GPS: S 26 12.088 E 028 02.729
pop. 3,200,000 | elevation 1,767m/5,797 ft
Johannesburg (also known as Joburg, Jozi, and Egoli) is an amazing melting pot of a city. It is full of rich history, has an incredible art and cultural scene, and its nightlife rivals that of any other major city in the world. Unfortunately, the city has a bad rap for being a crime hotspot, and too often, it’s either passed over by visitors or used as only a place to stay when coming from or going to the airport. Don’t let the fear of the potential dangers of Joburg prevent you from having an experience that very well may round off the highlights of your trip – the vast majority of visitors who spend time in the city leave without encountering any problems.
If you come to South Africa and pass up on Joburg and its surrounding area, you will leave with an incomplete understanding of the country. To understand South Africa you need to feel Joburg – see the city center, get to Melville, go out in Newtown and spend at least a day in neighboring Soweto.
Even before the discovery of gold outside of Johannesburg in 1886 and the subsequent gold rush, the area of Johannesburg had long been a center of economic and mining activity. Ruins of Sotho-Tswana villages around Johannesburg in nearby Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve show evidence of the complex social structures and skilled mining and smelting techniques used by early farmers and herdsmen towards the beginning of the Early Iron Age. In the modern era, Chief Mzilikazi and the Ndebele briefly conquested the area as they distanced themselves from the grasp of Shaka Zulu’s army and crossed over the Drakensburg Mountains in 1821. But their kingdom was dismantled as Voortrekkers and far-reaching factions of the Zulu army drove them farther north.
The discovery of gold in the area in the late 1800s transformed, in less than a decade, the once small triangle cluster of farms into South Africa’s largest and richest metropolitan area. The gold rush attracted prospectors from other parts of the country, as well as from Europe and North America. However, digging for gold in the deep reef of the Witwatersrand was too expensive for almost all but the already established wealthy diamond miners such as Cecil Rhodes, Barney Barnato, and JB Robinson, who quickly bought up all the small claims and became Randlords, organizing their mining monopolies into the Witwatersrand Chamber of Mines. As Johannesburg boomed, tensions grew between the Pretoria-based Boer government of the ZAR and the wealthy foreign Randlords based around Johannesburg, as well as between the Randlords and their poorly paid mine workers.
Hoping to gain final control of the area and rid themselves of the restrictive tax and administrative laws of the Boer republic, the wealthy mine owners attempted to oust the Boer government in the mid 1890s, in what became known as the Jameson Raid in Doornkop. The Boer government reacted by rapidly increasing its military might with weapons from German suppliers and preemptively attacked their insurrectionists in 1899, effectively starting the Second Boer War, or the South African War. By May 30, 1900, Johannesburg fell to the British and two years later the Boer ZAR and Orange Free State republics were handed over to the British Empire. The British renamed the ZAR the Transvaal and quickly began to expand their mining initiatives around Johannesburg.
An outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1904 allowed the government to justify racial segregation in Johannesburg, and black and coloured residents began to be removed from the city center. The “Coolie Location,” which is present day Newtown, was burned to the ground and its residents relocated to Kliptown in the outskirts of the city. The infamous South Western Townships (Soweto) would eventually form around Kliptown to become the largest townships in the country.
Industrialization and the growth of manufacturing attracted even greater numbers of black residents to the city, peaking during WWII when black workers began filling jobs previously reserved only for Whites. During the 1940s, the city’s black population almost doubled, leading to the growth of a black intellectual and middle class, and a corresponding backlash from the white minority, manifested in the election of the National Party in 1948. The racial segregation laws passed by the newly entrenched Apartheid government further displaced the black population from the inner city, as vibrant multi-racial areas such as Sophiatown were destroyed and the populations were moved into the newly developed mass of Soweto around the shantytowns of Kliptown and Orlando.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw rapid modernization; the rise of tall buildings and a burgeoning skyline replaced the former inner city black neighborhoods. However, the strengthening of the black liberation movement and violence in Soweto and other Joburg townships, as well as high crime rates in the city center, led to a decline of the city in 1980s and early 1990s, as businesses and white residents moved into the Northern Suburbs of Sandton, Midrand, Houghton and Parktown. With the dismantling of the Apartheid regime and democratic elections in 1994, Johannesburg has been progressively re-emerging as a vibrant, multi-racial city. However, many of its residents still continue to live in poverty.
Braamfontein & Hillbrow
Braamfontein & Hillbrow are just north of the city center but bustling with activity. Many visitors will pass through or spend some time in Braamfontein's Park Station - the busiest transport hub in southern Africa. The student life of Wits University and the numerous museums and art galleries on campus dominate much of western Braamfontein. Hillbrow is characterized by high-rise apartments and is a densely populated residential melting pot of more recent immigrants. It has a vibrant nightlife, but it generally isn't safe to be walking around after dark. On the grounds of the University of the Witwatersrand are 14 museums.
The Origins Center covers the past 80,000 years of human innovation on the African continent by tracing the development of symbols, art, language, tools and spirituality. Audio guides in six different languages are included with admission.
The Gertrude Posel Gallery features a number of collections of both traditional and contemporary African art from all over the continent. It includes drawings, paintings, photography and traditional crafts.
Constitution Hill is the former site of the Old Fort Prison complex that was built in the 1890s to house white prisoners. In 1902, the complex was expanded to include "native sections," and in 1909, a female section was added. The prison held a number of famous individuals as inmates including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela.
The Constitutional Court of South Africa was formed by the country's democratic constitution of 1994 and is composed of 11 judges who rule on constitutional matters. The court is on the site of and partially built from the brick of one of the wings of the Old Fort Prison complex. The public is welcome into the building to view the art gallery in the court's atrium or observe the court when it is in session.
Joburg's city center is characterized by towering office buildings and bustling streets lined by shops and vendors hawking everything from produce to cell phone chargers during the daylight hours. But the area is equally as dead over the weekend and any time after dark. Some areas of the city center have the feel of budding regeneration, but this is still downtown Johannesburg and you need to be keenly aware of your surroundings when walking around.
Top of Africa is a viewing deck and restaurant on the top floor of one of the tallest buildings in Africa. On a clear day, you can view the development of the various Joburg districts as well as Soweto and the airport.
Mandela & Tambo Law Office is not open to tourists, but is the location of the Mandela & Tambo Law Office that, when formed in 1953, was South Africa's only all-black law firm.
Johannesburg Art Gallery, established in 1910, is the largest gallery in South Africa with 15 exhibition halls within the three-story building. The collection includes works by Picasso, Monet, Dante, and Degas, as well as 17th century Dutch paintings, 19th century British and other European paintings and contemporary works from South Africa.
Standard Bank Art Gallery has continually changing displays of South African and international art and artifacts within its modern spacious building.
Newtown is a redeveloping downtown cultural arts district, with a number of museums, crafts stalls, restaurants and bars. The area has a strong urban feel that is much closer to the beat of the real Joburg than some of the more trendy sub-urban spots. There are a number of unarmed security personnel monitoring the district in an attempt to promote tourism and deter petty crime.
Mary Fitzgerald Square was named after the first South African female trade unionist who was heavily involved in the 1910 miners strikes. During that time, the square was the site of many union strikes and protests. Today the square is the center of Newtown, surrounded by Museum Africa, Market Theater, the Jazz Walk of Fame and a number of places for eating, drinking and entertainment.
Museum Africa is in a large building on Mary Fitzgerald Square that was built in 1913 as a fruit and vegetable market. The museum covers the rich history of the African continent and has impressive exhibits on the development of Johannesburg, including a display on the five-year, Apartheid era Treason Trial of 156 people (including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu) who were all charged with and acquitted of treason.
Market Theatre is the central spot for live performances with three theaters, a swanky cocktail bar and an attached restaurant. The Market Theatre was established in 1976 as an integrated race theater and became famous for challenging the Apartheid government through its performances.
Jazz Walk of Fame recognizes nine of South Africa's jazz legends with their names and short inspirational stories about them engraved in the granite strip.
Nelson Mandela Bridge connects the Braamfontein district in the north with Newtown in the south, spanning over 42 active railway lines. The bridge was opened in 2003 by Nelson Mandela as part of his 85th birthday celebration and is an impressive site when lit up at night.
SAB World of Beer has an engaging 1.5hr tour on the history of beer and the beer making process, from ancient Mesopotamia to the shebeens of Soweto and pubs of Johannesburg. The tour includes two pints of beer afterward.
Drum Café has a museum where you can learn about the ancient art of drum making or catch live performances by expert drummers who have performed at events around the world.
Workers' Museum commemorates the African migrant workers who were instrumental in the building of Johannesburg and has a large reference library and exhibits displaying the single-sex hostel living environments in which they were housed. It is located in the original municipal electric workers compound.
Sci-Bono Discovery Centre is located in a large building that housed the turbines for the city's tram system over 100 years ago. Today it has interactive exhibits related to math, science and technology with its target audience being school children.
The Northern Suburbs are stereotypically wealthier areas characterized by secured communities and shopping malls. They are safer to walk around in than the city center (with the notable exception of Alexandra) and, while spread out, offer a selection of comfortable places to stay, and a variety of restaurants and bars.
Liliesleaf Farm was the secret headquarters of the military wing of the ANC until it was raided by police in 1963. This raid resulted in the arrest of a number of ANC leaders and led to the famous Rivonia trial resulting in the imprisonment of ANC leaders including Mandela, Sisulu, and Mbeki. The farm has been restored to its earlier condition and recently reopened to the public with interactive exhibits that pay tribute to the prominent leaders and the events that led up to the dramatic police raid.
South African National Museum of Military History preserves South Africa's history during the Anglo-Boer War, WWI and WWII. The museum has displays of small arms, armored vehicles, and a number of aircrafts as well as a one-man submarine used by the Germans in WWII.
Johannesburg Zoo has nearly 3,000 species on its 54 hectares including rare white lions and Siberian tigers. The zoo also offers night safaris where you can see some of the more nocturnal animals such as lions, leopards and owls.
The Southern Suburbs are a mix of residential and industrial areas and few visitors will have reason to visit this part of the city aside from the Apartheid Museum and the Gold Reef City casino and amusement park.
Apartheid Museum is one of Joburg's top tourist attractions and one of the country's best museums with powerful exhibits demonstrating the racism of the Apartheid era. The museum displays include graphic and moving video footage, photographs and artifacts, including a cage full of weapons used by police to enforce the laws of Apartheid and 121 nooses that represent the political prisoners that were hung during the Apartheid regime. Spending some time at the Apartheid Museum and in Soweto itself is a great way to absorb the history of South Africa and its struggle for democracy. Though the museum is now independently run, the concept of the museum was proposed and paid for by a casino investment group as part of a bidding process, in which the recipient of a gaming license needed to show how their plan would bring tourism to the area. Today the Apartheid Museum is a separate non-profit entity.
Gold Reef City is a mini city with a large amusement park and casino located just south of Joburg on the site of an old gold mine. The amusement park includes a large water park, numerous roller coasters, live shows, 3D movie theaters, a small zoo and a museum. There are hotels and plenty of restaurants at both the amusement park and casino.
Jimmy's Face to Face Tours gained its popularity from running Soweto tours back in the 1980s but now offers tours throughout the province and beyond.
Lords Travel & Tours can take you to any of the popular destinations including Soweto, Apartheid Museum, and downtown Joburg.
Jozi Experience can do everything, from picking you up at the airport, to lining up accommodation, or taking you out for a night of Joburg bar hopping.
GALA's Queer Johannesburg Tour has tours that cover the history of gay and lesbian life in Joburg and Soweto. The tour highlights the rise and struggle of homosexuals in obtaining their current constitutional rights, aspects of homosexuality in the mining hostels, gay life in Soweto and much more.