Back in October 1886, when gold was discovered, what is now JOHANNESBURG was an expanse of sleepy, treeless veld. Now it is the economic engine of Africa: a sprawling, infuriating, invigorating home to eight million people, but never the country’s seat of government or national political power.

During the apartheid era, Jo’burg was the city in which black resistance and urban culture were most strident – Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu formed the country’s first black law firm here in 1952, before helping to sow the seeds of liberation – while the democratic era has seen the city become the vanguard of the gradual deracialization of South African society. The country’s burgeoning black elite and middle class are concentrated here, and the city is a giant soup of ethnicities: Zulu and Sotho-speaking blacks, Afrikaners and English-speaking whites predominate, but Jozi culture is also enriched by immigrants from across Africa, as well as sizeable Indian, coloured, Chinese, Greek, Jewish, Portuguese and Lebanese communities. Jo’burg is an unpretentious, loud, ballsy city; outsiders are quickly accepted, and a pervasive social warmth keeps many of its more relaxed citizens – who you’d expect to prefer Cape Town – from leaving.

Even so, there are still astonishing extremes of wealth and poverty here: mansions in verdant suburbs are protected by high walls and electrified fences, only a kilometre or two from sprawling shantytowns such as the inner-city flatlands of Hillbrow and Yeoville, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly from Zimbabwe, have formed a teeming ghetto economy, since the formal job market cannot absorb most of them.

The bewildering size of Jo’burg can be daunting for all but the most determined traveller. Some visitors fall into the trap of being too intimidated by the city’s reputation to explore, venturing out only to the bland, safe, covered shopping malls and restaurants of the northern suburbs while making hasty plans to move on. However, once you’ve found a convenient way of getting around, either by car, on the shiny new Gautrain trains and buses, or in the company of a tour guide, the history, diversity and crackling energy of the city can quickly become compelling.

The central business district, which in the 1990s was all but abandoned by big business fleeing crime and grime, is undergoing a slow rebirth, with crime rates dropping and property investors moving in. New City Improvement Districts have been implemented to oversee the cleaning, sprucing up and guarding of the central areas, most effectively so far in Braamfontein; security guards and cameras can now be seen on many street corners and, as a result, it’s now relatively safe to walk around the CBD during the day.

Shopping is Jo’burg’s biggest addiction, and the city offers an abundance of superb contemporary African art, fashion and design. And then there are the townships, most easily explored on a tour but, in some cases, possible to get to under your own steam.

Jo’burg is also a great place to watch sport, with soccer, rugby and cricket teams commanding feverish support. The 2010 Football World Cup was headquartered in the city; the 100,000-seat FNB Stadium (formerly Soccer City) is a proud reminder of the event, and now regularly used for games and concerts.

Brief history

Johannesburg dates back to 1886, when Australian prospector George Harrison found the main Witwatersrand gold-bearing reef. Almost immediately, this quiet area of the Transvaal became swamped with diggers from near and far, and a tented city sprang up around the site. The Pretoria authorities were forced to proclaim a township nearby: they chose a useless triangle of land called the Randjeslaagte, which had been left unclaimed by local farmers. Johan Rissik, the surveyor, called it Johannesburg, either after himself or Christiaan Johannes Joubert, the chief of mining, or the president of the South African Republic (ZAR), Paul Johannes Kruger.

Mining magnates such as Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato possessed the capital necessary to exploit the world’s richest gold reef, and their Chamber of Mines (a self-regulatory body for mine owners, founded in 1889) attempted to bring some order to the digging frenzy, with common policies on recruitment, wages and working conditions. In 1893, due partly to pressure from white workers, and with the approval of the ZAR government, the chamber introduced the colour bar, which excluded black workers from all but manual labour.

By 1895, Johannesburg’s population had soared to over 100,000, many of whom were not Boers and had no interest in the ZAR’s independence. Kruger and the burghers regarded these uitlanders (foreigners) as a potential threat to their political supremacy, and denied them the vote despite the income they generated for the state’s coffers. Legislation was also passed to control the influx of blacks to Johannesburg, and Indians were forcibly moved out of the city into a western location. Before long, large shantytowns filled with blacks and Indians were springing up on the outskirts of Johannesburg.

The Anglo-Boer War

In 1900, during the Anglo-Boer War, Johannesburg fell to the British, who had been attempting to annex the gold-rich area for some time. At the same time, more black townships were established, including Sophiatown (1903) in an area previously used for dumping sewage, and Alexandra (1905). Bubonic plague erupted on the northern fringes of the city in 1904, providing justification for the authorities to burn several Indian and African locations, including Newtown, just west of the centre.

Meanwhile, white mine workers were becoming unionized, and outbreaks of fighting over pay and working hours were a frequent occurrence. Their poorly paid black counterparts were also mobilizing; their main grievance was the ruling that skilled jobs were the preserve of white workers. Resentments came to a head in the Rand Revolt of 1922, after the Chamber of Mines, anxious to cut costs, decided to allow blacks into the skilled jobs previously held only by whites. White workers were furious: street battles broke out and lasted for four days. Government troops were called in to restore order and over two hundred men were killed. Alarmed at the scale of white discontent, Prime Minister Jan Smuts ruled that the colour bar be maintained, and throughout the 1920s the government passed laws restricting the movement of blacks.

Populating Soweto

During the 1930s, the township of Orlando became established southwest of the city, with accommodation for 80,000 blacks; this was the nucleus around which Soweto evolved. By 1945, 400,000 blacks were living in and around Johannesburg – an increase of one hundred percent in a decade. In August 1946, 70,000 African Mineworkers Union members went on strike over working conditions. The government sent police in, and twelve miners were killed and over a thousand injured.

Forced removals of black residents from Johannesburg’s inner suburbs, particularly from Sophiatown, began in 1955. Thousands were dumped far from the city centre, in the new township of Meadowlands, next to Orlando, and Sophiatown was crassly renamed Triomf (triumph). The ANC established itself as the most important black protest organization during this period, proclaiming the Freedom Charter in Kliptown, Soweto, that year.

During the 1950s, a vigorous black urban culture began to emerge in the townships, and the new marabi jazz and its offspring, the jubilant kwela pennywhistle style, were played in illegal drinking houses called shebeens. This was also the era of Drum Magazine, which celebrated a glamorous, sophisticated township zeitgeist, and introduced a host of talented journalists, such as Can Temba and Casey “Kid” Motsisi, to the city and the world. Mbaqanga music emerged later, with its heavy basslines and sensuous melodies capturing the bittersweet essence of life in the townships.

Resistance and democracy

The formation in 1972 of the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) rekindled political activism, particularly among Soweto students. On June 16, 1976, student riots erupted in the township, and the unrest spread nationwide. The youth’s war against the State escalated in the 1980s, resulting in regular “states of emergency”, during which the armed forces had permission to do anything they liked to contain revolt. Towards the end of the decade, the government relaxed “petty” apartheid, turning a blind eye to the growth of “grey” areas like Hillbrow – white suburbs where blacks were moving in.

The three years after Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990 saw widespread political violence in Gauteng right up until the day before the elections. However, as elsewhere in South Africa, the election on April 27, 1994, went off peacefully. The ANC won comfortably in Gauteng then, and retained their hold in 1999 and 2004. They also carried the province in 2009, despite a growing feeling that the ANC have not totally lived up to their promises. Black South Africans have indeed made steady inroads into positions of influence in business and politics, but, as an increasing number of township dwellers move to the suburbs, Johannesburg’s infrastructure has struggled to cope: low-income housing is not being built fast enough, energy supply is wobbling as demand surges, and traffic is often hellish, though the new Gautrain rail network should make a difference along the north–south routes.

Read More
  • The central business district (CBD)
  • The northern suburbs
  • Soweto
  • The eastern and southern suburbs
  • Gandhi in Johannesburg
  • Spectator sport in Jo’burg
  • Crime and safety in Johannesburg
  • Accommodation
  • Eating
  • Bars and clubs
  • Live music
  • Entertainment
  • Shopping