Up in flames, a landmark of the old Johannesburg


This picture burns me to the soul. It was shot by Victor Dlamini, who used to be a journalist, and who now works in advertising and PR.

It’s a picture of an old building, consumed by fire, engulfed by smoke, in the closing hours of a Sunday evening. But it’s also a picture of an era coming to an end, extinguished in flames as bright and dazzling as molten gold.

This is, this was, the Old Johannesburg Post Office in Rissik Street. It was built in 1897, just a decade or so after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand, when Joburg was just a rough and tumble mining town. In many ways, of course, it still is.

But this building, once the tallest in town, designed by President Paul Kruger’s architect, Sytze Wierda, was neither rough nor tumble. It was three stories high, with bay windows, red-brick upper floors, a portico and balcony, and a bell tower with matching rooftop cupolas.

I knew the building well, because I used to live diagonally across the road from it, in a block of flats in President Street. I knew the bell tower especially well.

When I first moved into the flat, I thought, great, I’ll be able to check what time it is just by stepping onto the balcony. (We didn’t have cellphones then.)

Then it dawned on me: this was the city’s big timepiece, and it was set to chime every 15 minutes, and for 12 times twice a day. At noon, it was fine; at midnight, I thought it would carry on chiming for all eternity.

But I got used to it. I asked not for whom the bell tolled, because it tolled for me. I enjoyed hearing the passing of the day being marked off in discrete signals of mellow, resonant timbre.

And mostly, I enjoyed just sitting on the balcony, and looking at the Old Post Office, glowing fire-orange in the setting sun, lit up by bolts of lighting in the overture to an electric storm, and even, once, lightly dusted with flakes of snow on an unseasonably icy September day.

It was just a building, like Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State are just buildings. But it was also history and art and human traffic, and it stood there, stately, elegant, and proud, for 112 years, while the city roared and rose and grew all around it.

And now it’s gone, just ash and memory in the cold light of day. Goodbye, Old Rissik Street Post Office, and thanks for the view.

Johannesburg, my City of Gold, is a little less Johannesburg today.




7 comments on “Up in flames, a landmark of the old Johannesburg

  1. I’ve seen this building only a few times while visiting Jo’burg, but this post makes it real and personal to me. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I drove past it the other day – the walls are still standing, but the tower is more or less in ruins…it looks like something out of the WW2 Blitz. No official cause yet, but if it wasn’t arson, it was at least partly neglect.

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