The story of Bara started soon after the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand.
A young Cornish lad, John Albert Baragwanath, arrived on the gold fields to make his fortune. The surname "Baragwanath" was derived from the Welsh word "Bara", which means bread, and "gwanath" means wheat.
After trying a number of projects, John Albert started a refreshment post, one day's journey by ox wagon from Johannesburg, at the point where the road to Kimberly joined the road from Vereeniging. Here was good grazing and water. Soon he had a small hostel, "The Wayside Inn", established. However, to the transport drivers, and stagecoach passengers, it was "Baragwanath's Place"or just Baragwanath.
The Second World War brought many changes. As the five years of worldwide disruption and destruction unfolded, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth had to change rapidly from appeasement politics to war effort sacrifice. In South Africa the outbreak resulted in political upheaval, change of Government, and - Baragwanath Hospital.
In 1939 Britain, and the Empire, had large blacklogs in all services, including the provision of health care for military personnel.
By September 1940, with hostilities escalating, and with the need for hospital and convalescent facilities becoming urgent, the Secretary of State in London formally asked the South African Government if it would provide health care facilities for Imperial troops of Middle East Command. The British War Office suggested that 2 hospitals of 1'200 beds be built in South Africa, as well as a convalescent depot of 2'000 beds. After due consideration one of these hospitals was designated for Johannesburg. In November 1941 construction started on the ground bought from the Corner House mining group, at the 8th mile stone on the Potchefstroom road, - near the place where the old Wayside Inn had been situated.
The British Government ultimately paid 328'000 pounds for a hospital of 1'544 beds.
After experimenting with various names, it was finally agreed that this hospital would be "The Imperial Military Hospital, Baragwanath".
The situation internationally in 1941 and 1942 looked bleak for the Allies. There was thus real urgency to construct the hospital as quickly as possible. Within a remarkable 6 months the first patients could be admitted, in May 1942.
On 23 September 1942, Field Marshall Smuts officially opened the hospital. He used the opportunity to indicate the post war plan, which was that the Government would use the hospital for the Black population of the Witwatersrand. In the meantime Baragwanath was called on to deal with casualties of the war, mainly from the Middle East command. During the latter part of the war Baragwanath treated mostly Tuberculosis patients, not only from Middle East Command, but also from the Far East Command - mainly the Burma theatre.
It is therefore not surprising that Baragwanath Hospital was an important venue for the Royal visit in 1947. Many British and Commonwealth troops were still recovering here, and King George VI used the opportunity to present medals on that day (5 April 1947).
Post war plans were already underway. The South African Government had bought the hospital for one million pounds. On 1 April 1948, the black section of Johannesburg Hospital (known as NEH) was transferred to Bara, and the hospital opened with 480 beds.
Over the next 30 years Baragwanath grew in size and status. Today it not only provides for Soweto, but also serves as referral hospital for a large part of the country, including surrounding African States.
As a civilian hospital it's main contribution has been towards training of health professionals. Since 1948 doctors graduating from the University of the Witwatersrand benefited significantly from the experience gained here. Likewise, as a training school for nurses Bara has contributed widely. The graduate nurses not only fulfil an important task at Bara, but also in Africa. Baragwanath trained staff work in many areas of the world today and do so with distinction.
The Bara experience also contributes to research. Soweto is a community in flux, neither first nor third world. By recording and documenting the change in disease, and pathology, Baragwanath gives guidance to all who face similar situations, world wide.
In 1997 a new factor was added to the complexity of the hospital. After the tragic murder of the prominent activist, Chris Hani, his name was coupled to that of Baragwanath, to give the hospital the name "Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital".
Hani was truly a remarkable man. He was born on 28 June 1942 at Cofimvaba in the Transkei, and matriculated at Lovedale college. He obtained his BA degree (Latin & English) from the Universities of Fort Hare & Rhodes in 1961. Shortly hereafter he joined the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC) or Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). During 1962 he was mostly active in the Eastern and Western Cape, but was soon involved in military operations in the then Rhodesia.
Although he spent time in Botswana and Zambia he infiltrated South Africa again during 1973 to settle in Lesotho, where he stayed active until 1982. Repeated assassination attempts, however, forced Hani, now Deputy commander and Commissar of MK, to leave Maseru for Lusaka.
From 1983 to 1987 he was Political Commissar, as well as a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC (a post he had held since 1974). During 1987 he was promoted to Chief of Staff of MK - a post he held until his death.
On his return to this country he was actively involved in the negotiations towards an interim Constitution and preparations for the first Democratic Elections. His death on 10 April 1993 left the nation with a great loss. Coupling his name to that of the hospital cemented the best of the past with the best of the present. A healing act and firm step towards reconciliation.
Chris Hani Baragwanath is a microcosm of what is happening in South Africa.
The stresses of the broad social, economic and political changes in the RSA are reflected here. Just like the Phoenix on the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital coat of arms the hospital also rises out of it's own ashes every time.