World Facts Index > South Africa > Johannesburg


Visit the Gold Reef City, just south of central Johannesburg, which was, until the 1970s, one of the hundreds of working mine shafts along the massive east-west arc of gold-bearing rock. In the seventies this part of the mine was closed as most of the accessible gold had been mined out. The site then became a museum focusing on both the history of gold and the extraordinary geology of the area.

A key part of the Gold Reef City complex is the mine shaft which has been kept in working order so that visitors may descend to the rockface deep underground, just as the miners once did. Gold Reef City is a safe, yet authentic place, where you can learn about the Witwatersrand gold deposits. Underground tours run several times each day and are information-packed.


Soweto, to the south-west of the city, is South Africa's most famous township, and highly recommended. Visit historic sites such as the Regina Mundi Catholic Church, the Oppenheimer Tower and the Hector Peterson Memorial, dedicated to the young boy who was the first fatality of the June 1976 uprising. Drop in at Nelson Mandela's former Orlando West home, where the President lived while practising as a lawyer in Johannesburg. Visit a shebeen for lunch for that memorable cultural experience. Try Wandi's Place in Dube, or the Cappucino Shop in Orlando West, Soweto. Freedom Square in Kliptown near Soweto is an historical monument to the struggle where the Congress of the People signed the Freedom Charter in 1955.


In the city of Johannesburg explore Museum Africa, Johannesburg's major history and cultural history museum, where fascinating exhibits take you on a journey through our turbulent and eventful history.


Newtown just to the west of the CBD, houses the Newtown Cultural Precinct and the Workers' Library: many of Gandhi's cases, another great 20th century freedom fighter, are kept here. He lived in South Africa for many years, and, in fact, during his time in South Africa developed the philosophy of 'passive resistance' or satyagraha. There was a large Asian community in this part of Johannesburg. The famous Market Theatre complex which dominates the precinct was actually termed the 'Indian market', being the main fresh produce market for the burgeoning city. Later, the municipality constructed a number of buildings near the market to house workers who were retained as part of South Africa's notorious migrant labour system.

Look out for the magnificent Victorian Market Theatre building, which also houses the city's principal socio-historic museum, Museum Africa; the latter has a good display on Gandhi; the Workers' Library, set up to give mineworkers, in particular, access to research library facilities.

The Precinct includes the French Institute, the Foundation for Creative Arts, the Newtown Art Gallery, the Gramadoelas restaurant which offers genuine South African cuisine. Newtown has renovated a number of warehouses and buildings to house museum displays such as the Workers' Museum, as well as the Artists' Studios.


As you drives north on Jan Smuts Avenue through the business district of Braamfontein towards the northen suburbs of Johannesburg, Wits campus may be seen on the left hand side. Founded in the 1920s, Wits earned a reputation of resisting the worst efforts of the government to enforce segregation in universities. The university also had at least two famous African leaders as alumni: Nelson Mandela and Robert Sobukwe.

The Johannesburg Fort has been dubbed Johannesburg's Robben Island, so famous and numerous were the people (like Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ruth First, Jo Slovo and Ahmed Kathrada) who passed through its gates as prisoners. Originally built by Paul Kruger late in the 19th century to protect Johannesburg if Kruger's Boer Republic went to war with Britain, the Fort later became a convenient prison for the whole gamut of lawbreakers.

This was the place, in 1956, where many activists actually met one another for the first time, when the 156 Treason Trialists were brought together. Many people only knew one another by code names, and this presented people with a golden opportunity to talk with one another, strategise and generally network.


Parktown, just north of Braamfontein and Wits (the University of the Witwatersrand), is laid out on the southern slope of the Witwatersrand ridge, which is the watershed between the Indian and Atlantic oceans. It was the pioneer garden suburb in South Africa. Sir Herbert Baker's home (renowned architect) and the mining magnate, Lord Alfred Milner's 'kindergarten Moot Cottage, are to be found in this interesting suburb. The Parktown and Westcliff Heritage Trust organises walking tours through this, and many other interesting areas in Johannesburg.

History of Johannesburg

The history of Gauteng has been moulded for centuries, by the very location of the province on the highland plateau of South Africa.

The Sterkfontein Valley, situated just 30km northwest of Johannesburg has yielded some of the most startling archaeological treasures of our time. Scientists working the limestone caves in 1998 discovered a lime-encrusted skeleton, which dates the presence of early humand-kind in the valley to 3,5 million years. This discovery places Gauteng at the forefront of international, palaeontological research.

Evidence of iron age smelters on the mid-Johannesburg Melville Koppies and at Lone Hill just north of Sandton, point to more recent occupation, while San rock engravings in the Magaliesberg mark the passage of these hunter gatherers 25,000 years ago.

It is not without reason that the province in which Johannesburg sits is called Gauteng - Sotho for 'Place of Gold'.

The city was named after Johan Rissik, who was the Surveyor General sent to select a site for the village, and Johannes Joubert, the mining commissioner sent to investigate the claims.

With the discovery of gold in 1886 ' an event which led to the discovery of the planet's most significant source of this precious mineral ' gold diggers, speculators and fortune hunters arrived in their droves, and soon a tented town sprawled across the dusty reef. The conglomerate of disparate people and motives was to become what is today South Africa's main commercial centre.

At the beginning of the 19th century the Witwatersrand gold mines attracted large numbers of black labourers who were housed in compounds on the mines. Company, and municipal hostels, housed migrant workers for other industries while some, such as domestic workers, resided at their places of work.

But there were also many people who were uitlanders or foreigners. Their limited voting rights, was one of the reasons for the outbreak of the Anglo Boer War (an earth-shattering clash between British imperialism and Afrikaaner nationalism).

It was not just the war of the white person ' many black people were employed by the British. The Boers, too, employed blacks.

The Johannesburg Fort ' a prison for a good part of the late 1900s ' was surrendered to the English during the Anglo Boer War. The Fort was the only major, military structure built in Johannesburg by the Transvaal Republic. It was designed to control, not protect, the rebellious mining town ' and was surrendered without a shot being fired. The battlements offer commanding views of the city and its gold mines, which caused the War.

As social and political tensions increased in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s, a new breed of leader emerged, and it was at this time that people like Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela equipped themselves with academic qualifications.

In 1955, at a conference in Kliptown near Johannesburg, the ANC's Freedom Charter was signed and ratified by the Congress of the People.

Milestones during this period of history are numerous ' the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Albert Luthuli brought international recognition and sympathy for the struggle against apartheid.

The Rivonia Trial, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and finally, the student uprising in Soweto in 1976, marked the beginning of the end of apartheid. After all, Gauteng ' both Johannesburg and Soweto - was at the very cutting edge of the revolution against apartheid.

Soweto (originally an acronym for South Western Townships adjacent to Johannesburg) which comprises a number of townships, developed into a city as a result of a policy of territorial and political segregation. It has now developed from a mere geographical concept into an equally vibrant city and an experiential feast for the visitor.

Johannesburg today reflects the new South African order, and a society of which the people are justly proud.


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