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Johannesburg History

The scene of the last great gold rush, it took less than 100 years for precious metal to turn a stretch of unprepossessing scrubland into South Africa’s economic hub. If only George Harrison, an Australian prospector, had had the prudence to see what lay ahead. He was the man who, in 1886, sniffed out gold in Langlaagte before selling his plot for £10 and moving on.

Except, there was still more gold to been found, and a vast mining operation swiftly established in the area. As it grew, mine owners became increasingly powerful, angering local citizens. One, Leander Jameson, attempted to stage a coup in 1895 which failed, leading to uitlanders (foreigners) being denied the right to vote. This triggered the Second Boer War in 1899 between the British and the South African Republic and the Orange Free State.

The British were unopposed when they marched into Johannesburg in 1900 and soon the mines began operating again, but with much more favourable conditions for the owners. There were other sources of tension too. By 1904, blacks were starting to be forced out of the city to places like Klipspruit and the South Western Townships (later Soweto). Their petitions and protests turned into riots and violence.

When the National Party won the 1948 election, apartheid was enforced, with new laws determining where people could live and work based solely on race. 4 million blacks were displaced and makeshift homes were bulldozed. In June 1976, apartheid came to a head when police fired at protesting Soweto students. This triggered revolts across Johannesburg’s townships and throughout South Africa, which continued until 1994, when apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela’s ANC party took power.

Today, Johannesburg is a thriving modern metropolis, complete with sparkling tower blocks and a vibrant cultural scene. Tension, however, remains, as does the crime rate. Nevertheless, as South Africa develops and pulls its citizens out of poverty, the future looks bright for its biggest city.

Did you know?
• Mahatma Gandhi began the Passive Resistance movement in Johannesburg.
• The black population of Johannesburg doubled during WWII, as manufacturing rose and whites left to serve in the military.
• 40% of the world’s human ancestor fossils have been discovered in Johannesburg.

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Featured Hotels


Sunnyside Park Hotel

Built in 1895 as a gracious country residence, the Sunnyside Park Hotel is a National Monument. Set in glorious English gardens, it retains its original magnificent balustrade, wood panelling, historic fireplace and glittering chandeliers, but has been extensively refurbished to provide modern touches. Located just off the M1 freeway in exclusive Parktown, it is a few minutes' drive to the Killarney Mall, Rosebank and Sandton City and 30 minutes to the airport. Its restaurant, Milners, is all starched linen and quiet elegance with a British bent in food, tempered to suit all tastes.

StayEasy Eastgate

This ultra-modern hotel in Johannesburg fits into the budget bracket but is surprisingly well equipped, with air-conditioning, a swimming pool and secure parking. Situated 15 minutes' drive from OR Tambo International Airport and 10 minutes' walk from the Eastgate Shopping and entertainment complex (10 cinemas), it's just off the start of the N12/R24 freeways, within easy reach of Sandton, Pretoria, Durban and Kruger National Park. Continental breakfast is available in the lobby and guests can order meals delivered from local restaurants.

The Palazzo Montecasino

This extravagant Johannesburg hotel is part of the Montecasino gambling, leisure, entertainment and shopping complex in Fourways, just 30 minutes from OR Tambo International Airport. Styled like an Italian palace, its luxurious accommodation overlooks lush, landscaped Tuscan gardens. All rooms have one king-size or two double beds, custom air-conditioning, internet point, hairdryer and refreshments. There is also a fully equipped fitness centre, outdoor swimming pool, plus the 1,900-seater Montecasino Theatre.

The Westcliff

This claims to be Johannesburg's most luxurious hotel and with unique features such as the city's best sunset and moonrise viewing spot, it probably is. It clings to a steep mountainside, with breathtaking views of the Magaliesberg Mountains and of elephants in the zoo below. The rooms and suites are individually furnished; most also feature charming terraces, balconies or private courtyards. Facilities include a magnificent hilltop heated swimming pool. The Westcliff is conveniently near upmarket shopping districts and golf courses.

Faircity Quatermain Hotel

The epitome of gracious living and a home-from-home atmosphere, The Quatermain, located in the upmarket suburb of Morningside, provides a convenient and tranquil base close to Sandton and Johannesburg. Set in manicured indigenous gardens with oak trees and swimming pool, The Quatermain offers Zimbabwean teak furniture and queen- or king-size beds in all 114 rooms.

Indaba Hotel

Set in a 30 hectare (74 acre) country estate featuring indigenous flora and fauna, the white-walled, thatched buildings of this well-equipped hotel are minutes from the N1 highway. There are 210 very reasonably priced en-suite, air-conditioned bedrooms, three popular restaurants, a swimming pool, tennis courts, volleyball, outdoor chess, a beauty therapist and a jogging track.