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, after the Hebrew name (meaning “son of my sorrow”), given by Rachel to her son (who later became known as Benjamin) 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 to create a series of reservoirs for mine use.
Today the reservoirs remain and are populated with fish; recreational activities, including boating and picnicking, are enjoyed by many people.
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 had 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 7 December 1907 and was won by a pony named Fusy owned by John (Jack) William Travis, a Jewish farrier on the gold mines who had come 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 imported the first race horses from England for Benoni racing.
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 groundfire from the miners. 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 trained 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 black people was 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 members of all race-groups may live anywhere they please.
Several streets were renamed. “Fort Road” got its name from a British fort at the end of the road and was renamed “Voortrekker Street” during the National Party’s publicity campaign. Market Avenue got its name from the farmers’ market where the Benoni Plaza was built and was renamed to “Princes Avenue” in honour of Prince George. Bedford street was renamed Tom Jones Street after a former mayor of Benoni.
Benoni has been honoured with three British royal visits, as well as several visits from Princess Charlene Wittstock of Monaco who grew up in Benoni.
Today Benoni remains an English speaking city.
Benoni is a diverse city. It boasts more horse stables per square kilometer than anywhere in the southern hemisphere. Benoni has over ten schools; in some areas there is a concentration of up to 6000 students within a 5 km radius. Ashton International College was founded here in 1998.
Over time gold mining has decreased in importance. Today the city 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 Northmead suburb. Near Northmead Square is the Bunny Park, which contains hundreds of rabbits and other small animals and is aimed at entertaining children. Willowmoore Park is a provincial and One Day International Cricket venue. Sibikwa, an internationally recognised and acclaimed community theatre, has been situated in the east of the town since 1989.
During the 1990s 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.
Oscar winning actress Charlize Theron was born in Benoni.
Benoni was also the setting for the MTV-inspired movie Crazy Monkey: Straight Outta Benoni, released internationally in 2005.
The town is currently represented in the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality by the African National Congress (ANC) in the majority, with the liberal-democratic Democratic Alliance being the official local opposition. The City Hall, built in 1937, is a good example of art deco architecture.
Suburbs of Benoni
Benoni contains numerous attractive and tree-lined suburbs, and has a strong suburban character, quite unlike many other East Rand towns, which tend to be more industrialised. The main suburbs are:
Benoni North Agricultural Holdings
Famous People from Benoni
Bryan Habana, current Springboks rugby union
Mildred Mangxola, singer and member of the Mahotella Queens
Jessica Marais, actress
Brian Mitchell, boxing champion,
Koos Ras, singer, comedian, writer and businessman
Charlize Theron, Oscar-winning actress
Charlene, Princess of Monaco, (née Charlene Wittstock), swimmer, and consort of Prince Albert II of Monaco
Victor Vic Anthony Toweel, undisputed World bantamweight champion and South African boxing champion. He and his brothers were known as the ‘Fighting Toweels’ as they’d all won various regional boxing titles acround the world and Willie Toweel won bronze medal at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.
Oliver Reginald Tambo, ANC, ANCYL and SACP hero during the Apartheid regime. He is one of the original co-signees (along with Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela et al.) to the ANC’s Freedom Charter (signed in 1955), most of which formed the preamble to South Africa’s Constitution and many of the country’s current policies.
Frith van der Merwe, former schoolteacher and the most prolific female runner in the history of the Comrades Marathon. Her records in the up and down runs in the Comrades Marathon (set in 1988 and 1989 respectively) as well as her 1989 Two Oceans Marathon winning times still stand today.
Mark Stent, DJ/Producer, Record Label Owner
Themba Nkosi, better known as Euphonik