The history of Johannesburg as a city is brief by comparison to most world cities, but nevertheless breathtaking. In just over 120 years a lawless mining camp has flourished and become Africa’s most prosperous and developed metropolis, full of colour and contrasts. The golden mine dumps that once stood out as landmarks are no longer as prominent and in their place is an immense treed city with areas of urban sprawl juxtaposed with Sandton’s gleaming high-rises. While the area in which Johannesburg is located has a rich pre-history going back to early human ancestors and iron age settlements that story is better left to the experts at Maropeng and the Origins Centre. The city’s history is inextricably part of South Africa’s history, and the struggle for freedom and democracy.
Nechama Brodie, journalist and author of The Joburg Book (the second edition was updated and released September 2014, published by PanMacmillan SA) the must-have reference book for understanding the city’s origins, people and history identifies 10 key historical Joburg facts and moments. She writes: "The modern city you see today with its obvious wealth and commerce, skyscrapers and freeway networks has a rich and colourful history. The turning point was the discovery of a seam of gold in what is now George Harrison Park in Langlaagte. President Paul Kruger declared the area open for public digging on September 20, 1886 precipitating the influx of people from all over the globe in search of their fortune. The city that was declared in 1928 sprang up from a tent-town mining camp. Today people still flock here in search of a different kind of gold."
- Johannesburg sits on the edge of the world’s largest known gold deposit – in the Witwatersrand Basin, once the site of a massive inland sea.
- Two billion years ago, a giant meteor struck the earth at Vredefort, about 120km south-west of Joburg. The impact – the oldest and largest visible meteor impact site in the world – buried the Witwatersrand gold deposits up to several kilometres deep, protecting the gold from erosion and making for the deepest-level goldmines in the world.
- Nobody really knows (exactly) where the name 'Johannesburg' came from. 'Johannes' was – and still is – a popular Dutch and Afrikaans name: the Boer president, the town surveyor, the mining head and the military commander present at the time the town was established all carried the name.
- Joburg’s gold ore is typically low-grade, which meant – almost from the start – the mineral claims had to be worked by large syndicates, relying on cheap black migrant labour, rather than individual prospectors. The wealthy syndicate owners became known as the 'Randlords'.
- The white-yellow mine dumps surrounding the city are the remnants of the waste gangue (the worthless earth and material that comes with the mineral) after it has been crushed and then separated from the gold, using a cyanide-zinc chemical extraction process. Millions of tons of hard rock were treated in this way. Crown Mines alone removed 160 million tons of rock, from a depth of several kilometres. By comparison, the excavation of the entire Suez Canal only entailed the removal of 130 million tons of soft material!
- Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela both spent formative years working as attorneys in Johannesburg. Although neither man was born in the city, their exposure to its segregationist (British and, following that, Apartheid) policies greatly influenced their later campaigns of resistance, decades (and countries) apart.
- Johannesburg’s early town planners had always intended for the city to be a 'whites only' settlement. Forced removals and Apartheid land policies pushed the majority of the city’s black population into a grouping of townships more than 20km away from city. These settlements were collectively given the name Soweto (South-Western Townships).
- In June 1955 in Kliptown, one of Soweto’s oldest suburbs, a group of 3000 anti-apartheid activists met – on what was then a dusty field, now the Walter Sisulu Square of Dedication – to sign a document known as the Freedom Charter. It stated: 'South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white'.
- A little over 20 years later, in June 1976, Soweto issued another challenge to the oppressive policies of Apartheid when the youth of the township rose up in a peaceful protest – against the government’s bantu education policies. The protests quickly turned violent, with police shooting and killing unarmed schoolchildren. The shots were heard countrywide.
- South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, was founded after the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. The Court buildings sit on the edge of a small complex atop one of Joburg’s few hills. The precinct, known as Constitution Hill, was once the site of the city’s fort and, later, a prison complex that held, at different times, many political prisoners, from Gandhi and Mandela to Mandela’s former wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
1886 Australian prospector George Harrison discovers gold on what was then called the Witwatersrand, spurring a gold rush. The tent camp becomes a magnet for fortune hunters who make their way to the mining encampment bringing with them contract labourers. Within three years the place becomes the largest settlement in South Africa.
1887 The city’s first newspaper The Star and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is founded.
1893 The Johannesburg Public Library opens in a corrugated iron structure aimed at offering young men recreational activities other than drinking and visiting brothels.
1890s A number of large mining companies control the area’s gold mines, creating enormous wealth for the company owners. Cue the so-called ‘Randlords’ whose legacy still remains in the architectural styles of their mansions on Parktown Ridge.
1899-1901 Strained relations between the mine barons, English-speaking new arrivals and the Transvaal’s Boer government lead to the Anglo-Boer War, and subsequent British control of the area. The colonial government formalises racial segregation which later will be entrenched by the iniquitous system of Apartheid.
1920 Protests and strikes erupt over the appalling conditions in which the city's black workers live.
1922 White miners agitate for change culminating in the “Rand Revolt”. Two hundred miners die.
1928 Johannesburg is declared a city.
1948 White privilege is entrenched with the ascension of the Nationalist Party, who implement the policy of Apartheid, relocating thousands of black people to remote “homelands” and introducing pass laws to severely restrict their movement. Black opposition parties are banned.
1955 The South African Congress Alliance gathers in Kliptown, Soweto to adopt The Freedom Charter. The stage is set for increasing resistance to Apartheid policies.
1963 Soweto (South Western Townships) is formally named as a settlement for black South Africans.
1970s The city of Johannesburg booms. Construction of high-rises includes the Carlton Centre, Hillbrow Tower and residential block Ponte City. Sandton City is also built, in an area largely comprised of farmland.
1976 The Soweto Uprising by children against the Apartheid government’s discriminatory education policies is a milestone event. When South African police force members open fire on unarmed children they unwittingly start to bring about an end to Apartheid.
1980 The following decade is the most turbulent in South Africa’s recent history, with states of emergency declared, violence erupting in the townships, street battles against the racist police, detentions without trial for political activists, tightening sanctions and heightened state security.
1990 State President FW De Klerk makes a momentous announcement to unban banned organisations and to release political prisoners, among them the world’s best known prisoner, Nelson Mandela. On February 13 after his release, Nelson Mandela addresses a packed stadium at Soccer City, Soweto (now FNB Stadium).
1994 South Africa holds its first democratic elections. Nelson Mandela is elected President of a free country. Having lived in Alexandra and Soweto at different times of his life, he now makes his private home in Houghton, the house in which he died.
1995 The almost exclusively white Springbok Rugby Team wins the World Cup against New Zealand, and a triumphant Nelson Mandela walks onto the field at Ellis Park to join the team, wearing the Captain’s jersey. This is an enormously significant act, crowning his efforts at reconciling white and black South Africans.
2003 The Nelson Mandela Bridge is built.
2004 The Constitutional Court of South Africa building on Constitution Hill, Braamfontein, is inaugurated. In the same year Johannesburg grants Nelson Mandela freedom of the city.
2010 The 2010 FIFA World Cup Opening Ceremony and Final are held at Soccer City, now FNB Stadium in Soweto.
2013 On December 5, the world bids farewell in Johannesburg to one of its all-time greatest leaders, former president Nelson Mandela.