Gauteng Travel Guide

Gauteng is South Africa’s smallest region, comprising less than two percent of its landmass, yet contributing around forty percent of the GDP. Home to nearly ten million people, Gauteng is almost entirely urban. The province encompasses a section of the Magaliesberg Mountains to the east and the gold-rich Witwatersrand to the south and west. But overall, the area is dominated by the huge conurbation incorporating Johannesburg, Pretoria and a host of industrial towns and townships that surround them.

Although lacking the spectacular natural attractions of the Cape Province or Mpumalanga, Gauteng has a subtle physical power. Startling outcrops of rock known as koppies, with intriguing and often lucrative geology, are found in the sprawling suburbs and grassy plains of deep-red earth that fringe the cities.

Less than an hour from the centre of Jo’burg, the section of the Magaliesberg Mountains that extends into Gauteng is a magnet for Johannesburgers desperate to escape the city’s hectic tempo. Although the hills can hardly be described as remote and untamed, you’ll find ample opportunities for nature trailing and hiking. As in much of Gauteng, however, the important part lies underground, with a series of caves, underground passages and archeological sites making up the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site. Most famous of these sites are the Sterkfontein Caves, where some of the world’s most important discoveries of pre-human primate fossils have been made.

The older parts of Johannesburg and Pretoria are gloriously green in summer: both are among the most tree-rich cities on Earth, and Johannesburg, home to ten million of them, is proudly described by locals as the world’s largest man-made forest. The ubiquitous jacaranda trees blossom in late spring, turning the suburbs purple.


Gauteng’s two major cities are just 50km apart, but could hardly be more different. With its graceful government buildings, wide avenues of purple flowering jacarandas, and stolid Boer farming origins, Pretoria – or Tshwane as the metropolitan area is now officially known – was for a long time a staid, sleepy city. However, since the arrival of democracy, the country’s capital has become increasingly cosmopolitan, with a substantial diplomatic community living in Arcadia and Hatfield, east of the city centre, and middle-class blacks swelling the ranks of civil servants. Nowadays, most Pretorians are not Afrikaners, but Pedi and Tswana; and thousands of black students studying at the city’s several universities have further diluted Pretoria’s traditional Afrikaans roots.

Historically an Afrikaner stronghold, today it’s a cosmopolitan mix of civil servants, diplomats and students from South Africa and around the world. Smaller and more relaxed than Johannesburg, Pretoria is an important and intriguing destination in its own right, with a range of interesting museums and historic buildings. The new Gautrain rapid rail connection between Jo’burg and Pretoria is nothing less than a transport revolution, finally offering locals and travellers a safe and affordable alternative to the tedious traffic jams on the N1.

Pretoria is close enough to Johannesburg’s airport to provide a practical alternative base in Gauteng. It feels safer and is less spread out than Jo’burg (though don’t make the blithe assumption that Pretoria is crime-free), there are more conventional sights and the nightlife is energetic and fun.

Pretoria’s city centre is a compact grid of wide, busy streets, easily and comparatively safe to explore on foot. Its central hub is Church Square, where you can see some fascinating architecture; and there are other historic buildings and museums close by. To the north lie the vast National Zoological Gardens, while the Arcadia district is the site of the city’s famous Union Buildings. On the southern fringes of the city is the remarkable Voortrekker Monument, and The Freedom Park, a memorial that attempts to come to terms with South Africa’s past conflicts.

While other parts of central Pretoria are fairly safe to walk around if you take the normal precautions, be extra careful when wandering north of Church Square around busy Proes and Struben streets, and also be vigilant in the Sunnyside district, east of the CBD.

The Freedom Park

Freedom Park, which sits atop Salvokop Hill, is punctuated by a sculpture of ascending "reeds" that are dramatically illuminated at night. Started in 2000 in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for new symbols to resolve past conflicts, and still partly under construction, the park is a courageous and successful attempt to create a memorial that speaks to all sections of post-apartheid society in South Africa. Visits are by guided tour only and take you past The Wall of Names, inscribed with the names of 75,000 victims of various South African conflicts, an eternal flame to the unknown soldier, and boulders representing important moments in the history of the country’s nine provinces – Gauteng’s rock symbolizes the peaceful marches in Soweto, Sharpville, Mamelodi and other townships that were met by police violence.

The Voortrekker Monument

The famous Voortrekker Monument and Museum, in stark contrast to The Freedom Park, is very much a symbol of Afrikaner domination in the old South Africa. The striking, austere block of granite was built in 1940 to commemorate the Boer victory over the Zulu army at Blood River on December 16, 1838, and its symbolism is crushingly heavy-handed. The monument is enclosed by reliefs of ox wagons, with a large statue of a woman standing outside, shaking her fist at imaginary oppressors. Inside, a series of moving reliefs depicts scenes from the Great Trek, and you can climb to the top of the tower for a peek down into the hall, or for dramatic views of the surrounding nature reserve. This has various hiking and mountain-bike trails, leading to lookout points over Pretoria. You can also explore the reserve on horseback (book in advance).

Brief history of Pretoria

Unlike Johannesburg, Pretoria developed at a leisurely pace from its humble origins as a Boer farming community on the fertile land around the Apies River. When the city was founded in 1855 by Marthinus Wessel Pretorius, who named it after his father, Andries Pretorius, it was intended to be the capital around which the new South African Republic (ZAR) would prosper. Embodying the Afrikaners’ conviction that the land they took was God-given, Pretoria’s first building was a church. The town was then laid out with streets wide enough for teams of oxen brought in by farmers to make U-turns.

In 1860, the city was proclaimed the capital of the ZAR, the result of tireless efforts by Stephanus Schoeman to unite the squabbling statelets of the Transvaal. From this base, the settlers continued their campaigns against local African peoples, bringing thousands into service, particularly on farms. Infighting also continued among the settlers, and violent skirmishes between faction leaders were common. These leaders bought most of the best land, resulting in the dispossession of many white trekkers, and also in the massacre of most of the animals of the region, particularly its elephants.

The Boer Wars

The British annexed Pretoria in 1877, and investment followed in their wake. Although the town prospered and grew, farmer Paul Kruger, who was determined not to be subjugated by the British again, mobilized commandos of Afrikaner farmers to drive them out, resulting in the first Anglo-Boer War (1877–81). After defeat at Majuba on the Natal border, the colonial government abandoned the war and ceded independence in 1884. Paul Kruger became ZAR president until 1903. However, his mission to keep the ZAR Boer was confounded by the discovery of gold in the Witwatersrand, which precipitated an unstoppable flood of foreigners. Kruger’s policy of taxing the newcomers, while retaining the Boer monopoly on political power, worked for a while. Most of the elegant buildings of Church Square were built with mining revenues, while the Raadsaal (parliament) remained firmly in Boer hands. ZAR independence ended with the second Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902), but, despite the brutality of the conflict, Pretoria remained unscathed. With the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the city became the administrative capital of the entire country.

In 1928, the government laid the foundations of Pretoria’s industry by establishing the Iron and Steel Industrial Corporation (Iscor), which rapidly generated a whole series of related and service industries. These, together with the civil service, ensured white Pretoria’s quiet, insular prosperity. Meanwhile, increasing landlessness among blacks drove many of them into the city’s burgeoning townships. Marabastad and Atteridgeville are the oldest, and Mamelodi is the biggest and poorest.

After the introduction of apartheid by the National Party in 1948, Pretoria acquired a hated reputation among the black population. Its supreme court and central prison were notorious as the source of the laws that made their lives a nightmare.


Mandela’s inauguration at the Union Buildings in 1994 was the symbolic new beginning for Pretoria’s political redemption. Through the 1990s, the stages of South Africa’s revolution could be seen as clearly here as anywhere else: the gradual replacement of the diehards from institutions like the army and civil service, new faces in almost all the old government offices, the return of foreign diplomats and the influx of students.

Pretoria’s metropolitan area was renamed Tshwane in 2005 by the city council, after a Tswana-Ndebele chief who ruled in the area before Boer settlers arrived. The central business district remains Pretoria, but the compromise is awkward, with most media, and indeed most citizens, still calling the whole city Pretoria. Many Afrikaners resent what they see as a spiteful and costly attempt to erase the city’s historic origins from public memory, while many black Pretorians don’t see why a post-apartheid, mainly black city should still bear a name deeply associated with racial oppression. It seems likely that the city will lug two names around for years to come.


South Africa’s most famous township, Soweto (short for South West Townships), is a place of surreal contrasts. The area was home to two Nobel Peace Prize winners, yet suffers one of the highest rates of murder and rape in the world. It is the richest township in South Africa, home to a growing number of millionaires, but has some of the most desperate poverty. It is the most political township, yet has the most nihilistic youth.

Southwest of the city centre, Soweto is huge, stretching as far as the eye can see, with a population estimated at between three and four million. Like any city of that size, it is divided into a number of different suburbs, with middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods among them. At first sight, it appears an endless jumble of houses and shacks, overshadowed by palls of smoke, though parts of it have a villagey feel. Apart from the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum, most of Soweto’s tourist highlights are physically unimpressive, their fame stemming from historical associations. That history, however, is enthralling, not least because here it is told with a perspective and context rarely found in the rest of South Africa. For visitors it means an insight not just into a place much mentioned in 1980s news bulletins for funerals and fighting, but into a way of life most Westerners rarely encounter.

Taking a tour of Soweto

A visit to Soweto is the single most popular attraction in Johannesburg. Where once these had a whiff of daring and originality, a well-trodden tourist trail has developed, and unless you’re content to follow the herds of minibuses and coaches around the conventional sights, visiting the same shantytowns and shebeens, it’s well worth using an operator who mixes the highlights with lesser-known sights. Most outfits are keen for you to "meet the people", though conversations can tend to be strained and lead to your leaving a "donation" or buying local craftwork. While this gets a few tourist dollars directly into the townships, it often leaves visitors feeling pressurized and vulnerable. Ask your guide about the best way to deal with this.

At one time, taking yourself to Soweto would have meant a display of bravado bordering on foolhardiness, but it’s now possible to visit the main sights independently. In Soweto, residents will stop to greet you or to chat, regardless of your colour. There are surprisingly few criminal incidents affecting tourists, though as ever it pays to remain vigilant; exploring less-visited areas by yourself, or going after dark, isn’t recommended for safety reasons. If you want to drive to Soweto, you’ll need good navigational skills – the lack of obvious landmarks amid kilometre upon kilometre of boxy little houses can be highly confusing. The new Rea Vaya bus route from the city centre that passes near Vilakazi Street offers a good alternative to taking a minibus taxi to Soweto, which are more confusing than dangerous, as it isn’t always easy to ascertain which part of the township they are heading for. Forming a cross with two fingers is the recognized minibus signal indicating that you want to go to "crossroads", which will bring you to the centre of Soweto. From here you can pick up another taxi to whichever sight you want to visit, though even in a taxi you may be let out on one of the main roads and have to walk a little way to reach your target.

The Soweto uprising of 1976

The student uprising that began in Soweto in June 1976 was a defining moment in South African history. The revolt was sparked off by a government ruling that Afrikaans should be used on an equal basis with English in black secondary schools. While this was feasible in some rural areas, it was quite impossible in the townships, where neither pupils nor teachers knew the language.

On June 16, student delegates from every Soweto school launched their long-planned mass protest march through the township and a rally at the Orlando football stadium. Incredibly, details of the plan were kept secret from the omnipresent impimpis (informers). Soon after the march started, however, the police attacked, throwing tear gas and then firing. The crowd panicked, and demonstrators started throwing stones at the police. The police fired again. Out of this bedlam came the famous photograph of the first student to die, Hector Pieterson, bleeding at the mouth, being carried by a friend, while his sister Antoinette looks on in anguished horror.

The police retreated to Orlando East, and students rushed to collect the injured and dead, erect barricades, and destroy everything they could belonging to the municipal authority, including beer halls. The attacks heightened the antagonism between the youth and many older people who thought that class boycotts were irresponsible, given the students’ already dismal employment prospects. Students responded angrily, accusing their elders of apathy in the face of oppression, which they attributed in part to drunkenness. In a society that has traditionally regarded respect for the old as sacrosanct, this was a historic departure and its effects still reverberate throughout South Africa’s townships.

In the days following June 16, all Soweto schools were closed indefinitely, thousands of police were stationed throughout the township, and police brutality continued unabated. In the face of worldwide condemnation the government ascribed the violence to Communist agitation, citing as evidence the clenched-fist salutes of the students, though this was really an indication of their support for South Africa’s Black Consciousness Movement, founded by Steve Biko. Meanwhile, rebellion spread to other townships, particularly in Cape Town. In Soweto, schools did not reopen until 1978, by which time many students had abandoned any hope of formal education. Some had left the country to join the military wings of the ANC and PAC, while others stayed at home, forming "street committees" to politicize and police the communities. Others drifted into unemployment.

Now the armed struggle is over, the problems that face the former students of 1976 are manifold. As their parents warned, their lack of qualifications counts against them in the job market, even if June 16 is now a national holiday, during which they are praised for their role in the struggle. The street committees have dissolved, but the guns remain.

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Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 27.04.2021

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