5 tips for Johannesburg

Johannesburg Skyline
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Johannesburg or “Joburg” as most people say, is the largest city and the economic engine of the country. Approximately 4 million people live here and generate about 1/5 of South Africa’s gross national product – so it’s no wonder that you’ll find a wide range of cultural offerings here, combining African and European cultures. Joburg is also called the “City of Gold”: Here, at the end of the 19th century, the largest gold deposits in the world were found in the Witwatersrand area, and a flourishing mining industry quickly developed. Even today, gold is the economic backbone of Johannesburg.

Johannesburg is a large international metropolis where rich and poor live in close proximity to each other. Accordingly, the city is not without danger, but the authorities have taken all measures to make the city safer. However, if you follow the safety rules, avoid some neighborhoods and always be alert, there is nothing to stop you from exploring the city.

Tip 1: Cradle of Humankind

In the northwest of Johannesburg – about 10 km north of the suburb of Krugersdorp – lies an area of almost 50,000 hectares that has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the “Cradle of Humankind”. At the heart of the area are a series of caves made of dolomitic limestone, which contain an exceedingly large concentration of fossils, both of animals and of hominids – early humans – who fell into these caves millions of years ago.

Cradle of Humankind near Johannesburg
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According to paleontology (evolutionary research), the division of the evolutionary lines of man and ape took place 5 to 10 million years ago. The hominids (Hominidae) are considered the oldest humans on the human lineage.

The fossil finds in the caves of the “Cradle of Humankind” have contributed significantly to the understanding of the evolutionary history of man. As early as 1936, fossilized bones of early man “Australopithecus africanus” were discovered here – in the Sterkfontein Caves.

In 1947 an almost complete skull of a female Australopithecus africanus was found, known in paleontology as “Plesianthropus transvaalensis” (“Almost-Man of the Transvaal”) or also as “Mrs. Ples”. Its age is estimated at 2.6 to 2.8 million years.

A total of about 850 fossil remains of hominids have been discovered so far in the caves around Sterkfontein – Swartkrans, Plover’s Lake, Bolt’s Farm, Coopers, Gladysvale, Kromdraai, Drimolen, Haasgat, Gondolin and Wonder Cave – in addition to numerous stone and bone tools and evidence of the use of fire.

Tip 2: Gold Reef City

The Crown Mine was once one of the largest and deepest gold mines in the world. Today, it is home to the Gold Reef City theme and adventure park. The former gold mine is located only about 7 kilometers south of the city center of Johannesburg.

Between 1894 and 1977, about 1.4 million kilograms of gold were mined here – worth about 30 billion euros. At the end of the 70’s of the last century the Crown Mine was closed due to unprofitability. As a result, thousands of workers underground and also employees in the offices lost their jobs.

Gold Reef City in Johannesburg
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After the closure of the mine, at the end of the 80’s of the twentieth century, visitors were first offered tours to the former workshops, warehouses and later to the mine. The mine tours of the then Gold Reef City Museum were very popular. Gradually, however, the warehouses disappeared and a theme and adventure park was built around the museum. This has been constantly expanded since then.

Gold Reef City has revived the gold mining atmosphere on the Witwatersrand, reflecting the gold mining era at the turn of the last century and creating an illusion of that time.

There is a re-enacted fairground and in the museum houses you can visit a newspaper publishing house, blacksmith shop, pub, stock exchange, brewery, theater and much more from the gold mining era.

One of the main attractions is Shaft No. 14, which was once the largest shaft in the mine, about 3,300 meters deep. Today, visitors can travel over 200 meters underground. Underground you will be shown various mining methods and there are several historical mining tools.

In the gold foundry you can watch the casting of gold bars. Here, exactly 25 kilograms of gold are cast into a small ingot. The ingot is only slightly smaller than a simple brick.

Tip 3: Constitution Hill

Anyone interested in the history of South Africa is in the right place at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. Located west of the suburb of Hillbrow, Constitution Hill is home to the Old Fort Prison, which was closed in 1983, and the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court.

Constitution Hill in Johannesburg
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Now used as a museum, the former prison, which held more than 2,000 prisoners, can be explored on a guided tour and, with the help of pictures, voices and sounds, visitors can gain an impression of the conditions under which criminals and political prisoners, including Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, were incarcerated in the ‘Robben Island of Johannesburg’.

Tip 4: Soweto

Soweto is probably the most inglorious township in South Africa and is also regarded in Europe as a synonym for black resistance during apartheid.

Soweto (South Western Township) is now home to about 4 million people living on an area of about 120 km². The former township is located only about 10 kilometers southwest of downtown Johannesburg, used to be a suburb and is now a separate district of Johannesburg.  The area is – like the entire Witwatersrand – a dusty terrain.

Soweto - Johannesburg
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Soweto cannot be generalized and has not been as “dangerous” for many years as many older guidebooks and especially the press and TV reports still suggest.

However, the Soweto district is still today primarily a place of residence for “poor black as well as colored South Africans” and the crime rate is – as everywhere in the world in such suburbs – disproportionately high.

Poverty, which is often associated with increased alcohol and drug consumption, family disputes, affiliations with various tribes, as well as customs and the oppression caused by apartheid, used to be a major cause. In the meantime, however, maffia-like groups – especially from East Asia, the former Soviet Union and also from the own ranks – are the bigger problem.

Visitors as well as tourists can explore Soweto much safer than a few years ago, but should never underestimate the danger of visiting such a poor district.

Tip 5: Apartheid Museum

What role did racial segregation play in South Africa? Why and how was the black population oppressed? These and other questions are answered here through harrowing, multimedia exhibits. But the Apartheid Museum is not just a museum of facts, because it lets you personally experience how terribly segregation was carried out by the government.

Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg
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Right at the beginning, the system of racial segregation is experienced in a depressing way. Because the entrance ticket, on which either “Whites” or “Non-Whites” is written, decides which entrance you use and lets you experience the feeling of being selected because of the color of your skin.