For the Love of Jozi – Joburg Firsts

I’m not a great fan of Museum Africa as it fails to give me that welcoming feeling as I enter, there is no indication as to what exhibitions are on or where to find them. It almost looks like nothing happens there – too many blank walls and under-utilised spaces.  My friend Kathy and I went to the museum after rekindling an interest in the ‘Joburg Firsts’ manuscript compiled by Anna Smith in 1976, specifically to see the exhibition “Joburg Firsts”, which, incidentally, has been on display since about 2012.

This space should be made more inviting, it has so much potential.

If you are in any way interested in the history of Johannesburg then this is an exhibition you should make the effort to see. Tucked away up the ramp to the left as you enter the museum is the area that houses this exhibition. The exhibition is mainly made up of display boards with photographs and text, with a few objects dotted around. The boards are beautifully set out in categories such as In the beginning, Sport, Education, Churches, Mining etc.. One cannot help but think how this exhibition could be transformed into a beautiful coffee table book that any Joburg enthusiast would love to own.

Joburg Firsts exhibition

Some of the interesting facts you can discover about Joburg’s firsts –

Did you know there was a female mayor of Johannesburg in the 1940’s? I found this refreshing as women did not have many rights then.

Joburg’s first female mayor –  1945 Jessie McPherson (Photograph Museum Africa)

Who was the first female mayor of Soweto? – Sophia Masite in 1995

When did the township of Orlando get it’s public swimming pool? – 1954

Orlando Public Swimming Pool

Which public space in Joburg never had any segregation laws under apartheid imposed on it and was open to all the people of the city? – The Zoo and Zoo Lake areas.

The original entrance to the zoo.

The first major disaster in Jo’burg was the Great Dynamite Explosion of 1896 when a freight train hauling 8 rail trucks of dynamite (about 60 tonnes) exploded at the Braamfontein siding. This left a crater measuring 50 meters wide by 60 meters long and 8 meters deep, as well as destroying 3000 homes.

The first Mosque was built in Kerk Street in 1906.

The Globe Theatre was Joburg’s first permanent theatre, opening in 1889.

Lottie Davis was the city’s first female motorcyclist in 1911 (I’m all for girl power.)

The first suburban library was in Jeppestown in 1896.

Soweto was incorporated into the City of Johannesburg in 2002.

There are so many more interesting firsts but I’m not going to list them all here as you need to take a visit to Museum Africa and discover them for yourself.

I loved this photograph of the first Letter Carriers for the Post Office, 1896 (Photograph from Museum Africa)
One of Joburg’s first tennis courts built in 1887 at the house of E O Lecke on Harrison street.  The outfits and the disciplining of the dog make this a very special photograph. (Photograph from Museum Africa)

Museum Africa is situated at 121 Lilian Ngoyi Street, Newtown. They are open Tuesday to Sunday from 09h00 to 17h00. There is no entrance fee.




6 thoughts on “For the Love of Jozi – Joburg Firsts

Add yours

  1. Thanks Gail – great blog. I get so depressed by the cavernous empty spaces at Museum Afrika. It has such great holdings but there doesn’t seem to be the inclination/capacity/will or the resources to exhibit them in a new, creative and challenging way. So sad – it could be such an educational and tourist attraction and really enliven that part of Newtown. So am so pleased that you have written about this exhibition. I have the photocopied version of Anna Smith’s “Firsts” but would love to see the content on exhibition so will definitely make a visit. Thanks again!


    1. Liz something needs to be done about that space, it has so much potential. Maybe there should be “A friends of the Museum” established or for Johannesburg Heritage to take it over.


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