Johannesburg History Facts and Timeline

(Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa)

South Africa's biggest city, Johannesburg, is also the most populated city on earth that is not located on the banks of a major body of water.

This city ranks among the world's 50 most densely populated metropolitan areas and boasts Sub-Saharan Africa's biggest economy, along with the continent's busiest airport. It is hard to believe that the history of Johannesburg did not formally begin until 1886, when gold was discovered beneath its surrounding Witwatersrand hill range.

Earliest Residents

San tribes were the earliest known settlers in the history of present-day Johannesburg, although Bantu speakers migrating from Central Africa outnumbered the San by the 13th century. Sotho-Tswana became the area's dominant language and culture by the 18th century, when Sotho-Tswana lands extended as far west as Botswana and as far south as Lesotho.

Stone walled ruins are the few surviving remnants of this Iron Age society, which nonetheless established iron-smelting furnaces and mines to exploit the area's rich natural resources, long before the first Europeans arrived. During the Zululand wars at the turn of the 19th century, most Sotho-Tswana settlements were destroyed and abandoned, allowing the Ndebele Zulu kingdom to reign over the area by the time Europeans first arrived here in the early 19th century.

Witwatersrand Gold Rush

The first European settlers to arrive in the Johannesburg area were the Dutch Voortrekkers, who helped the Sotho-Tswana people oust the Ndebele from the territory now called the Transvaal Republic. The modern history of Johannesburg officially began with the 1886 discovery of gold beneath the hills of the Witwatersrand area, which attracted fortune seekers from throughout the world. Of interest, the city's name is said to come from the two Zuid-Afrikaansche Republijk surveyors, both named Johannes, who helped to establish the new community.

Mining Town and Second Boer War

By the late 19th century, Johannesburg had already grown into a diverse mining boomtown with a population of poor Afrikaners, black African tribesmen, fortune-seeking miners and ambitious gangsters. The British soldiers who occupied the city during a period of the Second Boer War burned much of the surrounding farmland, sending literally thousands of children and women to concentration camps.

The war left the majority of Johannesburg residents both poor and homeless, and many blacks fled the city. Chinese workers were brought in to labour in the mines and many of their relatives remain here to this day.

Mining Strikes

Johannesburg's new British colonial government forcibly relocated the native population to the city's outskirts. In 1920, about 70,000 black miners went on strike to protest their substandard working and living conditions. Two years later, more than 200 people died in a general strike called the Rand Revolt. Johannesburg's black population, many of whom were crowded into squatters' camps, doubled during WWII.

Modern Jo'burg History

All the same, under the stern leadership of the white-controlled government, the city grew rapidly, perhaps faster than any other during the 20th century. It soon became Africa's richest and largest commercial centre, complete with a Central Business District of skyscrapers and leafy northerly suburbs for the white South Africans, as well as dusty townships based within the south for the locals.

After apartheid was officially implemented in the 1950s, thousands of Johannesburg's black population were ousted to townships such as Soweto, site of the 1976 student protest which marked a low point in South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. Several uprisings and violent incidents later, apartheid was finally abolished during the early 1990s. Segregated townships like Soweto and Lenasia have now been fully integrated with the rest of Johannesburg.

Surprisingly, Johannesburg plays no part in the administration of the country, with this role being shared between Pretoria, Cape Town and Bloemfontein. However, many politicians and major businesses do choose to be based in the city. Naturally, rural youths tend to gravitate here for opportunities, often causing social problems.

Although Johannesburg continues to struggle with crime and violent incidents, such as the 2008 Alexandra riots, the city continues to grow, attracting hordes of tourists and hosting important global events, such as the 2010 FIFA World Cup final.