Johannesburg, affectionately called Joburg and Jozi by residents is the largest city in South Africa and one of the 50 largest urban areas in the world. Visitors who go to South Africa often flock to Johannesburg for its impeccable eateries, glossy high rises, and delicious wine. However, few know of the town’s history which lent to its other nickname, eGoli (“City of Gold”).
Historical records show that the area surrounding Johannesburg was originally inhabited by the San people, the indigenous hunter-gatherer people of South Africa. During the 13th century, groups of Bantu-speaking people from central Africa started moving into the area, encroaching on the indigenous San population. By the mid-18th century, the broader region was settled by a branch of Bantu-speakers known as th Sotho–Tswana communities.
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The Sotho–Tswana were farmers and miners who smelted metals available in the area. It is believed that the group was exploiting the area for its mineral wealth before the arrival of Europeans or the discovery of gold.
Historian Revil Mason found many late Iron Age archaeological sites throughout the Johannesburg area from the 12th century and 18th century, many containing the ruins of Sotho–Tswana mines and iron smelting furnaces. Melville Koppies, the most prominent gold site within Johannesburg, contains an iron smelting furnace.
But Johannesburg did not become the city we know it today until the Gold Rush of the 1880s. In June 1884, Jan Gerritse Bantjeson discovered the main Witwatersrand gold reef on the farm Vogelstruisfontein. The discovery of gold rapidly attracted people to the area, making it necessary for it to have a name and governmental organisation.
This gave rise to Johannesburg in 1886, the name coming from popular Dutch names Johann and Johannes. Within ten years, the city of Johannesburg grew to 100,000 people.
Johannesburg continues to support the industry. In fact, the world’s deepest mine, Mponeng, lies right outside of the city.
According to National Geographic,
Nearly 40 percent of all gold mined during recorded history has come in the past 120 years from “the Rand”—the Witwatersrand Basin in South Africa. Scientists estimate roughly one-third of the world’s gold resources still lie unmined in the nine million acres of this ancient lake or sea bed, whose name means “ridge of white waters” in Afrikaans.
The discovery of gold, unfortunately, helped fuel the city’s dark apartheid past as well.
Until 1994, Johannesburg was a white only city. A separate city Soweto, originally an acronym for “South-Western Townships”, originated as settlements on the outskirts of Johannesburg in the late 1970s and was populated by mostly native Africans who worked low minimum wage jobs in the gold mining industry. Soweto was eventually incorporated into Johannesburg at the end of apartheid.
For tourists looking to discover the city’s golden past, the southern part of Johannesburg is dotted with “slag heaps” — odd yellow hills revealing the history of mines past. Some of them are good for sandboarding.