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Workers' Museum opens
08 March 2010

Worker's Museum opening

The old Worker's Compound in Newtown has been restored and reopened as a museum focusing on the lives of the migrant labourers who flocked to the city of gold.

CHRISTOPHER MABASO remembers the hardships of life at the Workers' Compound in Newtown, where he lived with 13 other people in a small room with no electricity.

The attractive visitors' centre
The attractive visitors' centre

The old facility, once home to migrant labourers working in Johannesburg, has been renovated and a section of it has been converted into a Workers' Museum, which explores the history of migrant labourers. Mabaso was speaking at the launch on 5 March.

The audience was captivated by his tales; he came to Johannesburg from KwaZulu-Natal for work, and lived at the compound from 18 August 1973. Here, residents were not allowed visitors and no talking was permitted after 10pm. Punishments included having buckets of ice water thrown at you, or being hung on a tree outside the rooms overnight.

The Workers' Museum tells a visual tale of the thousands of migrant workers from throughout Southern Africa who moved to the city of gold. They were faced with slave-like conditions, depicted in the museum's permanent exhibition, which includes the original dormitories, concrete bunks and punishment room.

Walls in the first room in the exhibition are lined with photographs of former residents, giving a brief history of their lives. Video clips are shown throughout the room, of the recollections and experiences of these people about their time at the compound. Items on display include brooms, blankets, bottles and passes - that hated symbol of apartheid oppression that had to be carried by each worker.

Makhatebe Mpemi, who frequented the compound, was also at the launch. She stayed here on weekends to visit her husband, who had found a job in Joburg.

Mfanyana Mtolo came to the city, where his father found work for him at the municipality. He lived at the Norwood Compound and worked as a grass cutter. He was promoted to supervisor and eventually induna, or superintendent. He recalled visiting friends at the Newtown compound and illustrated how they slept and lived.

Fanyana Mtolo, a former resident of the Norwood Compound
Fanyana Mtolo, a former resident of the Norwood Compound

The exhibition, focusing on the years from the early 1900s to the 1970s, reveals the hardships faced by migrant workers as well as their cultures.

According to Eric Itzkin, the deputy director of immovable heritage in the City, the Newtown Workers' Compound was declared a national monument in 1996. That same year, it was restored by conservation architects Alan Lipman and Henry Paine.

In 2008, Paine returned to the site, and once again set about restoring the compound. Steel beams were installed to hold up the sagging interior trusses; the rusty gutters were replaced, graffiti was removed from the brick-work, the walls were repainted and the terracotta floors were cleaned.

The refurbishment received an award of excellence from the South African Institute of Architects.

In the work, preservation was combined with modern touches. In his book Johannesburg Transition, Clive Chipkin writes about the restoration: "Anything that was new or added was carefully identified and highlighted as of our age. The symbiosis was a caring recovery of the old, together with the unabashed panache of the new. This is exemplified in the mezzanine deck and stair handrail, which comes out of contemporary design solutions at their best."

Sections of the compound are now used as meeting rooms and there is a small library with books related to labour history and socialist theory. The museum is housed in the restored west wing, while the east wing is a temporary space for exhibitions and community gatherings.

The museum's curator, Belinda Hlaka, said: "The east wing will be used as a book lounge; it will host cultural meetings and seminars all regarding workers' issues."

Besides the museum, a new addition to the compound was also unveiled at the launch - a Visitors' Centre, built in front of the courtyard linking the museum with Newtown Park. This new building is flat-roofed, so as not to compete with the historic buildings of the old compound. At the same time, it provides a modern entry point to the museum.

Displays in the Worker's Museum are intriguing
Displays in the Worker's Museum are intriguing

The buildings in the compound are not limited to migrant workers, but also show the different living conditions of black and white workers. There are the artisans' cottages on Jeppe Street, and crammed between these and the compound are the backyard rooms of domestic workers, offering a glimpse into those workers' lives.

Behind the cottages and at the entrance to the old compound is a statue of a municipal worker, erected by the South African Municipal Workers' Union (Samwu).

The City's arts, culture and heritage department worked with the Johannesburg Development Agency and Khanya College on the project to restore the compound and establish the museum.

Khanya College
Khanya College is an independent NGO that helps working class and poor communities. Its history programme includes three projects - the Popular History Project, the South African Intellectual Life Project and the Workers, Migrants and Compounds Project.

According to its website, this last project aims to contribute to the preservation and popularisation of the heritage of migrant workers in South Africa, while raising awareness of the challenges and injustices hostel residents faced. It also aims to prevent xenophobia and contribute positively to an inclusive and diverse society.

Activities that will be held at the museum will include educational events on the history of migrant labourers. Education publications will also be produced, such as newsletters, brochures posters and booklets.

Research on migrant labour history and its impact on society today will be undertaken; exhibitions on the history and heritage of migrant workers will be held; an archive on hostels and compounds in Gauteng will be compiled; and cultural events will be hosted that celebrate this heritage.

The Workers' Museum is at 52 Jeppe Street in Newtown. It is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 9am to 5pm and entrance is free. It is closed every Monday and on Good Friday, Christmas Day and Day of Goodwill.

For more information on the museum and Khanya College, visit their websites.

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Last Updated on 23 March 2010