City Guide

Four Hours in Johannesburg 2008

17 Mar 2008 by Tom Otley

Johannesburg

Since the discovery of gold in the region in the 19th century, Johannesburg has had a turbulent history. Tom Otley finds a city coming to terms with its past and looking to the future.

1. Constitution Hill

Johannesburg exists because of gold. Some 1,000 metres above sea level, it was a farming area until the discovery of the precious metal in 1886, and it was Paul Kruger, president of the South African Republic, who founded a garrison on the Witwatersrand ridge overlooking the city centre. In 1893 this was turned into a prison for the city. Today, it is home to the modern Constitutional Court, but it is also possible to take guided tours of the historical areas of the complex, including the Women’s Jail and Prison Number Four, the colloquial name for the Old Fort Prison with its rusty cells and peeling walls, where everyone from Gandhi to Nelson Mandela has awaited trial. In 1983, the complex was closed down and, after a period of near dereliction, has been renovated and reopened to provide an interesting history of both Jo’burg and South Africa. Admission is R22 (£1.40). Open 9am-5pm, Saturday 10am-3pm. Visit constitutionalhill.org.za.

2. Main Street

To state the obvious, Jo’burg is a city of extreme wealth and poverty, and the way to negotiate a tour of the Central Business District (CBD) is by car or by organised tour, despite the fact that the distances involved are small. In the last few years, Main Street has been completely transformed over six city blocks between West and Rissik Streets. There is restricted vehicle access, benches, outdoor cafés, and lots of greenery, as well as heritage artefacts relating to the mining industry, such as the headgear and stamp mills used to retrieve and break down ore – complete with information plaques. At the west end, you’ll find the two headquarter buildings of the famous Anglo-American mining company. The first, known as 44 Main Street, was built between 1937 and 1939 and has a strong art-deco theme. Opposite is 45 Main Street, which has a simpler monolithic façade, and was built between 1948 and 1950. The small park between these two buildings contains the Leaping Springboks sculpture, commissioned by the Oppenheimer family in memory of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer (1880-1957). The Chamber of Mines Building and other leading mining houses all have their headquarters along this historical walk. It’s hard to believe that under Main Street run some of the old gold mines, and that until the 1970s, the ground would frequently rumble from blasting taking place below.

3. Gandhi Square

In the 1980s and 1990s, the CBD lost some of the business headquarters which had left for the decentralised business districts in the suburbs. Consequently, by the end of the Nineties, the city management, business and property owners realised they had to deal with the encroaching crime and grime of the city and so, precinct by precinct, the remaining businesses have invested in regenerating the area, to make it safe for both workers and tourists. A prime example of the success of this is the central bus station, which was once Vanderbijl Square and a no-go area. It has since been redesigned, with the old bus terminal structure removed and property developers renovating the surrounding buildings, opening up offices and changing the ground and first floors into restaurants, shops and cafés with decks. Gandhi worked as a barrister at the Transvaal law court, which stood near this spot, and a statue of him marks the spot. There is an exhibition about Gandhi’s time in South Africa in Museum Africa (see below).

4. The Rand Club

Founded in October 1887 as a club for the owners of the recently discovered gold fields of Johannesburg, the present building is the fourth to occupy the site, and as well as now accepting all races and women, the rooms are available for hire for everything from weddings to corporate events. Visit randclub.co.za.

5. Newtown Cultural Precinct

On your way from Main Street back to the suburbs, your drive will take you west and through the Newtown Cultural Precinct, home to both the Market Theatre and Museum Africa, which is housed in a Victorian building in Bree Street that was originally the city’s fruit and vegetable market. All the old buildings in this area have been renovated and now house diverse cultural institutions as well as being a great night-time spot for bars and live music. Museum Africa tells the history of Africa in general, South Africa in particular and Johannesburg specifically in one of the permanent exhibitions, as well as of the Treason Trial of the 1950s when over 150 people, including Nelson Mandela, were accused of plotting against the state. Museum Africa is open daily from 9am to 5pm. The Market Theatre gained international prominence in the 1970s and 1980s with productions which spoke out against the Apartheid regime. A visit to one of its current productions and a meal in the adjoining Gramadoelas or Moya restaurants would extend your tour beyond “four hours”, but would be worth considering. Visit markettheatre.co.za or to book tickets, visit South African ticket agent computicket.com.

6. Northern Suburbs

As you leave the city centre for the northern suburbs, you will probably use the new iconic Nelson Mandela suspension bridge over the Braamfontein railway yard, which was built to help the traffic flow into this revitalised part of the city. As you drive up onto the ridges of the Witwatersrand you will see the endless canopy of trees which covers the large suburban areas of Johannesburg. All these trees have been planted by hand since 1886, at first by the mining companies, which grew forests to make the wooden props in the mine shafts and tunnels, and then by homeowners for shade and shelter (the city now proudly claims to have the biggest man made forest in the world). The area known as Sandton is a hub for international business, hotels and entertainment venues, with extensive shopping and high-rise hotels and apartments. And all this was built in 25 years in what was once a country district on the outskirts of the city.

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