With only 1.4% of South Africa’s land area, the tiny province of Gauteng punches way above its weight, contributing more than 33% to the national economy and a phenomenal 10% to the GDP of the entire African continent.

Sesotho for “place of gold”, Gauteng was built on the wealth of gold found deep underground – 40% of the world’s reserves. The economy has since diversified, with more sophisticated sectors such as finance and manufacturing setting up shop, and gold mining is no longer the mainstay. The province is essentially one big city, with 97% of its population living in urban centres.

Johannesburg is the capital of Gauteng province (Pretoria, also in Gauteng, is the capital of the country). Also known as Joburg or Jozi, Johannesburg is the biggest city in South Africa, and is often compared to Los Angeles, with a similar urban sprawl linked by huge highway interchanges.

Johannesburg is a single municipality that covers over 1 645 square kilometres. Sydney’s central municipality, by comparison, covers 1 500 square kilometres. It’s been calculated that if a resident of the southern-most area of Joburg, Orange Farm, were to walk northwards to the inner city, the journey would take three days.

Mine-dumps and headgear remain symbols of Johannesburg’s rich past, while modern architecture abuts fine examples of 19th-century engineering. Gleaming skyscrapers contrast with Indian bazaars and African medicine shops, and the streets throng with fruit sellers and street vendors. An exciting blend of ethnic and western art and cultural activities is reflected in theatres and open-air arenas throughout the city.

South of Johannesburg is Soweto, developed as a “dormitory township” for black people under the apartheid system. Much of the struggle against apartheid was fought in and from Soweto, which is now home to more than 2-million people.

The urban area extends virtually uninterrupted east and west of Johannesburg through a number of towns: Roodepoort and Krugersdorp on the west and Germiston, Springs, Boksburg and Benoni on the east.

To the north is Pretoria, the capital of South Africa, whose southern suburbs are slowly merging with the Johannesburg sprawl. The city is dominated by government services and the foreign diplomatic corps. It’s also known for its colourful gardens, shrubs and trees, particularly beautiful in spring when thousands of jacaranda trees envelop the avenues in mauve.

The important industrial and coal-mining towns of Vereeniging and Vanderbiljpark lie in southern Gauteng, on the Vaal River.

Township Tours

Soweto was created in the 1930s when the White government started separating Blacks from Whites, creating black “townships”. Blacks were moved away from Johannesburg, to an area separated from White suburbs by a so-called cordon sanitaire (or sanitary corridor) which was usually a river, railway track, industrial area or highway. This was carried out using the infamous Urban Areas Act of 1923.

William Carr, chair of non-European affairs, initiated the naming of Soweto in 1959. He called for a competition to give a collective name to townships dotted around the South-west of Johannesburg. People responded to this competition with great enthusiasm. Among the names suggested to the City Council was KwaMpanza, meaning Mpanza’s place, invoking the name of Mpanza and his role in bringing the plight of Orlando sub tenants to the attention of the City Council. The City Council settled for the acronym SOWETO (South West Townships). The name Soweto was first used in 1963 and within a short period of time, following the 1976 uprising of students in the township, the name became internationally known.

Soweto became the largest Black city in South Africa, but until 1976, its population could have status only as temporary residents, serving as a workforce for Johannesburg. It experienced civil unrest during the Apartheid regime. There were serious riots in 1976, sparked by a ruling that Afrikaans be used in African schools there; the riots were violently suppressed, with 176 striking students killed and more than 1,000 injured. Reforms followed, but riots flared up again in 1985 and continued until the first Non Racial actions were held in April 1994. In 2010, South Africa’s oldest township hosted the FIFA world cup final and the attention of more than a billion soccer spectators from all over the world was focused on Soweto.

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