Johannesburg was a city where you could have been advised to carry a pickhandle. I managed to stay out of trouble myself, but one one occasion saw a gun being drawn on someone, and was threatened with one on another.

My flat was on the first floor of an old detached house in a once prosperous neighborhood. The iron security gate that shielded the door lifted easily off its hinges; there was no razor wire surrounding the overgrown garden and no drive-in security gate.

Downstairs, an elderly and embittered Afrikaner couple, whose children and neighbours had long since fled, were holding on in the ground floor of their once grand family home. They drank, told lurid stories of violent crime, and showed off the scars of their various operations. One day their dog disappeared; a few days later, they got a phone call demanding a ransom.

I had bought an old VW Beetle for about €500, and parked it in a garage at the side of the house. I came out one morning to find the garage door prised partly open. The thief had managed to get in, but not get the car out. Instead, he had taken the wheels, sliding them out under the door. I found the car inside, sitting on bricks.

This was in 2002, eight years into the extraordinary experiement that was the Rainbow Nation. Nelson Mandela had been replaced by Thabo Mbeki; the socialist promise of the early ANC had been replaced by neoliberal pragmatism; and, in Johannesburg’s suburbs, many of the former white residents had left, for Australia and elsewhere, to be replaced by black.

There was enormous disenchantment with the new South Africa, amongst blacks frustrated by the lack of progress, and whites frustrated by restricted opportunity and fearful of violent crime. But there was still great ambition and optimism in the country – an ambition that would be rewarded in 2004, when South Africa was awarded the right to host the 2010 World Cup.

Signalling that ambition back in 2002 was a grand new plaza in Newtown in the heart of Johannesburg, long a cultural hub for the city. I saw Dorothy Masuka sing the blues in the legendary Kippies jazz club there, and the great John Kani stride the stage of the Market Theatre, where he had earlier starred in Athol Fugard’s Apartheid-era plays. The plaza linked these with the Museum Africa and a series of other entertainment venues, and it seemed natural to landscape the square between them as a tourist and recreational space. In any European city it would have hummed with activity. But not in Johannesburg.

In Johannesburg, people didn’t walk. They didn’t wander from from one venue to another. They didn’t linger in public spaces. They wanted secure parking, preferably indoors, and socialised according to arrangements set in advance. The square in Newtown remained empty.

Which would have disappointed the woman after whom it was named: Mary “Pickhandle” Fitzgerald, an Irish emigrant who arrived at the then Cape Colony as a teenager in 1900.

Fitzgerald found work as a typist with a mining union in Johannesburg, then a booming settlement on the Witwatersrand gold reef. The miners, who were skilled and white, laboured under appalling conditions, and disease was rife. Fitzgerald was gradually radicalised, and began speaking at public meetings, and then organising.

By 1911, when the workers on Johannesburg’s tram system went out on strike, Fitzgerald was a prominent labour activist. The police arrived at the strike armed with pickhandles; in the subsequent clashes, some of the pickhandles ended up in the hands of the strikers. Mary Fitzgerald adopted the pickhandle herself, and led her “pickhandle brigade” in breaking up anti-labour meetings.

Two years later, during another miners’ strike, police violently broke up a public meeting in Newtown, in what was then known as Market Square, and in the process shot and killed a young miner named Labuschagne.

Jan Christian Smuts, then a senior government minister (and who, in 1920, would come to Ireland to meet Eamon de Valera, in an attempt to broker a peace deal with the British), attempted to calm tensions by addressing a meeting of the strikers. In the middle of the meeting, Fitzgerald jumped up on the platform, holding a baby.

“This is Labuschagne’s baby, the child of the man that you shot,” she roared. The meeting descended into anarchy, and Smuts was lucky to avoid being lynched. Fitzgerald had borrowed the baby for the purpose; it had nothing to do with Labuschagne.

Mary Fitzgerald subsequently moved towards the mainstream of the labour movement, becoming the first woman elected to Johannesburg town council (her election material showed her holding a pickhandle) and, later, deputy mayor.

Fitzgerald lived till 1960 – she is buried in Johannesburg’s Brixton Cemetary – but she took no further part in public life in South Africa after the early death of her second husband, the labour leader Archie Crawford, in 1924.

She was ahead of her time in some ways; but of it, in others. The Women’s Industrial League, which she founded, was an all-white body that organised low-skilled female workers, as Lawrence William White records in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. In 1921, she led its members in an attack on a Johannesburg social club, where they expelled the black staff and forced the management to hire whites.

Johannesburg’s city council decided to rename Market Square in her honour in 1939. But they never got around to the official dedication, and it was only so renamed in 1989. In 2001, the city undertook an extensive renovation of the square, keeping its name. Fitzgerald could thus be said to have earned official approval in three eras of South African governance: pre-Apartheid, Apartheid and post-Apartheid.

Despite its fiery past, and ambitious redesign, the square remained socially desolate in recent years. Until, that is, the World Cup. Designated one of the official “fan parks” for the tournament, Mary Fitzgerald Square has thronged with colourful crowds again in recent weeks.

Mary Fitzgerald, presumably, would have enjoyed the sight – especially as her adopted home country sent the French on their miserable way, extracting thereby a token revenge on behalf of the land of her birth.

Writing before Bafana Bafana’s exit from the Cup, the editor of the Mail & Guardian newspaper, Nic Dawes, called on his countrymen to put aside their divisions over the politics and costs of the tournament, and “yell ourselves hoarse for the country that we are trying to dream into being”. They have yelled – and blown – themselves hoarse, and they have left the rest of us deaf.

Fifty years after Mary Fitzgerald’s death, South Africa remains a troubled country. But replacing pickhandles with vuvuzelas is a sure sign of progress.

Published in the Daily Irish Mail.