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There is an irony about Johannesburg that’s noticed mostly by foreigners visiting South Africa for the first time. Upon landing in Johannesburg, they first notice name of the airport: OR Tambo International Airport. First timers’ curiosity gets them to discover that Oliver Tambo was one of the stalwarts of freedom struggle who had dedicated his whole life for this worthy cause.  It seems fair to honour him by having country’s premier airport named after him. The next obvious question that comes to mind is where the city itself got its name from. The search begins with an expectation to find another stalwart, possibly a bigger one, whose name must have been used to derive the city’s name. Well, prepare yourself to be surprised….

“Johannesburg” comes from two words Johannes and burg. Burg means a place in Afrikaans, therefore is an understandable suffix. Surprisingly, Johannes is not another great South African personality, but common part of the names of two land surveyors (Johann Rissik & Christain Johannes Joubert) who just happened to  be the first ones to do the land survey  of this small dusty prospecting settlement way back  in 1880’s.  Moral of the story: a life time of hard work and sacrifice can help you get your name on the airport, but to walk away with the jackpot and have the whole city named after you, then you need nothing more than to be at the right place at the right time! Therein lies the subliminal truth to survive today in this city of gold created specially by the Mammon Gods. It’s such ironical truth’s that’s repeated over and over again in this city with a story of  the kind that block buster movies are made about.

Jo’burg , youngest global city in the world established only in 1884, has early  history traces back to origin of humankind itself (with 40% of all world’s ancestor fossils discovered in and around the city). The trees you see today while driving around the city (10 million of them making the city largest man made forest in the world) is a reminder that this place was once inhabited by San’s tribe – the hunter/ gatherers, who belong to “ancestral population clusters” from where all known modern humans have evolved. Civilization came as late as 13th century when groups of Bantu-speaking people (known as Sotho–Tswana) started moving southwards from centralAfrica and encroached on the indigenous San population, and started practising farming, raising cattle and mining for copper, iron and tin in the region. If civilization comes, can war be far behind?  By the 18th century, Ndabele, an offshoot of Zulu Kingdom coming from east, waged war on Sotho–Tswana to establish their kingdom.  About a century later Zulu’s were themselves overthrown by Dutch speaking Voortrekkers with the help of Sotho –Tswana allies to establish the South African Republic in 1830’s.

Johannesburgwas still a small dusty prospecting settlement until 1886. That year 3 drifters, surprisingly with the same name (George) discovered gold by accident. It triggered a gold rush that had people flocking to this place from all over the world. Johannesburg kept growing to become a rough, disorganized place. A city populated by white miners from all continents, African mine workers, African women cooking & selling beer to the black mineworkers, large number of European prostitutes and gangsters. A city of men, that as an example, chronicled how a local bar received a bar maid for the first time. Exaggerated tales of her beauty and low cut dress spread in town ahead of the date of her arrival. Crowd gathered on the day she was expected and cheered loudly as she came out of the coach. She was carried on shoulders inside the bar and placed on billiard table before regaling her with iced champagne! Just imagine watching all this on big screen someday!.

As city grew, tension for its control grew as well and a series of war was fought between Afrikaners and British that finally culminated in British occupying the city by 1902.  Interestingly, many mine workers left the city during the wars and shortage of workers was filled by importing Chinese labourers – who stayed back to become part of the “coloured” population ( a bit like bringing Indian indentured labourers in Durban).

Major building developments took place from the 1930’s creating a world class city that it is today. Apartheid government redesigned the city constructing massive agglomeration of townships that was racially segregated, most famous being Soweto for blacks (today, the only street in the world that houses two Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela & Desmond Tutu is in Soweto). Indians were bundled in another corner of city near Lenz air field (and so the suburb came to be known as Lenasia, a bustling Indian township today). They also allowed creation ofOrientalShoppingPlaza in Fordsburg to provide Indian style shopping experience that will today make you believe you are back inIndia.

Today Jo’burg is big, brash and very cosmopolitan; Jozi (as Jo’burg is lovingly called by locals) is a melting pot of cultures today with blacks, white, coloured and Indians. It’s a mirage of fancy cars, skyscrapers, gargantuan shopping malls, cool bars and restaurants. It’s a city with a series of mine dumps and myriad of suburbs each with its own flavour. Twin city Pretoria is the administrative capital of country and home of Mrs Ples, the nickname of the oldest intact skulls of humankind dating back over 2-million-years ago. It’s a city with many of its streets lined up with Jacaranda trees that blossom mauve (purplish blue) giving rise to the city’s nickname “Jacaranda City”. It’s also a leading academic city being home for 3 major Universities. The time of year that Jacarandas bloom coincides with the year-end exams and legend has it that if a flower from Jacaranda tree drops on your head, you will pass all your exams!

As you drive around Egoli (another name for Jo’burg  and means city of gold), you notice suburbs with musical names like Randfontein, Braamfontein etc. This is so since the word “fontein” means spring in Afrikaans- to denote the name of underground spring that originated from its various suburbs (farms earlier). Thoughts of water makes you remember having read that Johannesburg is the only city in the world that can claim to have become economic capital of a country that is not built on banks of a river or next to seaport. You realize how special this land is where mother earth possibly created the first humans, then provided life giving water from  springs coming straight from its bosom and finally bestowed limitless gold to enjoy life.

It’s a calming thought that appears in such a contrast to all the fears you had when you came off the plane for the 1st time to this city, thanks to all the stories of crime and negative publicity in the media. Of course there is crime and you quickly learn to take precautions – but it seems like a small adjustment. As you start exploring the city, it slowly starts getting into your blood. You begin understanding why this city is so fiercely loved by the people who live here. Understand why this city is called the city of “gold’, in every sense of word.

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About Mohan Nair

An engineer who evolved to become a corporate executive, evolved again to become a self made businessman , and then again to become an education activist and finally someone with a passion to make a difference in the lives of Indians with interest in Africa.

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