Once upon a time, about 130 years ago, a group of Zulu men called the AmaWasha ran a business washing clothes beside a stream, on the outskirts of a ramshackle mining town called Johannesburg.

The water in this stream was particularly good for clothes-washing. Soon a bustling laundry called Rand Steam mushroomed on the spot, displacing the AmaWasha. South Africans hotels shipped their linens from from as far away as Cape Town to be washed at Rand Steam.

The laundry closed many decades later but the original buildings — some of the oldest industrial structures in Joburg — received protected heritage status from the city.

The buildings remained until the early 2000s, when a company called Imperial Holdings — to the rage and dismay of heritage activists and other onlookers — illegally tore down the Rand Steam Laundries to build a car dealership.

Enter the heroes of this story: the formidable Flo Bird and her colleagues at the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation, who organized a resistance, picketed the site, raised a ruckus with the city government, and ultimately blocked the car dealership from being built.

There wasn’t much left of Rand Steam save a few discarded elements of the buildings and a small, round filtration tower, which now stands like a mini fortress on the site.

More than a decade passed. After endless painful negotiations between the Heritage Foundation, the City of Joburg, Imperial (who was forced to continue paying taxes on the land even though they weren’t permitted to use it), and a new development company called the Moolman Group, a plan was reached to develop the land in a way that satisfied all parties concerned.

In April 2019, the Rand Steam Shopping Centre opened and everyone lived happily ever after.

The end.

Restored wall at Rand Steam Laundries shopping centre
Tribute to the AmaWasha on a re-created wall at the new Rand Steam Shopping Centre. The developers worked to incorporate original elements from the old laundry buildings wherever possible.

The Rand Steam Shopping Centre

Okay, obviously that’s not really the end and the Rand Steam Laundries did not exactly live happily ever after. Not everyone feels a shopping centre on this site — complete with Pick-n-Pay, Woolworths, and Clicks (the equivalent chains to Safeway, Whole Foods, and CVS in the United States) — is a happy ending to this story. I was a bit suspicious myself.

Pick n Pay at the Rand Steam Shopping Centre
The Pick-n-Pay sign stands next to the old ventilators from the laundry, which were installed on the roof of the centre.

But I went to Rand Steam for the first time this week and I have to admit, the place is nice. Joburg has a lot of shopping centres but this is the only Joburg shopping centre I know of that has a blue heritage plaque, a beautiful artistic tribute to the original heritage of the site, and a century-old white-washed filtration tower that has been turned into a hip shoe shop.

The old filtration tower, which stands in the center of the complex.
Inside the filtration tower at Rand Steam
Inside the filtration tower. I love how this space has been renovated and I love these shoes by Six Kings.

I love the mix of retailers in the centre. Yes, the big brands are there; consumers need those brands and they’re essential to the financial success of the project. But the management of Rand Steam has worked hard to create space for small business and entrepreneurs beside those big brands.

Small businesses that have moved into Rand Steam include Bonafide Beards, Re-Trend, Cowfish, and the aforementioned Six Kings.

Inside Re-Trend at Rand Steam
Inside the beautiful Re-Trend home furnishing store.

On my first visit I met a friend at Bootlegger Coffee Company, a small-ish restaurant chain from Cape Town, and really enjoyed my flat white and hipster green smoothie. The restaurant was full, and kids were having a ball playing in the landscaped area beside the restaurant where the AmaWasha tribute wall stands.

A Joburg historical landmark was destroyed — a tragedy that has happened (and will probably continue to happen) many times over in Joburg and other cities all over the world. But some positive things have sprouted from that destruction. The site of the old Rand Steam Laundries is no longer a barren wasteland, but a place where the community can gather and shop and support South African business.

What more can we ask? Well done to everyone who made it happen.

Rand steam blue heritage plaque

Read more about Rand Steam in this article from the Mail & Guardian.

Rand Steam is at the corner of Barry Hertzog Avenue and Napier Road, Richmond.

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