The end of an era in Yeoville! An icon of Yeoville has gone! These are made-up, stock-in-trade, over-dramatic, attention-grabbing headlines boringly over-used by newspapers and TV news channels. I’m not going to use them to tell this story.
Instead I am going to use the (real) words of a woman who called me two days ago, Thursday 4 April. There was a touch of desperation in her voice (Here I’m not being dramatic).
‘What’s happening to the train? There are people breaking it down. Who are they? Are they supposed to be doing that? They are taking away our old Yeoville.’
I had no idea what she was talking about. At least this latest development. Of course I knew about the train. I probably know more about it than most people. But I had no idea that it was being taken apart – though I wasn’t surprised.
I hesitate to use race in my blogs – in any writing – but sometimes it is important to make a point. So I’m going to mention that the woman who phoned is black, as is her friend who phoned later. They had been on the bus on their way to work when they saw what was happening to their beloved train. Their beloved, broken-down, dirty, squatted, rusting train. I am told that one of them was weeping.
The mention of race is important because, so often when we talk about preserving the past, it is assumed that it is only whites who have this concern, especially in areas which were formerly white. But here we have two black women who probably arrived in the area many years after the train – and they were mourning its loss to the community of Yeoville Bellevue. I have to say I was moved – and grateful to them for calling me, because it gave me a chance to go there and get some photographs of the slow destruction of the sad old carriage.
The train in question is (or was) a passenger coach which had, with some extreme effort, been off-loaded in Raleigh St, probably sometime in the early 1980s and installed on a sliver of property belonging to the then-Department of Post and Telecommunications or some such name. Called the Slow Coach, it soon became very popular as a breakfast and lunch venue where patrons could sit and watch the world of Yeoville go by.
On the left of the coach was a toilet block for customers to use and on the right, after a time, Gary Prentice set up Rambling Rose, a ramshackle little flower outlet from which residents of Yeoville Bellevue and elsewhere bought fistfuls of flowers at very reasonable prices.
By the late 1990s, business had gone down for both enterprises. Gary moved his flower shop to Rosebank, a bad move as he didn’t get enough passing trade, and so he closed down and operated from his house in Saunders St, Yeoville instead. He had established a number of regular clients – restaurants, offices, shops – who wanted daily or weekly replacement bouquets, he did weddings and other functions, and so he was able to make a reasonable living.
In the meantime, the owner of the Slow Coach decided to sell the business. It wasn’t easy, but eventually she got a buyer. Unfortunately, the new owner – who changed the name to the Still Coach – didn’t make a go of it. It became more of a drinking hole than a restaurant, got more and more shabby, and eventually closed down.
And there it stood for years. On either side, little cell phone outlets opened, whether with the approval of the landowner or not, I don’t know.
The landowner by this time was Telkom. After 1994 and the re-positioning of the once-dominant government telecommunications body as a public enterprise listed on the stock exchange, the 2 000m2 piece of land was transferred to them. Occupying the bulk of the property was the Yeoville telephone exchange, servicing Yeoville, Bellevue, Bellevue East, Observatory and other surrounding suburbs.
This particular piece of land was in the hands of the state for a very long time. From early in the 20th century until the 1960s, there was a grand red-brick post office on the Raleigh St side of the property. I recall standing as a child in front of its entrances (there were two, of course – one for whites and one for blacks) in the 1960s, asking passing mothers to help me with the ‘3c busfare’ I claimed I needed to get home.
Despite increasing resistance to the unnecessary destruction of Johannesburg’s heritage, the post office was demolished, probably so that the new telephone exchange could be built on the site. The entrance to the new exchange was in Hunter St, the road just north of Raleigh St. On Raleigh St, there was a plain wall.
In the late 1970s, when I lived in Hunter St, one block from the exchange, the entire telephone system in Yeoville and surrounding areas went down. A fire had broken out in the building. As an interim solution, the department placed a temporary exchange in the street, blocking it off to traffic for the many months it took them to restore the service in the building itself.
I am not sure if the authorities decided to try and raise funds through renting out part of the land or if an enterprising businessmen saw the potential of using a portion of the exchange parking lot which was immediately behind the wall on Raleigh St. Whichever it was, a deal was struck, a short piece of railway was laid down and covered over with gravel, and the old South Africa Railways carriage hoisted into place.
Over the years, many people wondered what could be done to bring the train back into service. The owner seemed to have no new ideas, but there was also no-one else stepping forward to buy it and give it a new lease of life.
Then disaster struck the exchange for a second (and final) time. In January 2010, an underground gas line explosion once again knocked out the telephone system and rendered the building unsafe for use. Telkom immediately began negotiations with the Department of Public Works to use a corner of a nearby sportsground to put up a temporary exchange. (Strangely, neither of them thought to ask the two nearby government schools – one responsible for the land, the other using it – whether it was okay for them to take over a section of it.
We were building up to the Soccer World Cup at that time and I drafted a proposal which would see the train being brought back into service, this time as a community facility.
I approached the owner of the train and asked if we could use it in return for getting it completely refurbished. If he decided to sell it after a specified period, he could do so and he would get a better price for it because of the refurbishment.
I asked Telkom if we could use the land for free.
If the two of them agreed, then I was going to approach Transnet or the Passenger Rail Association of South Africa (PRASA) to refurbish the carriage at their cost as a social investment exercise.
Sadly, neither the owner of the train nor Telkom agreed and so we didn’t even get to approach Transnet or Prasa.
Then, Telkom decided to sell the land. At the same time (again without consulting the schools) they decided to buy the corner of the field where their temporary facility (now to be permanent) was situated.
This seemed a great opportunity. We needed land for the establishment of a new market in the area. The existing market was too small and the streets were filled with street traders who were being harassed by Metro Police all the time. If we had a new market, this would provide street traders with a permanent selling spot, we could establish small production facilities, and we could maybe even attract visitors to the area to the two markets. The train we would refurbish and use as a market office or a restaurant. It would make a great iconic entrance to the new market. Here’s my crude attempt to show how it could have looked, with gates on either side that would open against the wall during the day. (The exchange building has been demolished.)
Telkom flatly refused to come to the party. We asked them to consider donating the land to the community or to the City of Johannesburg or to sell it at a nominal price. They said no, that if we wanted the land, we should make them an offer, but they were treating it as a purely commercial exercise. We tried all sorts of channels – appealing to the people at the top, asking political and business connections to intervene and persuade them – but we failed to move them.
We spoke to the City of Johannesburg, asking them to approach Telkom urgently. They too did not seem to take the idea very seriously.
We approached individuals and companies in the private sector, but could attract no interest except from one property owner who saw the tourist potential of having a new market and so was willing to buy it for us, but he could not consider going above a certain price – and we knew Telkom wanted much more.
And so the property was eventually sold, to whom we do not yet know. Telkom must have been happy because they got more than double the amount they were willing to accept. The new owners are happy because they now have a prime piece of property in the heart of the commercial district of Yeoville Bellevue.
And the train is gone. It obviously does not fit into the vision the new owners have for the place and so it had to go. It was so dilapidated that it was not worth moving it – and so breaking it up was the only solution.
The people who had been squatting in the carriage sat around glumly as I took photographs of the workers tearing their home apart. They wanted to know where they should now go. I had no answer.
I also had no answer for Busie and Nomhle, the two women who called me about the destruction of their beloved train – I couldn’t even explain to myself how it was that we had missed such an opportunity to renew that section of Raleigh St, to give a new lease of life to the train, to create more permanent income-generating opportunities for street traders, to build space for workshops where entrepreneurs could produce goods for sale, and to attract visitors (and their money) into the area, all of which would have contributed to the socio-economic revival of the area.