Thursday, February 12, 2015


It seems remarkable that in the more than five years that Stan and I have been writing for Murder Is Everywhere, we’ve never dedicated a blog to Johannesburg.  It is, after all, the city where we were both born.  Stan grew up here; I returned here to be a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1972, and it’s been my base ever since.  And it isn’t a trivial or uninteresting city.

Jacaranda Season
For a start it is recognized as having the largest man-made urban forest in the world.  There are over six million trees spread around gardens, parks, and streets. Johannesburg looks like a rain forest from space – albeit a man-made one.  No jokes about “urban jungle” please. At least not yet. Many of the trees are exotics; in other words they are not indigenous to this part of the world.  This gives wonderful waves of color at various times of the year, and the area sported only scrubby bush and shrubs before it was settled in recent times. Nevertheless, purists – and people concerned with droughts past and future – worry about this forest of thirsty foreigners.

Fire from Heaven

Old cooling towers. Now Bungee Jumps!
Nelson Mandela Bridge. Pity it's just over a railway line.
Nelson might appreciate this memorial as much

Also, Johannesburg is the world’s largest city that is not situated on a lake, a major river, or the coast. Good navigable water and harbors is almost always what generates a diversity of occupations leading to major population centers.  Johannesburg has none of this.  It’s a long trek from the coast, and the nearest significant river – the Vaal – is a hundred miles away and was never a major waterway in any case.  Johannesburg is located where it is for quite another reason. It is eGoli, the City of Gold.

Furnace at Melville Koppies
People have lived around here for a long time.  The Cradle of Human Kind with its priceless fossil hominid remains is just half an hour from where I live. The first true people who lived here, the San or Bushmen people, gave way to Iron Age settlements in the 13th century. On my way to the university, I drive past a little hill or koppie, which has the remains of an iron smelting furnace. Bantu people (Black Africans speaking that language group) took over the area in the 18th century. Next the Dutch Voortrekkers arrived around 1830 having removed themselves from the unloved British in the Cape and set up Boer Republics which covered the area.  The site of the future Johannesburg remained a collection of sleepy, uninspiring farms for all this time.  Then in 1884, gold was discovered by Jan Gerritse Bantjes on the farm Vogelstruisfontein (literally ‘Ostrich Fountain’). Cecil John Rhodes was soon on his way and bought gold in the area for the then astronomical sum of 3000 pounds.  Johannesburg was founded in 1886. It is – we think – named after two officials involved in laying out the city who both had Johannes as first names.  By 1899 the gold was so important that Rhodes and his cronies decided to take over Paul Kruger’s Boer Republic and the Jameson Raid followed.  It was a fiasco, but the Second Boer War followed that and in 1902 Rhodes had what he wanted.
Mine at Gold Reef City
Because of its pretty uninteresting location, Johannesburg isn’t really a tourist city (which, perhaps, explains why it’s been the blog stepchild). One attraction is the Gold Reef City theme park south of the city where you can go down a no longer active gold mine and also watch gold being smelted and poured at the old mint.  Take home a nice fresh Kruger Rand or gold bar as a souvenir. It may sound touristy, but the gold mine is interesting if you don’t know what an underground mine is like. Hot, dank, dark.  Incredibly noisy.

Johannesburg in the thirties
Miners of the same era
Johannesburg in the fifties - with trams
Nasty things happened on the mines – to white miners as well as black –and still do. But that’s Johannesburg’s soul. It is 47th of the top 50 economic-powerhouse cities in the world, the only one in Africa.  It has ostentatious mansions, ordinary houses, sprawling townships inherited from the apartheid days, and squatter camps. And it still has the gold.  It isn’t mined here anymore, but it makes its way here just the same.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. A fascinating insight into Johannesburg, Michael. It's moving up my Must See list of places to go. And as my grandfather was a miner, I should feel at home there :)

  2. You keep enticing me "home," Michael, perhaps because --almost like Zoë--my grandmother was a minor, until she turned 18.

    Fascinating place. Thanks for showing us around.

  3. There's a lot more to see than Gold Reef City, actually. The Constitutional Court and the old Fort are fascinating. Stan and I have written about those before. One of these days you must come and visit (as I keep saying). Maybe when you run out of these minor witticisms, Jeff. But, of course, that will be never!

  4. Of course, that's a standing invitation to you also, Zoe. With that ancestry you're practically part of the family!

  5. I am the grandson of a Scottish miner - who was born in Glasgow and worked in Fife - and made his life on Johannesburg's gold mines. My other grandfather was a cowboy in Calgary and joined the British army to get away from the cold and to help Rhodes steal the gold mines.

  6. And I am the granddaughter of a coal miner--Andrea Puglisi, who was born in Siracusa in Sicily and died of black lung disease in the coalfields of Western Pennsylvania.

  7. There must be a miner in my family tree somewhere also - at least in Jeff's sense! Maybe we can have a family reunion in Johannesburg one of these days!