extension of Boom Street. On the western side of the Bazaar, Boom Street joined various tracks and roads that converged on Daspoort, and the Apies River, and fanned out to various destinations to the north and west of Pretoria.

In the 1890s the name Cape Location was given to the residential area to the south of the Asiatic Bazaar occupied by Coloureds, mainly from the Cape. There was also a small Muslim Malay community and a small number of Chinese traders moved into the area.

The name Marabastad was increasingly used to describe the larger urbanized, multicultural and multiracial community to the north-west of central Pretoria. To the citizens of Pretoria, Marabastad was a source of accessible cheap labour. Conversely, the city offered opportunities to people from economically depressed, often rural backgrounds. The discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand during the 1880s resulted in a dramatic increase in local and overseas migrants flocking to the newly established Johannesburg, adjacent mining villages and Pretoria. Marabastad grew and thrived, and although demarcated sections of greater Marabastad were home to one racial group or another, its character reflected a coalescence of races, religions and cultures. Close as Marabastad was to the centre of Pretoria it evolved its own distinctive, colourful and vibrant character.

The old mosque in Mogul Street which was demolished to make way for a new a new religious centre. The Pretoria Islamic Society, which was established in 1917, leased six stands from the City Council of Pretoria and a mosque, Islamic school, library, shops and residence for the Imaam were built and were in constant use for over sixty years. The Rabia Dada Memorial Hall, built in the 1950s, was an important part of the centre. The stands were eventually purchased by the Pretoria Islamic Society after a period of uncertainty regarding the future of this important religious site as the entire community was forced to move to Laudium in terms of the Group Areas Act. The site was enlarged and a spacious new mosque, together with a complex of shops, was constructed.
(Reproduced by permission of the Marabastad Development Forum)


During the Anglo Boer War, 1899-1902, the British military authorities who controlled Pretoria, allowed black refugees to settle in an area between the original Marabastad and the Asiatic Bazaar. After the Boer War, New Marabastad and the original Marabastad merged as the population continued to increase. The water supply and sanitary facilities proved inadequate and the Pretoria City Council, which now controlled Marabastad, decided to demolish old Marabastad and relocate residents to New Location, later known as Bantule. The relocation was completed by 1920.

There were justifiable reasons for relocating communities such as 'Old' and 'New' Marabastad due to a lack of space and services but, until the 1980s, it continued to be government and city council policy to relocate the residents of the greater Marabastad area primarily on racial grounds. The 1913 Transvaal Native Land Act heads a long list of racially discriminatory Acts of Parliament with a basic aim to keep inner areas of towns, and cities such as Pretoria, exclusively occupied and controlled by whites.

As the City of Pretoria expanded, and eventually surrounded what remained of Marabastad, pressure increased to remove its inhabitants to segregated townships on the outskirts of the larger city, to New Location, Atteridgeville, Eersterus and Laudium. Indian shops still in the central business area of Pretoria were forced to close and their owners had to move to the crowded Asiatic Bazaar in Marabastad, or to the designated Indian residential and commercial area of Laudium. Eventually the residential area of the Asiatic Bazaar was also destroyed as the inhabitants were moved to Laudium.

It was inevitable that tensions would develop between such a community and the authorities. As early as 1893 Mohandas Gandhi, as a young lawyer living in Pretoria, experienced the indignities of discrimination and began to campaign against racial and social injustice. He made his first public speech at a meeting in Pretoria called to discuss the poor living conditions that local Asians had to endure. Gandhi was later to write that the year he spent in Pretoria was most valuable in terms of his spiritual development and for the experience he gained in community affairs and legal practice.

Left: The advertisement for the Empire Theatre included in the commemorative book The Aga Khan and Africa, probably published between 1947 and 1950.

Right: The Empire Theatre building on the corner of Boom Street and 10th Street photographed in 2007. The facade is painted blue and the front section of the building is now occupied by shops.


The later forced removals and repressive laws made Marabastad, like Sophiatown outside Johannesburg, a base for the liberation struggle. From time to time tensions led to outbreaks of violence. During the 1920s, Peter Matseke of the Transvaal African Congress organized demonstrations in Marabastad against pass laws. Naboth Mokgatle, popularly known as Ntate Mokgatle, became a hero of the liberation struggle. He was introduced to ANC politics at protest meetings in Marabastad in the early 1930s and was arrested and imprisoned many times. He was eventually banned and was forced to leave the country in 1954. He wrote of his experiences in a book entitled The Autobiography of an Unknown South African.

Religious freedom of expression was respected in contrast to restrictions on other activities. Hindu, Muslim and Christian places of worship were scattered through the township. Schools linked to religious institutions such as the Berlin Missionary Society played an important role in a township deprived of state support. The Hindu Miriammen Temple, completed in 1938, is now a proclaimed national monument and remains a prominent landmark. Unfortunately a number of religious buildings have been destroyed - as have schools.

Despite poverty and many difficulties experienced by Marabastad residents, it was a 'slum with spirit'. As Marabastad developed so did a colourful multicultural street life. The mixture was heady: shops of all kinds, shebeens, schools and homes, together with influences from Asian and African cultures and American music, clothes and cars. The vitality of township life in the 1920s and 1930s gave rise to a new indigenous African urban culture and identity. Marabi culture took hold - very likely deriving its name from Marabastad. The Columbia Dance Hall was a focal point for marabi style and music and had a reputation for wild dancing. In its early years the Columbia Hall was used to show silent movies and later became the home of the U-NO-MES Dance Band. The Marabastad dance hall bands were a mixture of musicians from the local black and Coloured communities. The Africanized and improvised mixture of American-style blues and jazz, original in its sound, spread through the Shebeens and dance halls across the townships of Pretoria and Johannesburg and along the Witwatersrand. The Columbia Hall (now used to house a number of shops) still stands on the corner of Boom Street and Jerusalem Street.

Three cinema theatres (or bioscopes), the Empire, the Royal, and the Orient were built in the Asiatic Bazaar section of Marabastad. The cinemas catered for local residents as well as for people living in Lady Selborne, Atteridgeville and other communities, well beyond Marabastad, who were barred from the whites-only cinemas in central Pretoria. The choice of films was as varied as the character of Marabastad itself - Hollywood 'block busters', American and Chinese action films, traditional Indian dramas and musicals. At Easter each year religious films were popular. The cinemas closed as Marabastad lost its residential population. The Royal Theatre has been demolished, but the Empire and Orient in Boom Street remain and are now used as shops.

In addition to Naboth Mokgatle other writers associated with Marabastad are well known. The internationally renowned writer Es'kia Mphahlele was born in 1919 in Marabastad. In the 1950s, he became the fiction editor of Drum magazine and published his autobiographical Down Second Avenue in 1959 drawing on his early life experiences in Marabastad. Can Themba was born in 1942 in Marabastad. He moved to Sophiatown, wrote short stories and became one of the 'Drum Boys'. Jayayaman (Jay) Naidoo, born in 1941, grew up in the Asiatic Bazaar section of Marabastad. He left South Africa in 1964 and returned in 1991. He wrote Coolie Location in 1990 about his experiences as a boy in Marabastad. Robert Pearce wrote and directed Die Laaste Supper by Marabastad which was performed on stage in 1989 as a monologue by the actor Anthony 'Speedo' Wilson. Darryl Accone lived for a time with his family in Marabastad before they were forced to move. In 2004 he published 'All Under Heaven: The Story of a Chinese family in South Africa' in which he describes life in Marabastad in the 1960s. Darryl Accone and Johnny Masilela, another well-known author, who spent part of his childhood in Lady Selborne, have written of their childhood experiences of Marabastad for this publication.

Between 1905 and 1913, the artist Hendrik Pierneef made a series of sketches of the houses along Boom Street and at Schoolplaats, but not of Marabastad itself. Frans Oerder, who also lived in Pretoria, completed at least one painting of a street scene in Schoolplaats. The artist Thabang Noto Matseke was born in 1930 in Marabastad, where he lived until about 1950. He was the son of Peter Matseke, mentioned above. As a teacher, art collector and artist, Matseke made a valuable contribution to the development of an indigenous African consciousness through his own work and in his support of other artists. In 1976, Terence McCaw painted the view down 6th Street, including the Nawab Miriammen Temple, from a position very close to where the photograph on page 25 was taken. In 1984, the renowned photographer David Goldblatt captured, in a series of photographs, the experience of travelling on busses, that were part of apartheid's transport system, between the homeland of KwaNdebele and Pretoria (Marabastad terminus). One of his photographs is entitled 2.30am Wolwerkraal, Marabastad Bus, 3 Hours Still To Go, First Passengers of the Day.

Soccer was a very popular sport and numerous clubs competed with each other with names such as Carlton Yanks, FM Bantus, Thunder and Swaraj. The Mamelodi Sundowns Club, so well known today, grew out of the Sundowns Club, established in Marabastad in 1945.

By the end of the 1970s, most of the inhabitants of Marabastad had been forced to move to other townships and the last buildings in the residential section of the Asiatic Bazaar and Cape Location between Bloed and Struben Streets were demolished to make way for a proposed freeway that was never built. The era of Marabi jazz, Indian and American films at local bioscopes, American style fashions and the original Sundowns soccer team passed, although echoes were to remain. Decay and degeneration set in although many of the original shops along the main streets of the Asiatic Bazaar business area remained intact and formed the core of a still thriving market and shopping complex. The owners of shops now lived mainly in Laudium. During the 1980s the status of the Asiatic Bazaar was further eroded by confusing and changing legislation at municipal and national levels.

The era of apartheid and white domination ended in 1994 and with it, the resistance struggle of which Marabastad had been a part. Unfortunately, there were those who were opposed to political change. On 25 April 1994, a bomb was detonated in a restaurant on the corner of Bloed Street and 7th Street in Marabastad. Three people were killed.

Since 1994, the Tshwane Metropolitan Council has initiated development and rehabilitation projects for Marabastad to reverse years of urban neglect. Original displaced residents have made land claims and the original 1998 Integrated Urban Design Framework for Marabastad was updated as the Marabastad Project in 2000. However, little of substance or of benefit to past or present residents occurred in the years that followed or indeed, in terms of a heritage site, of benefit to the country as a whole. Squatter settlements that have sprung up in Marabastad in recent years have had to be moved. In July, 2007 at a ceremony attended by the Minister of Agriculture and Land affairs, the Tshwane Executive Mayor and former Marabastad residents, some of the former residents were given back title deeds allowing them to return to their land. It has also been announced by the Tshwane Metro Council that a large inner city renewal project is planned that will include the Bloed Street Retail Park to be built close to Marabastad.

Thousands of commuters pass through the old business section of the Asiatic Bazaar, moving between the business and suburban areas of Pretoria and the concentration of previous homeland residential areas to the north of the city. The former residential areas are now bus depots and taxi ranks or are wasteland partly occupied by the temporary structures of informal shops and hawkers or informal communities of migrants and refugees.

The history and legacy of Marabastad are of immense importance as part of the heritage of Tshwane and of South Africa - as are the remains of its material culture that have escaped demolition. This includes houses, cinemas, shops and places of worship. The history of the movement of millions of indigenous people to urban centres which has characterized life in South Africa for well over a century, is reflected in Marabastad and its history. The potential of a restored and rejuvenated heritage and tourist focal point as well as a business area, is clear. Marabastad should take its rightful place as a symbol of survival in the face of adversity.



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