What is not in dispute is that it was named after a man named Johann. But Johann was a common Dutch name in the late nineteenth century, and there are a number of Johanns who could claim credit. The confusion can be blamed on a blustery wind which in the summer of 1886, blew away the tent of commissioner Carl von Brandis as he arrived to proclaim the new town to a motley crowd of gold prospectors.
Among the records to disappear on that stormy night, were the plans and instructions from the Surveyor General, believed to have announced - and explained - the new name. For Johannesburg was proclaimed in a great hurry - it had to be; the flood of gold prospectors had already begun. As a result, the decision bypassed the usual government procedures, and was left entirely in the hands of the Surveyor General's office, temporarily headed by one Johann Rissik.
When gold was discovered in mid-1886, the state sent two men, Rissik and Christiaan Johannes Joubert to investigate the area and choose a site on which a town could be built. Did the two decide to call the town Johannesburg because Johann was a name they both had in common?
Ten years were to pass before anyone sought to enquire as to where the name originated. In February 1896, the Swiss Consul in Johannesburg asked the government to kindly explain the name. A letter from the State Secretary's Office advised him that the town was named in honour of Rissik and Joubert.
Anna Smith, once the chief librarian of Johannesburg, who has written a useful reference book on the origin of many Johannesburg street and suburb names, quotes Rissik's daugher-in-law, who says her faither-in-law told her that Joubert suggested Johannburg as the name, in honour of Rissik. As Rissik thought the name too harsh and difficult to pronounce, he suggested Johannesburg, noting that Johannes was one of Joubert's own names.
Smith quotes an article in the newspaper Die Vaderland which in 1971 reported finding a departmental note written by Rissik and dated September 1896, in which he confirms that the town was named after Joubert and himself.
Dr Hans Sauer, the town's first district surgeon, and one of the first people to arrive on the reef after gold was struck, reminisced years later that he was present when Joubert decided to name the town after himself. When Sauer asked why Joubert had not used his first name, Christiaan, he said there was already a town called Christiana, so he was using his second name instead.
But there is also a strong lobby behind a third claimant to the title, veldkornet Johannes Meyer, the first government official in the area, and the first to attempt to bring order to the area with a system to peg out mine claims. Smith quotes early digger John Burrows, who said that "everybody at that time was under the impression that the suggestion to name the town after Johannes Meyer had been carried out."
Johannesburg, several years after the discovery of gold in 1886.
Early historians of Johannesburg, James and Ethel Gray, opted to support Meyer's claims, noting that the veldkornet was intimately associated with the area for many years before gold was discovered, and was the government official in charge until more formal structures were set up. They are supported by historian GA Leyds, nephew of Kruger's State Attorney Dr WJ Leyds, who says his uncle told him that it was decided to name the town after Meyer, but President Paul Kruger was first asked his opinion. Kruger had no objection, and noted that he himself was a Johannes, as was Leyds, as were Joubert and Rissik, so why not?
Street names of Johannesburg, A fascinating reference book by former Johannesburg City Librarian Anna Smith, explains the origins of many early street and suburb names. Although long out of print, the book is still available in the reference sections of many city libraries.