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History of Johannesburg

Johannesburg has a relatively short history, being established only around a hundred years ago, when the first plot was sold in the year 1886. When Australian prospector George Harrison found the main Witwatersrand gold-bearing reef, this quiet area of the Transvaal, it was swamped with diggers from all over the continent and abroad, and the city of Johannesburg appeared almost overnight, named (allegedly) after Paul Johannes Kruger. In the early years, the town’s economy and culture developed around its main industry – gold mining.

Apartheid in Johannesburg has a long and inglorious history – the big daddies of mining and prospecting, Cecil Rhodes and Barney Barnato imposed a colour bar on mining, which excluded blacks from everything except the right to toil for long hours. Political rights were also denied by the Boer rulers to all the utlanders (foreigners) who had swarmed in to be part of the gold party. The policy of colour bar and economic exploitation of blacks, along with the Indians intensified, with new legislation restricting their freedom of movement and organization, and even residence. While white folk were busy getting their mansions designed by Sir Herbert Baker and moving into the posh northern suburbs, the first non-white townships and shantytowns sprang up all over the city around this time, like Alexandra, Newtown and Orlando (which was to become Soweto later).

Between 1935 and 1945, there was a hundred percent increase in the population of blacks in Johannesburg. There were distinct signs of discontent from both poor whites and blacks at this time. The huge mineworkers strike began in August 1946 and brought agitating miners together in an unprecedented way but ended in several deaths by police firing and eviction of non-rent payers. Similarly, by the 1950s, blacks began exploring forms of local protest through evolving their own urban culture called kwela and frequenting illegal drinking houses called shebeens. Talented musicians playing new sounds like marabi jazz and mbaqanga achieved fame, and gave voice to the experience of blacks. By 1955, the government began the policy of forcible removals of blacks from areas designated as whites-only. The ANC began attracting a mass base at this time.

By the 1970s, student and popular black consciousness against apartheid had reached a fever pitch, with the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) being started. Mass student riots erupted and were met with terrible repression, fuelling a vicious cycle of further popular violence against the State. This continued through the 1980s and Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990, right until the day that the first popular elections were held four years later. Following President FW de Klerk’s peace initiative and efforts to dismantle apartheid, the first popular elections were held in South Africa in 1994. The ANC won the national and local elections comfortably, and at present, President Jacob Zuma is at the head of this turbulent nation.

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