At their peak, the Johannesburg Town Hall steps were a place to soapbox on any subject under the sun. It was the politics of class, race and religion that dominated debate on the steps.
Nelson Mandela, the father of modern South Africa, described Johannesburg at the time of his arrival in 1941:
“Johannesburg in those days was a combination of frontier town and modern city. Butchers cut meat on the street next to office buildings. Tents were pitched beside bustling shops and women hung out their washing next to high-rise buildings.”
He had moved from the freedom of the Transkei to a segregated city. All blacks had to be indoors after 9pm and could not stay for more than 72 hours in the city. This was the city that he found politically exhilarating. As an active protestor and debater, Nelson Mandela came to know the steps of the Johannesburg City Hall. He also debated in the Bantu Mens’s Social Centre, the only downtown facility for back people at the time.
It was Johannesburg that set Mandela on the course that led to the destruction of Apartheid.
The Johannesburg City Hall steps could get rough. It was the place to protest with placards and hold a rally. Speakers’ platforms on the steps represented all the religious and political genres of the day.
In Johannesburg in 1917, people gathered on the steps of the City Hall to celebrate the victory of the Bolsheviks. In 1921 the Communist Party of South Africa (SACP) was formed. The SACP forged links with the newly founded Soviet Union. At first they believed that the white working class would eventually carry out the revolution that Marx thought inevitable. During the 1922 strikes, the Party’s slogan was “Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa !”
This confused state was quickly overcome and in 1924 the party concentrated on organising black workers into trade unions. The Communist Party of South Africa kept up a weekly platform on the steps of Johannesburg City Hall.
In 1940, James Madhlope Phillips (1919-1987) joined the Communist Party of South Africa. He established a reputation for defending the Party’s weekly platform on the Johannesburg City Hall steps. James was among those who physically warded off the fascist attacks of the Ossewabrandwag and the Grey Shirts. More often than not, the fascists retreated with bloody noses and cauliflower ears.
With the election of the National Party in 1948 the steps became increasingly more violent. The Communist Party was banned in South Africa in 1950. That banning ended any ongoing meaningful soapboxing on the steps.
There were still progressive whites, mostly in the more radical unions and in the communist parties. One such person was Anna Elizabeth Prinsloo Scheeper (1914-1999), a clothing presser and shop steward – an Afrikaner woman whose first loyalty lay with unions. In 1952, Scheeper was in the chair at a meeting held on the steps of the Johannesburg City Hall to protest the banning of Albie Sachs, a white activist. Police violently broke up the meeting. Thousands from all races converged on City Hall to protest the banning order. The police hid inside the City Hall and fascists mingled in the angry but peaceful crowd. Suddenly the police pounced on the people and the fascists set to work cracking skull and limbs. It was an orgy of violence. Albie Sachs went into exile. He survived a bomb blast and latter became a leading Justice of the Courts under Nelson Mandela. Over the next decades, Scheepers led the fight against apartheid legislation, which affected workers.
There is no regular soapboxing on the steps of Town Hall nowadays. However, political rallies are now tolerated in Johannesburg. In 2002 an estimated 18,000 people protested against the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Organisers from diverse backgrounds, ranging from environmentalist to ant-globalisation groups, agreed to gather at one point in Sandton precinct, near the Sandton Convention Centre where the summit was being held. The point of convergence was on the corner of 5th and Alice Street in Sandton’s central business district. It was deemed a Speakers’ Corner. That was the last reference to a Speakers’ Corner in Johannesburg.
Steve Maxwell suggests that you google Anna Elizabeth Prinsloo Scheeper, as well as James Madhlope Phillips (1919-1987). He says they are interesting key people not well known outside South Africa.
Sources: Johannesburg World Summit 2002 –News Full Story. Sunday Times –South Africa. World Summit on Sustainable Development.