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Johannesburg is 125 years old. To mark this milestone, an exhibition traces the history of the city, starting with the first tents that were pitched.
ON 20 September 1886, Paul Kruger, the president of the Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, declared the reef open for public digging – and Joburg was born.

Joburg 125 yearsTo mark its 125th anniversary, an exhibition has been set up at Museum Africa, which will run until the end of February. It uses illustrations, photographs and texts to tell Joburg’s history since it was founded right up until the country moved into democracy.

Entitled Joburg 125 Years: Towards 2040, it includes the gold rush, when diggers and other fortune-seekers flocked to the reef from all over the world, as well as the history of the city’s early leaders and founders and the stories of municipal entities such as City Power, City Parks, Joburg Water, Johannesburg Development Agency, Johannesburg Roads Agency and emergency management services.

The work these entities have done over the years is included, such as Rea Vaya and the Growth and Development Strategy, Joburg 2040, which was drawn up in 2011.

Companies that have been operating in the city for many years and that have contributed to its economic growth are also covered. They include the JSE, Ericsson, SABC, Coke SA, PPC Cement, Imperial Trucks, Rand Water, Standard Bank and Telkom.

On display are the turbulent days of apartheid, when black citizens were driven out of white areas under the Group Areas Act. This resulted in the formation of townships such as Soweto, Lenasia and Alexandra, which celebrates its centenary this year.

Executive Mayor Parks Tau opened the exhibition on 19 November 2011, after which a massive party was held at Newtown Park. During proceedings, Tau said it was important that every citizen know the rich history that made Joburg what it was today.

Trading in stocksTrading in stock“When we do so, we discover that a systematic and critical research of our past reveals an unusual wealth of information. As we do so, we discover knowledge and deep heroism that inspires us to do more.”

Johannesburg grew from tent town to wood and iron shanties to bricks and mortar buildings at the pace of “an historical wink of an eye”.

City officials were taken on a journey through history from the mining town to the economic powerhouse of Africa.

Joburg’s history
In its early days, the area now known as Johannesburg was occupied by people originating from the Niger-Congo region. Known as Bantu people, they lived in scattered villages across the ridges. Evidence of these settlements can be seen from aerial photographs that show kraal rings, usually located on koppies.

Melville Koppies, in the northwest, and Klipriviersberg Nature Reserve, in the south, still have evidence of these early settlements. In the early 1960s, an Iron Age furnace was discovered in the central section of Melville Koppies. It is now a national monument.

Visible only to the trained eye, at the top of the ridge there is a ring, which led to the discovery of fragments of charcoal, slag raw iron and broken blowpipes on the floor of the furnace. To date, three other such furnaces have been found on the ridge.

There are others – 13 in Honeydew, three in Lonehill, one in Northcliff and one near Bruma. Estimates are that the furnaces date back to 1060 AD.

Iron Age communities then appeared to co-exist peacefully for the most part with the region’s hunters-gathers, made up of the Bushman or San people, who had inhabited southern Africa since the Stone Age.

The discovery of gold
A poster showing early public transport in JoburgA poster showing early public transport in JoburgAnd then gold was found. In The Joburg Book, edited by Nechama Brodie, George Harrison is quoted writing an affidavit to then president of the republic, Paul Kruger, in 1886: “My name is George Harrison and I come from the newly discovered goldfields Kliprivier [in Johannesburg] especially from a farm owned by a certain Gert Oosthuizen. I have long experience as an Australian gold digger and I think it a payable goldfield.”

Brodies writes: “Modern Johannesburg began, effectively, on 20 September 1886, when Paul Kruger, president of the ZAR, declared the area open for public digging.”

The first to discover gold were the Struben brothers, Fred and Harry, who owned parts of the adjoining farms Sterkfontein and Wilgespruit in what is now Roodepoort, to the northwest of the CBD.

Word spread like wildfire of the riches to found on the reef. People flocked to Johannesburg from all four corners of the globe, in search of their fortunes. The settlement expanded rapidly, from the initial tent town of Ferreira’s Camp, today known as Ferreirasdorp.

It is reported that the first tent was erected in 1886, two months before gold digging started in earnest, and the first building to go up was the Central Hotel. Made of wood, it was built in Ferreira’s Camp. Towards the end of the 19th century Joburg already had electric lighting, motor cars and telephones.

A model of FNB Stadium, venue for the 2010 World CupA model of FNB Stadium, venue for the 2010 World CupThe first trams came in 1888; the first gas lamp was lit in 1892 and in 1895, the first electric street lamp was installed on the corner of Rissik and President streets. And the first car, which was used for advertising, came in 1897.

Johannesburg’s first train tracks were laid in 1888 from Johannesburg to Boksburg, on the East Rand, which formed the first tram. The first road was created in 1889 and ran from Ferreira’s Camp to Jeppestown and down Commissioner Street.

As gold was being found, people started making transactions, which initiated the first bank: Standard Bank opened on 11 October 1886, in a tent. This was followed by the first postal service in 1887, the first barber shop, and the first brewery – also in 1887. Electric signs came in 1905.

It was declared a city in 1928, and it kept pace with other flourishing cities such as Paris and London.

From these beginnings, a great city was born, which today is home to more than three million people, with more arriving from across African daily, still lured by the promise of a better life.

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