Johannesburg is a gold mining shanty town that just kept on growing and growing. Today less than a hundred years after its unpromising beginnings it is the largest mining, manufacturing and engineering centre in Africa. It owes its existence and to the discovery of gold by a penniless prospector.
The city seems to change every year and architecture seems to be judged by height rather than beauty. It is a city of straight streets and towering office blocks. Though Johannesburg has many thriving industries there is no forgetting the origin of its prosperity. The city is dominated by the man-made mountains of waste, mine dumps, from the now disused mines of the central Witwatersrand gold field.
A convenient point at which to begin an exploration of Johannesburg is the George Harrison Park, five kiometres west of the city. This is the spot where a prospector named George Harrison casually panned a sample of strange looking rock sometime in March 1886. He left no description of his emotions as he washed away the mud and revealed the most fabulous tail of gold ever seen in any prospector’s pan. This was the discovery of the main gold-bearing reef of the Witwatersrand.
George Harrison pegged the first claim on the reef and later sold it for £10 and vanished without trace and nothing is known of what became of him. But his report to the government on his discovery led to the greatest rush of fortune seekers the world has known.
The mighty gold-mining industry of the Witwatersrand and the complex city of Johannesburg mushroomed around the site of this first discovery. But sadly Harrison is only commemorated by this park and Harrison Street which was named after him. The city of Johannesburg was named after two civil service officials who both had the name of Johannes.
Bezuidenhout Park - Among the eastern suburbs Bezuidenhout Park is refreshingly unspoilt. It was originally the heart of the farm of Doornfontein which was owned by a Mr. F. J. Bezuidenhout at the time of the gold rush to the Witwatersrand. The farm was off the gold bearing reef and although it was prospected gold was never found. The Bezuidenhout family, however, made a fortune by selling land for the development of townships. Suburbs such as Bezuidenhout Valley, Doornfontein and Judiths Paarl were laid out on their property. Old Bezuidenhout died in 1900 and his son, Barend died in the 1920s but the farmhouse and the graveyard still remain intact.
The Johannesburg city council bought what was left of the farm and the deed of sale contained the condition that 40 hectares of the farm and the acacia trees be preserved as a park and Bezuidenhout Park is therefore a historical monument and recreational area.
Braamfontein - The heavily built up suburb of Braamfontein contains the campus of the University of the Witwatersrand which originated in Kimberley in 1896 as a training institute for the mining industry. An addition of the institute was established in Johannesburg after the Anglo-Boer War and in 1906 became the Transvaal University College. In 1907 a branch of the college opened in Pretoria and later became the University of Pretoria.
During its early years the Johannesburg College taught only mining and technology but other departments were gradually added and it became the University of the Witwatersrand in 1922. The Johannesburg city council had already allocated a 32 hectare site in Milner Park for the college to develop and from the handful of buildings built back in 1922; a massive complex has arisen housing Wits University today. Included in the campus are the planetarium and the Bernard Price Institute of Paleontology. The Rand Afrikaans University was established east of the campus of the Witwatersrand University in 1966.
On a ridge near Brixton stands the Brixton tower which is one of the two tall towers prominent in Johannesburg’s skyline. It was built in 1961 for the South African Broadcasting Corporation which has its main studios in the vicinity. The tower is 239 meters high and has an observation platform near the top and a restaurant at its base. From the top there is a panorama of Johannesburg with the long line of mine dumps stretching from east and west.
Ellis Park - In the suburb of Doornfontein lies Ellis Park which was named after a former mayor J. Dowel Ellis. It is the principal venue in the city for rugby, tennis and swimming. It is the headquarters of the Golden Lions Rugby Football Union and has a seating capacity of nearly 100 000 spectators and is the venue where the Springbok Rugby Team won the world cup in 1995.
Eloff Street – This busy street was named after Jan Eloff who was the private secretary to President Paul Kruger back in the days when Johannesburg was laid out and Eloff Street is one of the principal streets of Johannesburg today. It is lined with commercial buildings and ends on its northern side at the entrance to the Johannesburg railway station which is the largest railway station in Africa.
The old station concourse was built in the 1930s on the site of the earlier station and it contains the first locomotive to work in the Witwatersrand. This grand old ‘puffing Billy’ was carted in pieces from Durban to Johannesburg by ox-wagon in 1890. The concourse is decorated with murals by the South African artist J. H. Pierneef and behind this building is the modern station which was completed in 1966 and covers 22 hectares of platform and track. The new main concourse is 168 meters long, 43 meters wide and 18 meters high.
Emmarentia - One of the northern suburbs and is the home of the79, 41 hectare Johannesburg Botanic Garden. The garden grows herbs and boasts more than 12 000 rose bushes. Emmarentia dam is also part of the gardens and is a fun spot for windsurfers and canoeists. There is also a radio controlled boat club who uses the dam for their activities. It is a beautiful place and adds lots of beauty to the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.
Hermann Eckstein Park – It is situated in Saxonwold and covers an area of more than 100 hectares and was presented to Johannesburg in 1903 by a mining house called the Werner Beit Company. They requested that the area be named after one of the late senior partners of the firm who had started a private zoo on the estate before his death. These animals became the start for the Johannesburg Zoological Garden which today covers 55 hectares of the area and exhibits hundreds of species of mammals, birds and reptiles from all over the world. The South African National Museum of Military History is also in the park and it exhibits weapons and uniforms from all the wars involving South Africa.
More people visit the war museum than any other in Johannesburg and it displays tanks, armored cars and military aircraft including a Hawker Hurricane and a Spitfire including some planes of the First World War. Zoo Lake is also part of the park and is a very pretty area with a restaurant and ever popular picnic grounds. The lake also attracts large numbers of water fowl which have made it their home.
Hillbrow - The suburb of Hillbrow is the most densely populated residential area in South Africa and lies on top of the Hospital Hill ridge. It is dominated by the J. G. Strijdom Tower which is 269 meters high. Unfortunately today Hillbrow is not what it was like back in the old days. It is now unsafe to visit and has a very high rate of drug abuse, prostitution and crime. It has been taken over by a bad element and I would not advise anyone visiting Johannesburg to visit Hillbrow. This is very unfortunate because before 1990 it was the place to be seen and had a great party atmosphere. It just seems as though the authorities lost control.
Hospital Hill - Overlooking the city centre of Johannesburg from the north side is a high hill which is densely covered with residential blocks of flats and various other buildings, one of them being the Johannesburg General Hospital. This hill takes its name from the Hospital.
On the summit of the hill stands the Johannesburg Fort which is an old stronghold built in the 1890s by Colonel A. H. Schiel, a German soldier who was in the employ of the South African Republic at the time. The fort was built to keep the ever boisterous digger community in order and was manned by a garrison of state gunners who had cannons and machine guns.
The fort was never the scene of violent action and after the Anglo-Boer War it was converted into a prison which is still in use. Above its main entrance is the former South African Republic’s coat of arms which was carved by the sculptor Anton van Wouw.
Close to the fort on the original parade ground is the medical research institute and to the west is the civic centre which is an administrative office block for the city council and the civic theatre; the home of Johannesburg’s ever talented ballet, opera, drama and music.
The J. G. Strijdom Tower also stands on Hospital Hill and is tallest building in Africa and reaches a amazing 269 meters. This tower has a major impact on the Johannesburg skyline and was completed in 1975. It is used as a transmitting centre for the South African Post Office and it has an observation room, a revolving restaurant and souvenir shop near the top. The tower was named after a former prime minister of South Africa and the view from the top is awesome especially at sunset.
Houghton – In 1937 the suburb of Houghton was presented a 17, 45 hectare expanse of beautiful untouched ground by one of the major mining houses called the Consolidated Investment Company. It was to be a permanent home for the spectacular collection of South African wild flowers exhibited at the Empire Exhibition held in Johannesburg in 1936. Since then these foothills, known as The Wilds, have been converted into a garden dedicated to the memory of General Jan Smuts. The garden was originally part of Hohenheim, the home of Sir Percy Fitzpatrick who was the author of Jock of the Bushveld and a director of the Consolidated Investment Company.
Joubert Park - The oldest park in Johannesburg and was laid out in 1887 on vacant ground close to the city centre. It was named after Christian Johannes Joubert who was the first chief of the mining department. The park has a pretty lawn and is scattered with park benches and lots of pigeons.
Kensington – This is one of the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg contains the 25 hectare, Rhodes Park which has a small lake and a restaurant. Overlooking the park is a cave which was an old mining shaft and in September 1914 it was the scene of a renowned gun fight between the South African Police and the infamous Foster Gang, who were high up on the most wanted list after a spree of armed robberies.
William Foster was leader of the gang and with him in the cave were his two henchmen, Carl Mezar and John Maxim. The cave was surrounded by police and there was no way out for the gang. Foster shouted out to the police that he would surrender if he could say goodbye to his wife and baby daughter, his two sisters and his parents. The police allowed his demands and the family was fetched by the police and was allowed to enter the cave. A short while later Fosters sisters and parents, carrying his baby daughter, emerged from the cave and then the final 4 shots were heard. Foster, his wife and two henchmen decided to take their own lives instead of surrendering and the police won the battle.
Kyalami - The 1000 hectare farm Kyalami takes its name from the Zulu ‘kaya lami’, meaning my home. In 1961 the farm was converted into a racing track for cars and motorbikes. In January 1968 Kyalami became the scene of the first Formula One Grand Prix on African soil. The last Grand Prix to be held in South Africa was in 1993 and was won by Alain Prost. Since then we are still wishing a GP in SA but time will tell.
La Rochelle – In the southern suburb of La Rochelle one can find the old Rand soccer stadium and Wemmer Pan. On the shores of the pan is a beautiful musical illuminated fountain which plays for an hour and a half every evening in summer. There are also picnic spots and a miniature town on the northern shore and the James Hall Museum of Transport. Wemmer Pan is a very popular venue for rowing training and many clubs and schools practice their rowing skills there.
Melville – There is a 45 hectare nature reserve at Melville called Melville Koppies and has been left entirely in its natural condition and the original flora flourishes around the remains of an iron-age furnace. The reserve is a national monument and a sanctuary for birds and other wild life and serves as a great outing for schools who want to show their pupils some of our beautiful natural heritage.
Oriental Plaza - Off Bree Street stands the Oriental Plaza which is a lively shopping centre with about 300 shops in a huge area and is a bargain hunters dream. The shopping centre is under Indian management and was opened in 1974 to replace the shops that lined 14th Street in Pageview which have since been demolished. This centre is regarded as a joint project in urban renewal and has been a great success.
Parktown - The Bensusan Museum of Photography can be found on Parktown’s Empire Road and displays the history of photography throughout the years with many examples of early photographs and photographic equipment. There is a reproduction of a 100 year old dark room and photographer’s studio and the museum also houses an extensive library. Parktown is well noted for its beautiful jacaranda trees and urban bird life.
Randburg - Back in 1959 thirteen of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg combined to form the municipality of Randburg which is a rapidly growing area with its own light industrial area, civic centre and shopping centres. Randburg has 37 parks and in the municipal buildings is an art gallery displaying works by contemporary South African artists.
Sandton – This area was created in 1966 and comprises of Sandown, Bryanston and north-eastern Johannesburg. Sandton is a spacious and with well-planned area with mega shopping centres and many recreation areas. The South African National Equestrian Centre is next to the Kyalami Country Club and here the world famous Lipizzaner stallions can be seen. These remarkable horses were originally bred from the Andalusian horses from Spain where a stud was established in Lipizza, a town near Trieste, by Crown Prince Karl. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna became world famous for training its Lipizzaner stallions. Sandton is a fast growing area and has high residential standards.