Salt River’s battles & beauty (past & present)

Salt River’s battles & beauty (past & present)

I have been enjoying getting to know this hidden, gem of a neighbourhood. Initially it was the street art that drew me, now it is much more – its past and the people who live and work here.

First why the name? No surprises it is named after a river which flows into the sea, like many others around the world – there are Salt Rivers in Canada, USA and Jamaica. This river was the outlet of a huge wetland area covered with salt pans and estuary marches. These were channelled and canalized to form the present Salt River. What remains of the Salt River is just a re-routed canal, rather than a river. Paarden Island was part of the river before reclamation – when it was actually an island. (Middle image is a road bridge over Salt River I took in April 2021, Voortrekker Road, Maitland). Salt River is the most altered and renamed river in Cape Town.

The Biblical quote “Ye are the salt of the earth” you can find on a plaque on Salt River’s Methodist church, Durham Ave. It’s from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount which he gave to a crowd of people he hugely valued – fishermen, shepherds, labourers – the “salt of the earth”. At that time, salt was highly valued for its food preservative properties; Roman soldiers were paid in salt – giving us the word salary (Latin for salt is ‘sal’).

First Nation & First Battle

Salt River Lagoon and the surrounds were widely used by San hunter-gatherers and early Khoi nomadic pastoralists. An important, yet little known fact about Salt River, is that it is the site of the Cape’s oldest recorded battle between Europeans and indigenous people. In 1510, the Viceroy of Portuguese India, Francisco d’Almeida, was killed in a fight with the local Khoi’s Khoekhoen tribe, the Goringhaiquas. He and his sailors were trying to abduct two children and steal cattle. The Goringhaiquas won.

The event had far reaching effects – the Portuguese not landing here to replenish their supplies gave other nations competitive advantage. – It wasn’t until 150 years later that the VOC (Dutch East India Company) started their refreshment station here. Just as well, as d’Almeida was known as being brutal and slavery would have started even earlier here. Nicolaas Vergunst wrote a historical murder mystery in 2011 called Knot of Stone. He claims to know where the Portuguese commander is buried – in an abandoned railway shunting yard in an industrial shed near to the Liesbeek/Salt River Canal.

VOC and early British era –  a frontier with farms and hippos

In his diaries, Jan van Riebeeck, writes about hunting game in the wilderness around the mouths of the Salt River, Black River and Diep River. He cautions about the hippos! It wasn’t long after his arrival with the VOC in 1652 that a little village was recorded in the area – in 1665 an inn and several fishermen’s cottages. After all, the Castle wasn’t that far away (remember Woodstock had a beach pre reclamation, that some older folk today still remember fondly). It was a fertile area around the Liesbeek and farms were soon established. (The first VOC ‘free burghers’ got permission to farm along the river in 1657).

The images in this section, from Parliament, certainly paint an idyllic picture of Salt River. The first one, Poortermans View near Salt River, shows there were windmills circa 1840. And we know that in 1803 a grain mill was built here. The lower reaches of both Salt River and Liesbeek River were extensively fished.

Salt River was one of the early frontiers to European settlement. It wasn’t possible to cross it in winter, and even in summer it was a useful border that could be defended against attack, such as during the slaves’ uprising in 1808.

Images from South Africa’s Parliament: above is Panorama of Salt River by A De Smidt c1860) and below: Thomas Bowler’s drawing near Salt River 1862 and his c1855 lithograph by Day Son shows the Royal Observatory in the background (note the fishermen). The middle image is Poortermans View near Salt River, shows there were windmills circa 1840. And we know that in 1803 a grain mill was built here.

Industrialisation – rise and fall

The real turning point to Salt River’s development was the railway – in 1862 it became a major railway junction. In 1883 it was joined with Woodstock as one municipality – together they became the industrial centre of Cape Town, in particular for textile and clothing manufacturing.

Salt River Power Station was next to Salt River’s estuary – even then water was scarce in Cape Town and sea water could be used for the essential cooling. Salt River 1 was the first coal-fired power station to be both built and operated by ESCOM (now Eskom). It closed in 1979. But at the time of the extensions in 1932-33, it was the first power station in South Africa to operate at a considerable steam pressure – 425lb/


With industrialisation came the need for housing – hence the rows of small terraced houses for workers, in a Victorian colonial vernacular style – small stoeps, single story, built on roads with British names, like the poets Tennyson and Pope, or places like Chatham and London, while the main roads were given royal names.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s many District 6 residents moved to Salt River to escape the 1951 Group Areas Act’s forced removals. “Coloured” people could buy houses, while Indian residents could buy, or rent, a corner grocery shop, and if they did, they were permitted to live in the adjoining house.

From the 1960s to the 1990s Salt River was fairly self-contained. On Victoria Rd (often called upper Main Rd), Albert Rd and Lower Main Rd, there were department, furniture stores and a cinema (Bijou). The chain store BLOCH Supermarket was taken over by Shoprite in the 1970s. (A friend’s mother came to Albert Rd to a Jewish clothes shop for her “top quality” twin set.)

Residents walked to town and public transport was very good (City Tramways, Golden Arrow buses and trains). [There’s now MyCiti to Salt River Station.]

In the 1970s “the area housed predominantly Muslim, or so-called Cape Malay, families. It was tight-knit and not really responsive to the politics of the day.” To quote Anwar Omar in the Cape Argus (2016), but in 1976 “the Soweto Uprising quickly spread … “scores of Salt River High pupils march to the CBD – among the first such marches to successfully reach the centre of town…

We left the school via the Rochester Road gate, which is about 20m from the top of Main Road (Victoria Road). We were in formation with the students, arm-in-arm…As we marched and progressed towards the CBD past Rex Trueform and other factories, we were singing We Shall Overcome. Many of the factory workers encouraged us and many others joined the march.

When we got to Adderley Street…There would soon be mayhem for the large group of Salt River High marchers. I felt two numb burning sensations as I hit the ground and saw this burly policeman stand over what now had become quite a large group of fallen and stumbling students on the ground.”

Gangs and gentrification

With the decline in local employment in the 1990s, social problems developed. In 1996 the militant group, PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) marched to gang leader Rashaad Staggie’s home in London Rd. Here they shot and burned him alive. (Three of PAGAD’s long-standing members were released from prison after 21 years in Nov, 2020; only two long-term jailed Pagad members remain). (Rashaad’s twin brother Rashied, leader of the same Hard Livings gang as Rashaad, was shot and killed in the same street in December 2019.)

While problems with crime, drugs and gangs continue, there is still a palpable community spirit. Some second and third generations prefer to stay here in houses which are over a hundred years old and needing regular maintenance, even if they can afford to live in wealthier suburbs. Grandparents, parents and their kids often live in the same house, like in the Bo-Kaap.

Apartments can be bought for less than R1m. Houses can be over R2m. This is out of reach for most residents. There is a project to develop Salt River Market site to include affordable housing units for lower-income families. However, the project keeps stalling “as the stakeholders search for a way forward”.

“Woodstock and Salt River residents, who have called the suburbs home for generations, are facing ice-cold evictions. Sometimes tenants are forced out by high rents and intimidation, sometimes house owners are bought out by property developers, without knowing the rapidly increasing worth of their property. Each case differs, but the cause can often be traced back to the recent wave of urban regeneration, which started to unfold after the textile industry collapsed in the 90s. While some argue the area is improving – less crime, more business, prettier buildings – others are forced to live in the Cape Flats or Blikkiesdorp, a temporary relocation area in Delft, far from schools, jobs, and hospitals.” This is from Voicemap for their guided walk you can download for R29.76, called A Community in Crisis: Gentrification in Woodstock and Salt River.

Salt River Heritage Society (SRHS) founded in 2018 had a webinar about gentrification and affordable housing, on 24 Feb. Just before the street art festival, held for the fifth year running in Salt River, they posted on 4 Feb on their Facebook page being “in discord” with Baz-Art, because of its “uncritical if not celebratory position on gentrification (and its’ effects on Salt River’s history, culture, residents and future); and most urgently, on Baz-Art’s colonial alliances… Most relevant in this instance is that SRHS is deeply connected to the struggles of the oppressed all over the world and supports particularly the plight of the dispossessed Palestinians. The Society supports the BDS Movement in its campaign to restore the rights of the Palestinians…”

Israeli graphic designer and artist Pilpeled piece for Baz-Art’s 2020 festival in Salt River received support from Israeli Embassy in South Africa and South African Zionist Federation. See image below taken in February 2021 but in June 2021 a local artist painted on this a mask in Palestinian flag colours (Lukas Aoki’s “wall” was also painted over, Anthea Missy has the Palestinian flag as her poster and Dbongz’ collab portrait has Palestinian flag colours and blood tear, Free Palestine on All of Us, plus more).


Salt River is in a Heritage Protection Overlay Zone (HPOZ) – a Municipal Planning Bylaw so any changes to facades need permission from the City of Cape Town. As most buildings are older than 60 years, a permit is also needed from Heritage Western Cape for external or internal changes.

Unlike in some other places, street art has to authorised – the City of Cape Town, the surrounding residents and owner have to agree to a sketch of the work that is going to be created, before it can go ahead.

In Salt River there’re two Provincial Heritage Sites (pre 1999 called National Monuments):

Community House, 41 Salt River Rd – site of activism from the mid 1980s. It is home to over 20 organisations that focus on labour research, education, gender advocacy, HIV/AIDS, environmental issues, youth development, media production and unions. South African Communist Party has offices here. (The head-office of Southern African Clothing and Textile Workers Union (SACTWU) is nearby-on the corner of Victoria Rd and Durham Ave – a reminder of Salt River’s important role in South Africa’s clothing industry and labour movement.)

The Rex Trueform factory complex which is socially, architecturally and economically significant. Max Policansky, Cape Town’s pioneer modernist architect, designed the first building on Victoria Rd (western side), completed in 1938. Architects Andrews and Niegeman designed the building on the eastern side, completed in 1948. “… it is testimony to both the workers’ rights movement and the modern functionalist movement of the mid-twentieth century. Once a giant in the global clothing industry, Rex Trueform employed many residents of the then ‘coloured’ Salt River district and even further away from the Cape Flats. Notably, many were ‘coloured’ women – a constituency who had not entered the job market in significant numbers before this time. This large factory complex testifies to the growth in South Africa’s working class after World War II, specifically in the textile industry and the pivotal role women played in contributing to the economy.”

The factory closed in 2005 and the building was converted into offices (see image below with me in front!). It kept the name because, to quote Marcel Golding, Chairman of the Rex Trueform, “Wherever I have been across the country, when you mention Rex Trueform it’s amazing what people say. They remember the name, because either they had a suit from Rex Trueform or their uncle or father worked here.”.

There is lots written about Rex Trueform, from university master’s dissertations to press articles and this brilliant short clip by the Daily Maverick with architect Ilze Wolff who wrote Unstitching Rex Trueform: The Story of an African Factory (2017).

Please do get in touch with comments and feedback.

Many thanks,


15 May 2021

References, thanks and further info

Huge appreciation for the invaluable input by Craig Barrowman and Linda Hibbin.

Lila Komnick kindly emailed me the Parliament images and Lauren Muller the Salt River/canalization info.

Rivers and Wetlands of Cape Town: Caring for our rich aquatic heritage edited by Cate Brown and Rembu Magoba. Water Research Commission; date tbc

Safe to the Sea. Kaapstad: Burman,J. Human and Rousseau, 1962,_Cape_Town),_Cape_Town