Focus on Benoni, Gauteng, South Africa
Benoni’s inauspicious beginnings were in 1881 when then surveyor-general Johan Rissik found it difficult to assign title deeds to all unclaimed state property. He named a piece of land in the area, Government Farm Benoni (son of my sorrow), after the Hebrew name given by Rachel to her son in the biblical Book of Genesis. In September 1887, gold was discovered and the Chimes Mine was established by Cornishmen. The village became known as “Little Cornwall” for a time.

Sir George Farrar, the chairman of a mining company, undertook the planning of the rapidly growing mining town in 1904. A river was dammed into a series of dams for mine use. Today these dams remain and are populated with fish. Many people do recreation activities at these dams including boating and picnicking.

Thousands of trees were also planted in the new mining district and it was declared the township of Benoni in 1906. Most residents were British miners followed by a strong Jewish population who suffered anti-Semitism in eastern Europe and lost all their possessions.

In 1907 the first Synagogue and the Benoni Race Track were opened. This horse racing track was breathtaking by its sheer size as compared to the small mining town in which it was situated. The first race was run on Saturday 7th December 1907 and was won by a pony named Fusy and owned by Mr John (Jack) William Travis, a Jewish farrier on the gold mines from England. Two unusual prizes were awarded for that first race, a mounted golden whip for the jockey and a gold medal for the owner of the pony. John William Travis was also responsible for importing the first race horses from England.

In 1922 the Rand Revolt (or 1922 Strike) broke out throughout the mines on the Witwatersrand and thousands of white miners went on strike. The strike was partly led by the South African Communist Party and was not well received by the South African Government so soon after the Russian Communist Revolution of 1917.

The strike quickly degenerated into open revolt, with armed miners fighting the South African police and army in the streets. The revolt lasted for about a year and the miners were bombed by the newly formed South African Air Force (SAAF) during this time. Some of the SAAF aeroplanes were shot down by the miners by groundfire. During the revolt, Benoni was used as one of the headquarters of the miners and much fighting took place in and around the area. The Benoni Museum details this episode in the town’s history.

During World War II, the South African Airforce was training pilots in Benoni.

In 1957, in an effort to introduce the sport of rugby league to South Africa, Great Britain and France played the first of a series of three exhibition matches in Benoni.

During the Apartheid Era designated townships for Blacks were established outside Benoni, namely Daveyton and Wattville. The township of Actonville was established for the habitation of Indians, whilst Benoni proper was reserved for 'whites only'. These various suburbs remain although the town is today relatively well integrated and all race-groups may live anywhere they please.

Benoni Today

Benoni is very diverse, with people of every colour and denomination. There are over ten schools in Benoni and in some areas there is a concentration of up to 6000 students within a 5km radius.

Over time gold mining has decreased in importance. Today the town is focused more on industry and services, rather than mining, and is used as a service hub for other East Rand towns such as Brakpan, Nigel and Springs. Benoni is also the site of the Benoni Heliport, for the use of helicopters.

Visitors to the town may visit the local museum, the many lakes, the Lakeside Shopping Mall (built in the shape of a Mississippi Steamboat on one of the lakes) or Northmead Square (known as the first shopping centre to bring cinemas back to Benoni) located in the suburbs. Near to Northmead Square is the Bunny Park which contains hundreds of rabbits and other small animals and is aimed at children. Willowmoore Park is a provincial and One Day International Cricket venue. Sibikwa, an international recognised and acclaimed communitytheatre, is situated in the east of the town since 1989

It is believed that Benoni has more horse stables per square kilometre than any other place in the Southern Hemisphere.

During the 1990's Benoni was the site for the WOMAD Festival (the World of Music, Arts and Dance), an international cultural festival held annually around the world and used to showcase various artists.

World famous Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron was born in Benoni. She then moved to become a star in Hollywood, but was seen in Benoni again promoting her movie Monster.

In December 2004, Israel Travis led a historic tour of the city on horseback while some of the tourists rode on an 1800s Victorian Spider carriage. The tourists were dressed in traditional British and Boer clothing. The tour included some of the gold mines and a parade through the main street, Prince’s Avenue.

Benoni was also the setting for the MTV-inspired, popular cult movie Crazy Monkey: Straight Outta Benoni, released internationally in 2005.

The town is currently run by the African National Congress (ANC), with the liberal- democratic Democratic Alliance being the official local opposition.

A more recent M-Net television series called The Coconuts is also based on a family in Benoni.

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