Overview of Johannesburg

History of Johannesburg

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Modern human beings have inhabited South Africa for more than 100,000 years.The history of the region around Johannesburg is so ancient that it stretches the boundaries of evolutionary science. The 1998 discovery of a 3½-million-year-old Australopithecus africanus in a cave near Sterkfontein, northwest of Johannesburg, created a sensation among scientists. Around 100,000 B.C., South Africa became the home of the nomadic San people.  The San were followed in approximately 500 A.D. by another tribe of nomads, the Khoikhoi, and then by successive migrations of of Bantu-speaking peoples, who also arrived in South Africa in around AD 500. The Bantu tribes were Iron-Age peoples who domesticated animals, farmed crops (particularly Maize or corn) worked metal and pottery and lived in settled villages. Modern South African descendents of the Bantu include the Basotho, Swasi, Tswana, Xhosa and Zulu, although during apartheid, the term "Bantu" became a largely derogatory label indiscriminately imposed upon Blacks regardless of tribal affiliation.

European settlement in South Africa started modestly, with a supply station established in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company, a century and a half after the discovery of the Cape Sea Route.  It quickly evolved into an ambitious colonial settlement (based in Kaapstad or Cape Town), with its own dialect (Afrikaans), puritan religion (the Dutch Reformed Church), and slaves imported from as far afield as Indonesia. When the colonists spread east over the next 150 years, they were violently resisted by the Bantu tribes. In 1779, the eastward expansion of the Boers (Afrikaner-speaking farmers of Dutch, Flemish, German and French descent) was temporarily halted by the Xhosa in the first Bantu War.

The Boers also came into conflict with British colonialists who gained control of Cape Town in 1806. European settlement expanded during the 1820s as the Boers and the British claimed land in the north and east of the country. The British abolition of slavery in 1834 was regarded by the Boers as an intolerable interference in their affairs, and led to their migration (known as the Great Trek) across the Orange River two years later.The discovery of diamonds and later gold triggered the conflict known as the Anglo-Boer War as the Boers and the British fought for the control of South African mineral wealth.

The history of the town of Johannesburg began in 1886 with the discovery on the Transvaal of the richest gold-bearing reef in history. Three years later, Johannesburg had become the largest town in southern Africa -- a rowdy place full of bars, brothels and fortune-hunters of all kinds. This motley crew of Whites and Blacks were regarded with deep distrust by the Boers, by the Transvaal government and especially by the president, Paul Kruger. As a result, Kruger introduced electoral laws restricting voting rights to the Boers, and laws aimed at controlling the movement of Blacks.

Despite the ultimate defeat of the Boers, limited independence was given to South Africa in 1910 as a British dominion. Anti-British policies focused on ultimate independence which was achieved in 1961 when South Africa was declared a republic. The leading National Party legislated for a continuation of racial segregation which had begun under Dutch and British colonial rule and had continued under the Boer republics and subsequent South African government.  Racial segregation became more firmly established after World War I, and in 1948 a system of racial separation became legally institutionalized and known as apartheid, despite opposition both within and outside of the country.

Although gold-mining remained the backbone of the city's 20th-century economy, manufacturing soon turned industrial Johannesburg into a forest of smokestacks during World War II. Under increasing pressure from poverty Blacks moved from the countryside by the thousands to the city in search of jobs. From the 1930s onwards vast squatter camps sprang up around Johannesburg, populated by disenfranchised Black workers. These camps became well-organised cities, despite their gross overcrowding and negligible services. Sensing the threat to their authority, the government destroyed many of these squatter camps in the late 1940s, forcibly relocating the people to new suburbs known as the South-Western townships, shortened to Soweto.

The entrenchment of apartheid during the 1960s did nothing to slow the expansion of the city or the arrival of black squatters. Large-scale violence broke out in 1976 when the Soweto Students' Representative Council organised protests against the use of Afrikaans (regarded as the language of the oppressor) in Black schools. Police opened fire on a student march and over the next 12 months more than 1000 people would die fighting the apartheid system. It was during this period that Nelson Mandela (affectionately known in South Africa as Madeba, or leader), a leader in anti apartheid movement, began his decades-long political imprisonment. In February 1990 then President F.W. de Klerk began to dismantle apartheid, and in 1994 the first democratic election was held in South Africa. This election brought Nelson Mandela (as President) and the current ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC) to power, and the country rejoined the Commonwealth of Nations.

Since the 1994 elections, Johannesburg, along with the rest of South Africa, has, in theory, been free of discriminatory laws. The black townships have been integrated into the municipal government system, the city centre is vibrant and inner suburbs have become multiracial. Unfortunately, serious problems remain in post-apartheid Johannesburg. Crime is rampant and middle-class whites have largely retreated to the northern suburbs, which have evolved into a de facto volkstaat (an independent, racially pure Boer state) Gold-mining is no longer undertaken in the city area, and the old, pale-yellow mine dumps that created such a surreal landscape on the edge of the city are being reprocessed. The memory of of Johannesburg as a mining town will be retained, however, as some dumps are being preserved as historical monuments.

Update 27/11/2008

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