Oom Paul's People - Howard Hillegas

Johannesburg of To-Day

The palms and bamboos of Durban, the Zulu policemen and 'ricksha boys, and the hospitable citizens have been left behind, and the little train of English compartment cars, each with its destination "Johannesburg" labelled conspicuously on its sides, is winding away through cane fields and banana groves, past groups of open-eyed natives and solemn, thin-faced Indian coolies.

Pretty little farmers' cottages in settings of palms, mimosas, and tropical plants are dotted in the green valleys winding around the innumerable small hills that look for all the world like so many inverted moss-covered china cups. Lumbering transport wagons behind a score of sleek oxen, wincing under the fire of the far-reaching rawhide in the hands of a sparsely clad Zulu driver, are met and passed in a twinkling. Neatly thatched huts with natives lazily lolling in the sun become more frequent as the train rolls on toward the interior, and the greenness of the landscape is changing into the brown of dead verdure, for it is the dry season—the South African winter. The hills become more frequent, and the little locomotive goes more slowly, while the train twists and writhes along its path like a huge python.

Zulu Maidens


Now it is on the hilltop from which the distant sea and its coast fringe of green are visible on the one side, and nothing but tree-less brown mountain tops on the other. A minute later it plunges down the hillside, along rocky precipices, over deep chasms, and then wearily plods up the zigzag course of another hillside. For five hours or more the monotony of miniature mountains continues, relieved by nothing more interesting than the noise of the train and the hilarious laughter and weird songs of a car load of Zulus bound for the gold fields. After this comes an undulating plain and towns with far less interest in their appearance than in their names. The traveller surfeited with Natal scenery finds amusement and diversion in the conductor's call of Umbilo, Umkomaas, Umgeni, Amanzimtoti, Isipingo, Mooi River, Zwartkop, or Pietermaritzburg, but will not attempt to learn the proper pronunciation of the names unless he has weeks at his command.

Farther on in the journey an ostrich, escaped from a farm, stalks over the plain, and, approaching to within several yards of the train, jogs along for many miles, and perchance wheedles the engineer into impromptu races. Hardly has the bird disappeared when on the wide veldt a herd of buck galloping with their long heads down, or a large number of wildebeest, plunging and jumping like animated hobby-horses, raise clouds of dust as they dash away from the monster of iron and steam. Shortly afterward the train passes a waterfall almost thrice as lofty as Niagara, but located in the middle of the plain, into whose surface the water has riven a deep and narrow chasm.

Since the balmy Indian Ocean has been left behind, the train has been rising steadily, sometimes an inch in a mile but oftener a hundred feet, and the air has grown cooler. The thousands of British soldiers at Ladysmith are wearing heavy clothing; their horses, tethered in the open air, are shivering, and far to the westward is the cause of it all—the lofty, snow-covered peaks of the Dragon Mountain. Night comes on and clothes the craggy mountains and broken valleys with varying shades of sombreness. The moon outlines the snow , far above, and with its rays marks the lofty line where sky and mountain crest seem to join. Morning light greets the train as it dashes down the mountain side, through the passes that connect Natal with the Transvaal and out upon the withered grass of the flat, uninteresting veldt of the Boer country.

The South African veldt in all its winter hideousness lies before you. It stretches out in all directions—to the north and south, to the east and west—and seems to have no boundaries. Its yellowish brownness eats into the brain, and the eyes grow weary from the monotony of the scene. Hour after hour the train bears onward in a straight line, but the landscape remains the same. But for noises and motions of the cars you would imagine that the train was stationary, so far as change of scenery is concerned. Occasionally a colony of huge ant-heaps or a few buck or deer may be passed, but for hours it is veldt, veldt, veldt! An entire day's journey, unrelieved except toward the end by a few straggling towns of Boer farmhouses or the sheet-iron cabins of prospectors, bring it to Heidelberg, once the metropolis as well as the capital of the republic, but now pining because the former distinguishing mark has been yielded to its neighbour, Johannesburg.

As the shades of another night commence to fall, the veldt suddenly assumes a new countenance. Lights begin to sparkle, buildings close together appear, and scores of tall smoke-stacks tower against the background of the sky. The presence of the smoke-stacks denote the arrival at the Randt, and for twenty miles the train rushes along this well-defined gold-yielding strip of land. Buildings, lights, stacks, and people become more numerous as the train progresses into the city limits of Johannesburg, and the traveller soon finds himself in the middle of a crowd of enthusiastic welcoming and welcomed persons on the platform of the station of the Nederlandsche Zuid-Afrikaansche Spoorweg-Maatschappij, and in the Golden City.

The sudden change from the dreary lifelessness of the veldt to the exciting crush and bustle of the station platform crowd is almost bewildering, because it is so different from what is expected in interior Africa. The station, a magnificent structure of stone and iron, presents more animated scenes whenever trains arrive than the Grand Central in New York or the Victoria in London, because every passenger is invariably met at the train by all his friends and as many of their friends as the station platform will accommodate. The crowd which surges around this centre of the city's life is of a more cosmopolitan character than that which can be found in any other city in the world with the exceptions of Zanzibar and Port Said. Almost every race is represented in the gathering, which is suggestive of a mass meeting of the villagers of the Midway Plaisance at the Columbian Exposition. In the crowd are stolid Anglo-Saxons shaking hands effusively; enthusiastic Latins embracing each other; negroes rubbing noses and cheeks; smiling Japanese; cold, stern Chinese; Cingalese, Russians, Malays, and Egyptians—all in their national costumes, and all welcoming friends in their native manner and language. Meandering through the crowd are several keen-eyed Boer policemen, commonly called "Zarps," politely directing the attention of innocent-looking newcomers to placards bearing the inscription "Pas op Zakkenrollers," which is the Boer warning of pickpockets.

After the traveller has forced a way through the crowd he is attacked by a horde of cabmen who can teach tricks of the trade to the London and New York night-hawks. Their equipages range from dilapidated broughams to antique 'rickshas, but their charges are the same—"a quid," or five dollars, either for a mile or a minute's ride. After the insults which follow a refusal to enter one of their conveyances have subsided, the agents of the hotels commence a vociferous campaign against the newcomers, and very clever it is in its way. They are able to distinguish a foreigner at one glance, and will change the name of the hotel which they represent a score of times in as many seconds in order to bag their quarry. For the patriotic American they have the New York Hotel, the Denver House, the Hotel California, and many other hostelries named after American cities. "Hey, Yank!" they will salute an American, "Come up to the New York Hotel and patronize American enterprise." If the traveller will accompany one of these agents he will find that all the names apply to one hotel, which has an American name but is conducted and patronized by a low class of foreigners. The victim of misrepresentation will seek another hotel, and will be fortunate if he finds comfortable quarters for less than ten dollars a day, or three times the amount he would be called upon to pay at a far better hotel in any American city of equal size. The privilege of fasting, or of awakening in the morning with a layer of dust an eighth of an inch deep on the counterpane and on the face may be ample return for the extraordinary charges, but the stranger in the city is not apt to adopt that view of the situation until he is acclimated.

The person who has spent several days in crossing the veldt and enters Johannesburg by night has a strange revelation before him when he is awakened the following morning. He has been led to believe that the city is a motley collection of corrugated-iron hovels, hastily constructed cabins, and cheap public buildings. Instead he finds a beautiful city, with well-paved streets, magnificent buildings of stone and brick, expensive public buildings, and scores of palatial residences. Many American cities of the same size and many times older can not show as costly buildings or as fine public works. Hotels of five and six stories, and occupying, in several instances, almost entire blocks, are numerous; of office buildings costing a quarter of a million dollars each there are half a score; banks, shops, and newspapers have three- and four-story buildings of brick and stone, while there are hundreds of other buildings that would be creditable to any large city in America or Europe. The Government Building in the centre of the city is a five-story granite structure of no mean architectural beauty. In the suburbs are many magnificent private residences of mine owners and managers who, although not permanent residents of the city, have invested large amounts of money, so that the short time they spend in the country may be amid luxurious and comfortable surroundings.

One of the disagreeable features of living in Johannesburg is the dust which is present everywhere during the dry season. It rises in great, thick clouds on the surrounding veldt, and, obscuring the sun, wholly envelops the city in semi-darkness. One minute the air is clear and there is not a breath of wind; several minutes later a hurricane is blowing and blankets of dust are falling. The dust clouds generally rise west of the city, and almost totally eclipse the sun during their progress over the plain. Sometimes the dust storms continue only a few minutes, but very frequently the citizens are made uncomfortable by them for days at a time. Whenever they arrive, the doors and windows of buildings are tightly closed, business is practically at a standstill, and every one is miserable. There is no escape from it. It penetrates every building, however well protected, and it lodges in the food as well as in the drink. Pedestrians on the street are unable to see ten feet ahead, and are compelled to walk with head bowed and with handkerchief over the mouth and nostrils. Umbrellas and parasols are but slight protection against it. Only the miners, a thousand feet below the surface, escape it. When the storm has subsided the entire city is covered with a blanket of dust ranging in thickness from an inch on the sidewalks to an eighth of an inch on the store counters, furniture, and in pantries. It has never been computed how great a quantity of the dust enters a man's lungs, but the feeling that it engenders is one of colossal magnitude.

Second to the dust, the main characteristic of Johannesburg is the inhabitants' great struggle for sudden wealth. It is doubtful whether there is one person in the city whose ambition is less than to become wealthy in five years at least, and then to return to his native country. It is not a chase after affluence; it is a stampede in which every soul in the city endeavours to be in the van. In the city and in the mines there are hundreds of honourable ways of becoming rich, but there are thousands of dishonourable ones; and the morals of a mining city are not always on the highest plane. There are business men of the strictest probity and honesty, and men whose word is as good as their bond, but there are many more who will allow their conscience to lie dormant so long as they remain in the country. With them the passion is to secure money, and whether they secure it by over-charging a regular customer, selling illicit gold, or gambling at the stock exchanges is a matter of small moment. Tradesmen and shop-keepers will charge according to the apparel of the patron, and will brazenly acknowledge doing so if reminded by the one who has paid two prices for like articles the same day. Hotels charge according to the quantity of luggage the traveller carries, and boarding-houses compute your wealth before presenting their bills. Street-car fares and postage stamps alone do not fluctuate in value, but the wise man counts his change.

The experiences of an American with one large business house in the city will serve as an example of the methods of some of those who are eager to realize their ambitions. The American spent many weeks and much patience and money in securing photographs throughout the country, and took the plates to a large firm in Johannesburg for development and printing. When he returned two weeks later he was informed that the plates and prints had been delivered a week before, and neither prayers nor threats secured a different answer. Justice in the courts is slow and costly, and the American was obliged to leave the country without his property. Shortly after his departure the firm of photographers commenced selling a choice collection of new South African photographs which, curiously, were of the same scenes and persons photographed by the American.

Gambling may be more general in some other cities, but it can not be more public. The more refined gamblers patronize the two stock exchanges, and there are but few too poor to indulge in that form of dissipation. Probably nine tenths of the inhabitants of the city travel the stock-exchange bypath to wealth or poverty. Women and boys are as much infected by the fever as mine owners and managers, and it would not be slandering the citizens to say that one fourth of the conversation heard on the streets refers to the rise and fall of stocks.

The popular gathering place in the city is the street in front of one of the stock exchanges known as "The Chains." During the session of the exchange the street is crowded with an excited throng of men, boys, and even women, all flushed with the excitement of betting on the rise and fall of mining stocks in the building. Clerks, office boys, and miners spend the lunch hour at "The Chains," either to invest their wages or to watch the market if their money is already invested. A fall in the value of stocks is of far greater moment to them than war, famine, or pestilence.

The passion for gambling is also satisfied by a giant lottery scheme known as "Sweep-stakes," which has the sanction of the Government. Thousands of pounds are offered as prizes at the periodical drawings, and no true Johannesburger ever fails to secure at least one ticket for the drawing. When there are no sessions of the stock exchanges, no sweep-stakes, horse races, ball games, or other usual opportunities for gambling, they will bet on the arrival of the Cape train, the length of a sermon, or the number of lashes a negro criminal can endure before fainting.

Drinking is a second diversion which occupies much of the time of the average citizen, because of the great heat and the lack of amusement. The liquor that is drunk in Johannesburg in one year would make a stream of larger proportions and far more healthier contents than the Vaal River in the dry season. It is a rare occurrence to see a man drink water unless it is concealed in brandy, and at night it is even rarer that one is seen who is not drinking. Cape Smoke, the name given to a liquor made in Cape Colony, is credited with the ability to kill a man before he has taken the glass from his lips, but the popular Uitlander beverage, brandy and soda, is even more fatal in its effects. Pure liquor is almost unobtainable, and death-dealing counterfeits from Delagoa Bay are the substitutes. Twenty-five cents for a glass of beer and fifty cents for brandy and soda are not deterrent prices where ordinary mine workers receive ten dollars a day and mine managers fifty thousand dollars a year.

Of social life there is little except such as is afforded by the clubs, of which there are several of high standing. The majority of the men left their families in their native countries on account of the severe climate, and that fact, combined with the prevalent idea that the weather is too torrid to do anything unnecessary, is responsible for Johannesburg's lack of social amenity. There are occasional dances and receptions, but they are participated in only by newcomers who have not yet fallen under the spell of the South African sun. The Sunday night's musical entertainments at the Wanderer's Club are practically the only affairs to which the average Uitlander cares to go, because he can clothe himself for comfort and be as dignified or as undignified as he pleases.

The true Johannesburger is the most independent man in the world. When he meets a native on the sidewalk he promptly kicks him into the street, and if the action is resented, bullies a Boer policeman into arresting the offender. The policeman may demur and call the Johannesburger a "Verdomde rooinek," but he will make the arrest or receive a drubbing. He may be arrested in turn, but he is ever willing and anxious to pay a fine for the privilege of beating a "dumb Dutchman," as he calls him. He pays little attention to the laws of the country, because he has not had the patience to learn what they consist of, and he rests content in knowing that his home government will rescue him through diplomatic channels if he should run counter to the laws. He cares nothing concerning the government of the city except as it interferes with or assists his own private interests, but he will take advantage of every opportunity to defy the authority of the administrators of the laws. He despises the Boers, and continually and maliciously ridicules them on the slightest pretexts. Specially true is this of those newspapers which are the representatives of the Uitlander population. Venomous editorials against the Boer Government and people appear almost daily, and serve to widen the breach between the two classes of inhabitants. The Boer newspapers for a long time ignored the assaults of the Uitlander press, but recently they have commenced to retaliate, and the editorial war is a bitter one. An extract from the Randt Post will show the nature and depth of bitterness displayed by the two classes of newspapers:

"Though Dr. Leyds may be right, and the Johannesburg population safe in case of war, we advise that, at the first act of war on the English side, the women and children, and well-disposed persons of this town, be given twenty-four hours to leave, and then the whole place be shot down; in the event, we repeat—which God forbid!—of war coming.

"If, indeed, there must be shooting, then it will be on account of seditious words and deeds of Johannesburg agitators and the co-shareholders in Cape Town and London, and the struggle will be promoted for no other object than the possession of the gold. Well, then, let such action be taken that the perpetrators of these turbulent proceedings shall, if caught, be thrown into the deep shafts of their mines, with the debris of the batteries for a costly shroud, and that the whole of Johannesburg, with the exception of the Afrikander wards, be converted into a gigantic rubbish heap to serve as a mighty tombstone for the shot-down authors of a monstrous deed.

"If it be known that these valuable buildings and the lives of the wire-pullers are the price of the mines, then people will take good heed before the torch of war is set alight. Friendly talks and protests are no use with England. Let force and rough violence be opposed to the intrigues and plots of Old England, and only then will the Boer remain master."

It is on Saturday nights that the bitterness of the Uitlander population is most noticeable, since then the workers from the mines along the Randt gather in the city and discuss their grievances, which then become magnified with every additional glass of liquor. It is then that the city streets and places of amusement and entertainment are crowded with a throng that finds relaxation by abusing the Boers. The theatre audiences laugh loudest at the coarsest jests made at the expense of the Boers, and the bar-room crowds talk loudest when the Boers are the subject of discussion. The abuse continues even when the not-too-sober Uitlander, wheeled homeward at day-break by his faithful Zulu 'ricksha boy, casts imprecations upon the Boer policeman who is guarding his property.

Johannesburg is one of the most expensive places of residence in the world. Situated in the interior of the continent, thousands of miles distant from the sources of food and supplies, it is natural that commodities should be high in price. Almost all food stuffs are carried thither from America, Europe, and Australia, and consequently the original cost is trebled by the addition of carriage and customs duties. The most common articles of food are twice as costly as in America, while such commodities as eggs, imported from Madeira, frequently are scarce at a dollar a dozen. Butter from America is fifty cents a pound, and fruits and vegetables from Cape Colony and Natal are equally high in price and frequently unobtainable. Good board can not be obtained anywhere for less than five dollars a day, while the best hotels and clubs charge thrice that amount. Rentals are exceptionally high owing to the extraordinary land values and the cost of erecting buildings. A small, brick-lined, corrugated-iron cottage of four rooms, such as a married mine-employee occupies, costs from fifty to seventy-five dollars a month, while a two-story brick house in a respectable quarter of the city rents for one hundred dollars a month.

Every object in the city is mutely expressive of a vast expenditure of money. The idea that everything—the buildings, food, horses, clothing, machinery, and all that is to be seen—has been carried across oceans and continents unconsciously associates itself with the cost that it has entailed. Four-story buildings that in New York or London would be passed without remark cause mental speculation concerning their cost, merely because it is so patent that every brick, nail, and board in them has been conveyed thousands of miles from foreign shores. Electric lights and street cars, so common .in American towns, appear abnormal in the city in the veldt, and instantly suggest an outlay of great amounts of money even to the minds which are not accustomed to reducing everything to dollars and pounds.

Leaving the densely settled centre of the city, where land is worth as much as choice plots on Broadway, and wandering into the suburbs where the great mines are, the idea of cost is more firmly implanted into the mind. The huge buildings, covering acres of ground and thousands of tons of the most costly machinery, seem to be of natural origin rather than of human handiwork. It is almost beyond belief that men should be daring enough to convey hundreds of steamer loads of lumber and machinery halfway around the world at inestimable cost merely for the yellow metal that Nature has hidden so far distant from the great centres of population.

The cosmopolitanism of the city is a feature which impresses itself most indelibly upon the mind. In a half-day's stroll in the city representatives of all the peoples of the earth, with the possible exception of the American Indian, Eskimos, and South Sea islanders, will be seen variously engaged in the struggle for gold. On the floors of the stock exchanges are money barons or their agents, as energetic and sharp as their prototypes of Wall and Throckmorton Streets. These are chiefly British, French, and German. Outside, between "The Chains," are readily discernible the distinguishing features of the Americans, Afrikanders, Portuguese, Russians, Spaniards, and Italians. A few steps distant is Commissioner Street, the principal thoroughfare, where the surging throng is composed of so many different racial representatives that an analysis of it is not an easy undertaking. He is considered an expert who can name the native country of every man on the street, and if he can distinguish between an American and a Canadian he is credited with being a wise man.

In the throng is the tall, well-clothed Briton, with silk hat and frock coat, closely followed by a sparsely clad Matabele, bearing his master's account books or golf-sticks. Near them a Chinaman, in circular red-topped hat and flowing silk robes, is having a heated argument in broken English with an Irish hansom-driver. Crossing the street are two stately Arabs, in turbans and white robes, jostling easy-going Indian coolies with their canes. Bare-headed Cingalese, their long, shiny hair tied in knots and fastened down with circular combs, noiselessly gliding along, or stopping suddenly to trade Oriental jewelry for Christian's money; Malays, Turks, Egyptians, Persians, and New-Zealanders, each with his distinctive costume; Hottentots, Matabeles, Zulus, Mashonas, Basutos, and the representatives of hundreds of the other native races south of the Zambezi pass by in picturesque lack of bodily adornment.

It is an imposing array, too, for the majority of the throng is composed of moderately wealthy persons, and even in the centre of Africa wealth carries with it opportunities for display. John Chinaman will ride in a 'ricksha to his joss-house with as much conscious pride as the European or American will sit in his brougham or automobile. Money is as easily spent as made in Johannesburg, and it is a cosmopolitan habit to spend it in a manner so that everybody will know it is being spent. To make a display of some sort is necessary to the citizen's happiness. If he is not of sufficient importance to have his name in the subsidized newspapers daily he will seek notoriety by wearing a thousand pounds' worth of diamonds on the street or making astonishing bets at the race-track. In that little universe on the veldt every man tries to be superior to his neighbour in some manner that may be patent to all the city. When it is taken into consideration that almost all the contestants were among the cleverest and shrewdest men in the countries whence they came to Johannesburg, and not among the riffraff and failures, then the intensity of the race for superiority can be imagined.

Johannesburg might be named the City of Surprises. Its youthful existence has been fraught with astonishing works. It was born in a day, and one day's revolution almost ended its existence. It grew from the desert veldt into a garden of gold. Its granite residences, brick buildings, and iron and steel mills sprang from blades of grass and sprigs of weeds. It has transformed the beggar into a millionaire, and it has seen starving men in its streets. It harbours men from every nation and climate, but it is a home for few. It is far from the centre of the earth's civilization, but it has often attracted the whole world's attention. It supports its children, but by them it is cursed. Its god is in the earth upon which it rests, and its hope of future life in that which it brings forth. And all this because a man upturned the soil and called it gold.