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.
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.
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 central business district (CBD)
Johannesburg’s CBD, the grid of streets and tightly packed skyscrapers just to the south of the Witwatersrand Ridge, is the most recognizable part of the city. For a century after the first mining camp was built, on what is now Commissioner Street, the CBD was the core of Jo’burg’s buzzing commercial and financial life. Then there was the mass exodus during the crime-ridden 1980s and 1990s, and when the Jo’burg Stock Exchange moved out in 1999 in favour of Sandton, the city centre was all but written off. However, thanks to the gradual regeneration of the area over recent years, a visit to the CBD offers the chance to see buildings and institutions with a fascinating history and get a taste of the bustle, sounds and thrills of a genuinely African city.
- The northern suburbs
- The eastern and southern suburbs
Gandhi in Johannesburg
Gandhi in Johannesburg
Although Mohandas Gandhi has many strong links with Durban, the South African city he arrived at in 1893, it was the ten years he spent in Johannesburg between 1903 and 1913 that first tested the philosophies for which he is famous. As an advocate, he frequently appeared in the Transvaal Law Courts (now demolished), which stood in what has since been renamed Gandhi Square in downtown Jo’burg. Defending mainly South African Indians accused of breaking the restrictive and racist registration laws, Gandhi began to see practical applications for his concept of Satyagraha, soul force, or passive resistance, as a means of defying immoral state oppression.
Gandhi himself was twice imprisoned, along with other passive resisters, in the fort in Braamfontein, on what is now Constitution Hill. On one of these occasions he was taken from his cell to the office of General Jan Smuts to negotiate the prisoners’ release, but finding himself at liberty had to borrow the railway fare home from the general’s secretary.
Gandhi’s ideas found resonance in the non-violent ideals of those who established the African National Congress in 1912. Forty years later, only a few years after Gandhi’s successful use of Satyagraha to end the British Raj in India, the start of the ANC’s Defiance Campaign against the pass laws in 1952 owed much to his principles. MuseuMAfricA contains displays on Gandhi’s time in Johannesburg, and he is commemorated with a statue on Gandhi Square.
Spectator sport in Jo’burg
Spectator sport in Jo’burg
Sport is a major preoccupation anywhere in South Africa, but in Johannesburg it’s an obsession. The biggest sport in town is football, and there’s a passionate rivalry between Jo’burg’s two biggest teams, fuelled by the type of scandal, intrigue and mutual loathing that sustains armies of sports reporters. In Jo’burg (and specifically Soweto), you’re either a fan of Kaizer Chiefs or Orlando Pirates, and for decades local derbies have pulled mammoth crowds of seventy thousand. This is where the Chiefs are based, until they move into their very own Amakhosi Stadium, 40km west of Jo’burg. It’s worth trying to go to a home game of either team, especially one against Pretoria giants Mamelodi Sundowns. Tickets are cheap, the football can be exciting – if a little chaotic – and the atmosphere is often exhilarating. Crowd violence is very rare, and there is secure parking.
Ellis Park in downtown Jo’burg (011 402 8644) is a South African rugby shrine, particularly since the triumph there of the Springboks in the 1995 World Cup. As well as hosting international fixtures it’s also home ground to the provincial Gauteng Lions team. The best way to get there is to make use of the park-and-ride system that operates for big games, with buses shuttling in from car parks outside the centre.
The major cricket games, including five-day test matches, are played at the Wanderers Stadium, off Corlett Drive, Illovo (011 788 1008), though if you look carefully at the touring programme for any visiting international teams you may find fixtures scheduled to be played in Soweto or Alexandra.
Crime and safety in Johannesburg
Crime and safety in Johannesburg
With Johannesburg’s extremes of poverty and wealth, its brash, get-ahead culture and the presence of illegal firearms, it’s hardly surprising that the city can be a dangerous place. Despite its unenviable reputation, it’s important to retain a sense of proportion about potential risks and not to let paranoia ruin your stay. Several hundred thousand foreign football fans visited Johannesburg during the 2010 World Cup, with not a single noteworthy incident. Remember that most crime happens in the outlying townships, and that the vast majority of Jo’burgers are exceedingly friendly; as in all major cities, taking simple precautions is likely to see you through safely.
If you’re wandering around on foot, the most likely risk of crime is from mugging. Although significant effort has gone into making the riskiest central areas safer – such as the installation of security cameras – remain alert when exploring the central business district (CBD), Braamfontein and Newtown, do your touring in daylight, use busy streets and never be complacent.
Joubert Park, Hillbrow and Berea are regarded as no-go zones; Yeoville and Observatory are safer and generally fine if you’re confident or have someone to show you around. You’re very unlikely to be mugged on the streets of Melville, Parktown or Rosebank. If you want to walk around one of the riskier areas, study maps beforehand (not on street corners), don’t walk around with luggage and avoid groups of young men (the main offenders). If you’re carrying valuables, make a portion of them easily available, so that muggers are likely to be quickly satisfied. Never resist muggers. You’re unlikely to be mugged on public transport but, as always, it’s wise to stay alert, especially at busy spots such as Park Station and taxi ranks, and to be extra vigilant when getting off minibus taxis. Waiting for buses in the northern suburbs is generally safe.
If you’re driving around, note that there is a small risk of “smash and grab” theft or carjacking; keep all bags and valuables locked up in the trunk, lock the car doors and keep windows up when driving after dark or when in central areas. Be aware of your surroundings when leaving or returning to your car and entering driveways and always seek out secure – preferably guarded – parking; in Jo’burg this is in ample supply. Although urban legend suggests you can cruise through red lights at night, this is dangerous and illegal; stop, keep a good distance from the car in front and be aware of anyone moving around the car.
Don’t expect too much from the police, who normally have priorities other than keeping an eye out for tourists. In the city centre and Rosebank, private guards, identifiable by their yellow armbands and, stationed on street corners, provide an effective anti-crime presence on the street.
There’s plenty of accommodation to be found in Jo’burg’s northern suburbs, which are the easiest places to stay if you have to rely on public transport. Melville is relatively close to the CBD and offers something many visitors don’t expect to find in Johannesburg: a characterful community with cafés, restaurants and bars within safe walking distance of a great number of guesthouses. Rosebank is well located at the heart of the northern suburbs, and has a decent selection of places to eat out or shop. In Sandton there’s a wealth of pricey chain hotels aimed at business executives, as well as some lovely large private homes with huge gardens that offer bed and breakfast. It is possible to stay in the townships, where a few guesthouses have opened. The most rewarding option is to stay with locals, something best arranged through an experienced tour operator.
The wealth, diversity and fast-paced social life of Johannesburg combined with its cosmopolitan nature means that the city has a huge range of places to eat out. Authentic French, Italian, Chinese, Greek and Portuguese restaurants are all found here, and there are increasing numbers of African restaurants, not just township South African but also Congolese, Moroccan, Ethiopian and Cape Malay. Prices are inevitably a bit higher than elsewhere in the country outside Cape Town and the Winelands, and you can blow out in spectacular style, but an average meal out is still good value. The bulk of Jo’burg’s restaurants are in the northern suburbs; the key places to try are Seventh Street in Melville, the junction of Greenway and Gleneagles in Greenside, and Fourth Avenue in Parkhurst (west of Parktown North). The Melrose Arch complex in Melrose is another congenial place for a meal, with plenty of upmarket restaurants and cafés grouped together around a square. All of Jo’burg’s shopping malls are well stocked with takeaways and restaurants, frequently unadventurous, bland chains, though some top-notch venues do exist in malls.
Bars and clubs
Bars and clubs
Jo’burg has the country’s most racially mixed nightlife. However, the problem for visitors is that the best clubs are far-flung, and there’s only one proper nightlife strip, Melville’s Seventh Street, which is great fun for drinking but can’t compete with Cape Town’s Long Street if you want to dance. In many parts of the city, particularly the northern suburbs, old-school pubs and bars have been replaced by combination café/bar/restaurants, open most hours and commonly located in malls and shopping centres. Irish theme pubs and sports bars are often packed and jovial, if not exactly cutting-edge. Some Soweto shebeens you can visit during the day; at night, only head to the townships in the company of a guide.
Johannesburg dominates the South African music scene, offering a much wider spectrum of sounds than Cape Town or Durban. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest times for gigs. Jo’burg is always discovering superb new jazz talent, but established artists to look out for include the gifted vocalist Simphiwe Dana, singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, Afro-fusion merchants Freshlyground and trumpeters Marcus Wyatt and Hugh Masakela. Newtown and a couple of venues in the northern suburbs are your best bets for live jazz. Indie acts worth catching live include indie-pop hotshots Desmond and the Tutus, Kid of Doom, Us Kids Know, Jo√£o Orrechia, Black Hotels and BLK JKS. Kwaito, the hugely popular township-house genre, is rarely performed live except at major concerts. You might hear some from hip-hop artists such as the excellent Hip-Hop Pantsula (HHP), Teargas, Skwatta Kamp or Pitch Black Afro. As for classical music, the Johannesburg Philharmonic Orchestra performs regularly at Linder Auditorium in the Wits University campus (entrance on St Andrews Rd) in Parktown (011 789 2733, www.jpo.co.za). A useful online gig guide is provided by jhblive.co.za, and tickets are usually available via computicket.com.
Johannesburg has always offered the best entertainment in South Africa: the city draws top performers from all over the world and its audiences are the most sophisticated around. Though newspapers offer some event pointers, the best way to find out what’s on is to listen to the local radio stations and keep your eyes peeled for roadside posters and leaflets. The Mail & Guardian newspaper, published on Fridays, carries decent listings and articles on the main events, while the Daily Star newspaper tracks mainstream cinema and theatre. Tickets for most events can be booked through Computicket (083 915 8000, computicket.com), which also has desks in all Checkers and Shoprite supermarkets and in some malls.
Johannesburg is a magnet for consumers from all over the subcontinent. For visitors, the city is the best place in South Africa to find arts and crafts, with excellent flea markets and galleries offering a plethora of goods, some of very high quality. As the queen of mall culture, Johannesburg is also home to over twenty major malls (typically open daily 8am–6pm), most of which are depressingly anonymous, though the handful listed here are so plush and enormous that they arguably merit visiting in their own right.