A few weeks after I moved to South Africa five years ago, I walked into an antique shop and fell into a conversation with the owner about interesting places to visit in Joburg.

“You should really go to Modderfontein,” the guy said. “There’s an old dynamite factory there and loads of history.” He even offered to take me on a tour.

I kept this in the back of my mind for years but never got around to Modderfontein, which means “muddy spring” in Afrikaans. It sounded far away — somewhere on the East Rand. A couple of other people recommended historic Modderfontein to me over the years. But it wasn’t until last week, when I went to Modderfontein investigating tourist attractions for another project, that I finally realized what I was missing.

AECI weather station

An old weather station building in Modderfontein. I’m not sure what year it was built but according to the Modderfontein Conservation Society it was was the first weather station in the Transvaal.

I’m transfixed by the history of Modderfontein. It was founded in 1894 (eight years after Joburg) when ZAR President Paul Kruger decided the Republic needed a dynamite factory for the burgeoning mining industry. Kruger seconded a factory manager named Franz Hoenig from the Nobel company in Europe (Alfred Nobel was the inventor of dynamite) and construction began immediately.

The factory opened in 1896 and small settlements of factory workers began to sprout up around it. Modderfontein became a village, with a school and several shops, and Franz Hoenig built a huge mansion for himself and his family.

Franz Hoenig House

Franz Hoenig House.

Eventually, after a couple of wars and new government regimes, the Modderfontein Factory came under the ownership of an explosives company now known as AECI. AECI owns the factory today (it’s still operating), and is responsible for preserving many of the buildings in historic Modderfontein. AECI also runs a small museum about the history of the dynamite industry in Modderfontein, called the AECI Dynamite Factory Museum.

AECI Museum

The AECI Dynamite Factory Museum at 2 Main Road, Modderfontein. It’s a very nice museum but only open on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday from 0800-1200, which is rather inconvenient. Call Martie at 011-608-2747 for more information.

I could ramble on for ages about Modderfontein’s history, but what I really want to convey is the way Modderfontein feels. When I first arrived there, I didn’t know any of the information relayed above. But I felt something. Modderfontein is quaint and quiet and green. There are huge trees everywhere. It’s surreal, really, because it feels so different — so far away — from the rest of Joburg.

Modderfontein bakery building

This building was originally the town’s bakery. Today it’s a nursery school.

Modderfontein houses

Quaint, mid-20th-century houses.

On my first Modderfontein visit, my goal was to check out the museum. But I didn’t realize it closed at 12 and I was too late, so I wandered around a bit and came back again a few days later. On that second visit I succeeded in going to the museum and spoke to Martie, the curator. Martie arranged to have Franz Hoenig House, which is right next to the museum and used only for private functions, unlocked for me.

I walked up to Franz Hoenig House and met Jones, the caretaker.

Jones at Hoenig House

Jones Segooa on the steps of Franz Hoenig House.

Jones has worked for AECI since 1972, and would like to be retired by now but apparently he is the only person anyone trusts to look after Franz Hoenig House. Jones took me on a tour through the house, which still feels 100 years old and is perfectly preserved, relating anecdotes about the rooms, the furniture, the books, the photographs.

I stopped short in the dining room, beside the massive wooden table polished to a gleaming shine.

I pointed to a picture on the wall, very unlike the rest of the wall decorations in the house. “Who’s THAT?” I asked.

“That is Mr. Dai,” Jones replied. “I guess you could say I work for him now.”

Hoenig House Dai portrait

A portrait of Mr. Dai.

Which brings me to the other part of this story. Franz Hoenig House and most of historic Modderfontein are owned by a Chinese company called Zendai Shanghai.

A couple of years ago AECI sold all the land around its factory to Zendai Shanghai. Zendai Shanghai plans to build a massive “smart city” in Modderfontein, which will include skyscrapers and house up to 100,000 people. Construction is already underway — you can see it from the driveway of Franz Hoenig House. AECI is currently leasing Franz Hoenig House, the museum, and many of Modderfontein’s other historic buildings back from Zendai Shanghai.

Mr. Dai is the founder and CEO of Zendai Shanghai. I suppose he requested that his photo be hung in the dining room of Franz Hoenig House, and as inappropriate and anachronistic as it looks, he got what he wanted. Gazing at that nearly life-size photo, I could tell that Mr. Dai is the kind of man who gets what he wants.

This all happened last Friday. While chatting to Martie I learned that there would be a walking tour of historic Modderfontein the next morning, sponsored by the Modderfontein Conservation Society. These tours only happen twice a year so my timing was very lucky.

I really enjoyed the tour, led by a passionate lifelong Modderfontein resident named Keith Martin. It was great to spend more time wandering the neighborhood and learn about the town’s history from people who have lived there.

AECI Laboratory

A former AECI laboratory building, now a security office on the AECI business campus.

Modderfontein fort

In addition to the dynamite factory, Modderfontein also housed a military barracks during the Anglo-Boer War. These are the remains of the military fort.

AECI recreation venue

This building is called “the Casino” and was originally built as a recreation center for factory management and their families. It now houses offices for Zendai staff.

While on the tour I had hoped to learn more about the Zendai development and what kind of threat it might pose to historic Modderfontein. But no one seems to know very much. Or at least no one wants to say very much. Zendai management isn’t easy to communicate with, according to Keith Martin. And although the buildings are legally protected, Keith says the preservation laws are difficult to enforce.

I’m not an investigative journalist and this post is already way too long. I don’t want to be inflammatory or alarmist, and I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface of what is really going on in Modderfontein. But I think it’s a beautiful place and the history there should be preserved. I hope historic Modderfontein gets protected. That is all.

AECI factory

One of the few glimpses I got of the actual factory, which is located on Nobel Avenue.

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