History of Johannesburg

Johannesburg gold mine

When gold was discovered in the area in 1886, Johannesburg sprang up from the veld as a rowdy mining camp. Not much more than 100 years ago, what is now the economic and industrial centre of South Africa was then an endless untouched savannah. When the first gold was found, the news spread like wildfire and the area experienced an unprecedented gold rush. The government sent two deputies, who founded a little settlement and named it after the first name they both had in common, Johannesburg. Three years later the place was the biggest town in the country. By 1875, almost 100 000 people lived in Johannesburg and the mines employed more than 75 000 workers. Black people from the homelands were brought in to work in the mines, for at least a year at a time. During this time they were separated from their wives and children and were living under inhumane conditions in the so-called 'hostels'. To stay emotionally in contact with their home and their culture, many of the men started to practise their traditional dances. In the course of the years these performances of the mine dancers also became part of the weekend entertainment for many whites in Johannesburg.

Major building developments took place in the 1930s, after South Africa went off the gold standard. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hillbrow went high-rise. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the apartheid government constructed the massive agglomeration of townships that became known as Soweto (SOuth WEstern TOwnships). New freeways encouraged massive suburban sprawl to the north of the city. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, great American-style tower blocks (including the Carlton Centre) filled the skyline of the central business district. The central area of the city underwent something of a decline in the 1980s and 1990s when property speculators directed large amounts of capital into suburban shopping malls, decentralised office parks, and entertainment centres. Sandton City was opened in 1973, followed by Rosebank Mall in 1976, and Eastgate in 1979.

Johannesburg is reputed to have more trees than any other city in the world (6 million trees, twice the human population).

Copyright © 2002-2003, Rodney Jones, rtjones@amethyst.co.za, Randburg, South Africa (Last updated on 5 April 2003)