If you are like me, you have probably thought that the city of Johannesburg, the largest city of South Africa, was named after some dude named Johannes, and that Johannesburg translates to something like “the town or city of Johannes.” How far are we from the truth?
Not too far actually! There are some controversies around the naming, i.e. whose name it was. After all, the name Johannes was quite common in the Dutch community in the 19th century, and simply translates to ‘John’ in English; in this day and age, think of how many Johns there are…, then think about 19th century: numerous, not to say ubiquitous! To get back to Johannesburg, there were quite a few people with the name ‘Johannes‘ involved in the early history of the city. Among them was Christiaan Johannes Joubert who was a member of the Volksraad and was Republic’s chief of mining. Another was Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger (better known as Paul Kruger), president of the South African Republic (ZAR) from 1883 – 1900. Johannes Meyer, the first government official in the area is another possibility. Precise records for the choice of the name for the city have been ‘conveniently’ lost. Most likely it came from Johannes Rissik and Christiaan Johannes Joubert who were members of a delegation sent to England to obtain mining rights for the area. Joubert had a park in the city named after him and Rissik had his name on one of the main streets in the city. So it was probably a joint appeal between these 2 Johanneses, Joubert and Rissik, that gave rise to the name of the city of Johannesburg.
The region surrounding Johannesburg was originally inhabited by San people. By the 13th century, groups of Bantu-speaking people started moving southwards from central Africa and encroached on the indigenous San population. By the mid-18th century, the broader region was largely settled by various Sotho–Tswana communities, whose villages, towns and kingdoms stretched from what is now Botswana in the west, to present day Lesotho in the south, to the present day Pedi areas of the Northern Province. More specifically, the stone-walled ruins of Sotho–Tswana towns and villages are scattered around the parts of the former Transvaal province in which Johannesburg is situated.
The Witwatersrand Gold Rush triggered the founding of Johannesburg in 1886. As everywhere in the world, the discovery of gold rapidly attracted people to the area. Within ten years, the city of Johannesburg included 100,000 people; in that sense, it is quite similar to the California gold rush which saw the boom of the city of San Francisco. In 1917, Johannesburg became the headquarters of the Anglo-American Corporation, which ultimately became one of the world’s largest corporations, dominating both gold-mining and diamond-mining in South Africa. Major building developments took place in the 1930s, after South Africa went off the gold standard. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the apartheid government constructed the massive agglomeration of townships that became known as Soweto to house their cheap black labor.
Locals have several names for their city: Jozi, Joburg, and eGoli (“the city of gold” in Zulu). Located in the Witwatersrand (“white waters ridge” in Afrikaans) hills at the center of the large-scale gold and diamond trade, Johannesburg is the largest city in South Africa and one of the 50 largest urban areas in the world. It is the capital city of South Africa’s wealthiest province, Gauteng. So as you visit Johannesburg, and enjoy its popular museums, theme parks, and rich history. Enjoy the gold hills, or rather those mounds covered with gold dusts scattered around the city. Enjoy eGoli!