While it may be true that “bigger is better”, Gauteng province is a prime example of dynamite coming in small packages. Although it covers only 1.4% of South Africa’s land area, Gauteng remains the backbone of both the national economy as well as contributing 10% to the GDP of the entire African continent. This is no small feat, by any measure.
Gauteng is the financial capital of Africa: more than 70 foreign banks have their head offices in the province, and at least that number of South African banks, stockbrokers and insurance giants. The JSE Ltd in Johannesburg is the largest securities exchange in Africa.
Gauteng, when literally translated means “place of gold” in Sesotho, a language spoken by over 11% of a population of over 12 million people. Other languages include isiZulu, English and Afrikaans.
Despite the fact that mining is no longer the provinces anchor, Gauteng, owes its opulence to the gold miners, who worked the land day and night until eventually by the sweat off their brows, gram by gram an economic powerhouse was built. Johannesburg, also known as “Jozi” or “Joburg” is the capital of the province.
Johannesburg is a single municipality which covers over 1600 square kilometres and is the largest city in South Africa, province while Pretoria, which is also in Gauteng, is the capital of the country.
If one were to describe Gauteng in one word, “multicultural” would be the most apt term. This is most evident in the architecture in and around the major cities; with Pretoria being home to Church Square, the site of the city’s first church, built in 1855. During its early years, the square was used as a marketplace and sports field.
Today Church Square is a relaxing spot for visitors who adore 19th-century and early 20th-century architecture, as well as those who simply wish to relax on the lush green lawns or retreat under the shade of Jacaranda trees, most beautiful when the flowers are in full bloom, lending the capital the nickname “Purple City”.
The square is surrounded by numerous historical buildings, including the Palace of Justice where former president Nelson Mandela and several of his African National Congress comrades were charged and tried for treason during the infamous Rivonia Trial. Also nearby is the Old Capitol Theatre, the Netherlands Banking Building (home to the offices to Tshwane Tourism) and the post office.
Former president Paul Kruger’s large bronze statue sits at the centre of the Square. Wealthy industrialist Sammy Marks commissioned Anton van Wouw to sculpt it in 1896.
The bronze statue was unveiled on Church Square in October 1954 by former Prime Minister DF Malan after it had earlier been installed in front of Princes Park and later placed in front of the Pretoria Station.
In contrast, Johannesburg is a melting pot of different architectural styles, where historic buildings stand side by side with modern day contemporary glass and steel edifices. The best example of this being Sandton City. What I find most interesting having being a resident of Gauteng for most of my life is how seamlessly different cultures intertwine and integrate, when walking in the City it is not uncommon to walk passed more “Western” style infrastructure and a few paces later walking passed open markets and African medicine shops… It sounds almost too good to be true.
South of Johannesburg is Soweto, developed as a “dormitory township” for black people under the apartheid system. Much of the struggle against apartheid was fought in and from Soweto, which is now home to more than 2-million people.
With over 23% of the country’s population living in Gauteng it is interesting to note that the inhabitants of the province have the highest per capita income level in the country. The province blends cultures, colours and first and third-world traditions in a spirited mix, flavoured by a number of foreign influences. The world’s languages can be heard on the streets and in offices, from English to Mandarin, Swahili, French, German and more.
The province has the most important educational and health centres in the country. Pretoria boasts the largest residential university in South Africa, the University of Pretoria, and what is believed to be the largest correspondence university in the world, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
Most of South Africa’s research and development takes place in Gauteng, which is home to many of the country’s core biotechnology companies. Leading research institutions such as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Agricultural Research Council and the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute are based there.
Although the province is highly urbanised and industrialised, it contains wetlands of international importance, such as Blesbokspruit near Springs.
Gauteng is also home to the Cradle of Humankind, one of South Africa’s eight Unesco World Heritage sites. The region of Sterkfontein, Swartkrans, Kromdraai and environs has one of the world’s richest concentrations of hominid fossils, evidence of human evolution over the past 3.5-million years.
I don’t think any article can ever do justice to the beauty that is Gauteng, but hopefully it’s inspired you to explore more. On that note here are the top 20 places to visit if ever you find yourself with nothing to do J
- Apartheid Museum
Illustrates the rise and fall of South Africa’s era of segregation and oppression, and is an absolute must-see. The museum uses film, text, audio and live accounts to provide a chilling insight into the architecture and implementation of the apartheid system, as well as inspiring accounts of the struggle towards democracy. It’s invaluable in understanding the inequalities and tensions that still exist today. It’s an overwhelming experience; particularly distressing is a small chamber in which hang 131 nooses, representative of the 131 government opponents who were executed under antiterrorism laws. If you are on your way to Soweto, the excellent Hector Pieterson Museum pads out the story. It is 8km south of the city centre, just off the M1 freeway.
- Cradle of Humankind
The area to the west of Jo’burg is one of the world’s most important palaeontological zones, focused around the Sterkfontein hominid fossil fields. The area is part of the 47,000-hectare Cradle of Humankind, which is listed for preservation by Unesco. Most Jo’burg-based tour operators offer full- and half-day tours of the area.
- Groenkloof Nature Reserve
Situated in the Fountains Valley, Groenkloof is a stone’s throw from Pretoria, just 5km south of the city. Paul Kruger established the area as a reserve back in 1895 to protect the area, particularly the shy oribi, from hunters and in so doing, established South Africa’s first nature sanctuary.
Now, Groenkloof is the ideal outdoor and nature-lover’s getaway. From a variety of dedicated mountain bike, horse, 4×4 and hiking trails to an abundance of wildlife, there is something for the whole family. The reserve has become popular with mountain biking events, with each trail offering varying degrees of difficulty. Overnight hikes or guided horsetrails are a great way to experience the reserve. Impala, kudu, blue wildebeest, ostrich, giraffe, red hartebeest and sable, are just some of the wildlife that call the reserve home, not to mention the abundance of birdlife on offer. The famous Moyo restaurant is situated in the reserve and there are overnight facilities for visitors to make the most of their stay.
- Johannesburg Zoo and Zoo Lake
The Joburg Zoo is one of the most popular local and tourist attractions situated in the leafy northern suburb of Johannesburg. The Zoo covers 54.7 (55) hectares of land and was founded in 1904, as a piece of land donated to the public for recreational use by the firm of the late Hermann Ekstein.
Located off Jan Smuts Avenue across the road from the Johannesburg Zoo, Zoo Lake Park offers one of the city’s best daytime picnic spots. Here an assortment of activities awaits visitors of every age, who can enjoy a relaxed outdoor environment with the option of paddling across the man-made lake. During weekends and public holidays the park attracts its largest crowds, lured by the open space and dappled sunshine.
- Hector Pieterson Museum
Located in Soweto, this powerful museum illuminates the role of Sowetan life in the history of the independence struggle. It follows the tragic incidents of 16 June 1976, when a peaceful student protest against the introduction of Afrikaans as a language of instruction was violently quelled by police. In the resulting chaos police opened fire and a 13-year-old boy, Hector Pieterson, was shot dead. The ensuing hours and days saw students fight running battles with the security forces in what would become known as the Soweto uprising. On the first day alone, close to 200 teenage protesters were killed.
- Union Buildings
These sweeping sandstone buildings are the headquarters of government and home to the presidential offices. The gardens are often used for public celebrations, and Mandela’s inauguration took place here back in 1994. Statues of a few former prime ministers inhabit the grounds, including an impressive General Louis Botha on horseback. There’s also a WWI memorial here, and a memorial to the South African police.
The buildings, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, are about a 2km walk from the city centre. There are no tours here, and the buildings themselves aren’t open to the public but the grounds are open seven days a week.
- Voortrekker Monument
The imposing Voortrekker Monument is a place of pilgrimage for many Afrikaners. It was constructed between 1938 and 1949 – a time of great Afrikaner nationalism – to honour the journey of the Voortrekkers, who trekked north over the coastal mountains of the Cape into the heart of the African veld.
The edifice is surrounded by a stone wall carved with 64 wagons in a traditional defensive laager (circle). The building itself is a huge stone cube and each corner bears the face of a great Afrikaner hero. A staircase and elevator lead to the roof and a great panoramic view of Pretoria and the highveld.
The monument is 3km south of the city and is clearly signposted from the N1 freeway. It is surrounded by a 340-hectare nature reserve full of zebras, wildebeests, bucks and other small mammals.
- Constitutional Court
The Constitution Hill development focuses on South Africa’s new Constitutional Court, built within the ramparts of the Old Fort, which dates from 1892 and was once a notorious prison, where many of the country’s high-profile political activists, including Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, were held. Ruling on constitutional and human-rights matters, the court itself is a very real symbol of the changing South Africa: a lekgotla (place of gathering) rising from the ashes of one of the city’s most poignant apartheid-system monuments, with cases heard in all 11 official languages. The modern structure incorporates sections of the old prison walls, plus large windows that allow visitors to watch the proceedings. As well as gaining access to the court, visitors can take a tour that includes the Awaiting Trial Block, which held the 156 treason trial lists of 1956; the notorious Number Four section, which held black male prisoners; and the Women’s Gaol, where female offenders (whose offence was often simply failing to produce an identity card) were incarcerated.
- Mary Fitzgerald Square
Named after South Africa’s first female trade unionist, this square is the best place to start a visit to central Jo’burg. As well as being the staging ground for a number of annual events – check Jo’burg city’s website (www.joburg.org.za) for details – it’s also a good place to people-watch at one of the area’s cafes. The square is lined with an array of heads, carved from old railway sleepers by Newtown artists, and is bordered by the Jazz Walk of Fame , a Hollywood Boulevard-style walkway that pays tribute to South Africa’s most influential jazz musicians. There’s also a bronze sculpture honouring Brenda Fassie, one of the country’s most popular musicians, who died in 2004.
- Church Square
At the heart of Pretoria, imposing public buildings surround Church Square . These include the Palace of Justice , where the Rivonia Trial that sentenced Nelson Mandela to life imprisonment was held, on the northern side; the OuRaadsaal building(Old Government) on the southern side; the Old Capitol Theatre in the northwestern corner; First National Bank in the northeast; the Old Nederlandsche Bank building , which adjoins Café Riche and houses the tourist information centre; and the main post office on the western side. Look for the clock, surrounded by nude figures by Anton van Wouw, above the Church Sq entrance to the post office.
Old Lion (Paul Kruger) takes pride of place in the centre, surveying his miniature kingdom.
- Transvaal Museum
Opposite City Hall, this grand museum is a good place to go if you’re interested in natural history. Outside the building are the museum’s most impressive exhibits – giant replica skeletons of an enormous whale and a dinosaur. Inside you’ll find a series of fascinating exhibits including menacing reptile displays, the reconstructed jaws of a giant extinct shark, plenty of life-size mammal statues, and a rather creepy hall full of stuffed birds. The Insect Hall includes live displays of weed-eating grasshoppers and giant hissing cockroaches, and there’s a geological section with a collection of precious and semiprecious stones.
- Johannesburg Art Gallery
This place regularly rotates its large collection of 17th and 18th century European landscape and figurative paintings; works by the leading South Africanpainters; and traditional African objects and retrospectives by black artists. It’s on the Noord St side of Joubert Park (the park itself a no-go area).
- Nelson Mandela Square
Be like international hip-hop superstar Wale and take a picture next to the larger than life staute of Tata Mandela. Adjoining, and similar to, Sandton City Mall, there’s an Italian-style piazza full of restaurants as well as an indoor mall section. While you’re there pop into Lekgotla’s for a bite to eat, set beneath traditional huts on the edge of Nelson Mandela Sq, the ‘Meeting Place’ is the city’s most reputed African restaurant and provides a good sample of the diversity of the continent’s cuisine. The Ethiopian coffee steak (R110) and Nile crocodile curry (R130) are worth a shot. Closer to home, this is a great place to sample South African staples like mealie pap (cornmeal porridge) and sweet chakalaka (fry-up of onions, tomatoes, peppers, garlic, ginger, sweet chilli sauce and curry powder).
- Freedom Park
One of the most exciting undertakings in Gauteng is Freedom Park. The site chosen for this massive project, on a kopje facing the Voortrekker Monument, provoked an outcry from those who saw this as politically motivated, but this is hardly a self-important ode to nationalism. Rather, it’s a sombre memorial to those people, local and international, who have sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom. At the time of writing you could only visit Hlapho, where the names of heroes have been inscribed, and the peaceful Isivivane Garden of Remembrance. It was scheduled to be completed sometime in 2009.
Visitor numbers to the park are strictly controlled, so calling beforehand is essential as you will not gain access if you merely turn up
- Maboneng Precinct
Maboneng, meaning ‘Place of Light’, is an urban neighbourhood on the east side of Johannesburg CBD. Maboneng is home to several independent retail, restaurants and entertainment venues as well as loft apartments, offices, hotel, a museum and creative factory spaces in an urban landscape.
Having established a reputation as a creative capital early on, Maboneng provides a platform to engage with arts and culture all in one venue.The flagship development, Arts on Main, is home to a number of galleries and artist studios with further creative spaces and public art sites throughout the neighbourhood.
- Johannesburg Botanical Gardens and Emmarentia Dam
Johannesburg’s beautiful Botanical Gardens are situated on the western shores of the popular Emmarentia Dam, just 6km from the city centre. The park itself has three dams on which boating, canoeing and sailing is offered. The area surrounding the gardens is a great place to enjoy a bike ride, go for a run, take the dog for a walk or kick a ball with the kids.
The gardens boast some of the finest plant collections in the world comprising formal gardens, a succulents and herb garden, 4 500 rose bushes and approximately 30 000 trees. Interestingly, the herb garden contains many plants used in medicinal and cosmetic remedies.
- Take in the beautiful city sights atop Northcliff Hill
Experience a breathtaking view of Johannesburg on the second highest point in the city, Northcliff Hill. The Central Business District can be seen on one side and the northern suburbs on the other. In daylight, the sky is expansive and the suburbs sprawl below, but at night twinkling lights are blanketed by the night sky, and reveal a magical scenario. The hill is a popular spot for sundowners and you can park your car close by and take a picnic blanket and hamper to a place where you can drink in the view. Dusk is the best time, as the traffic below slows down and the city breathes out a collective sigh that the working day is done. After all, the best things in life are free.
- Experience “le good life” in Hatfield.
Hatfield is most synonymous for its student night life which predominates around Hatfield Square (an open plaza, or courtyard), which houses various clubs, bars, restaurants and other services. No words can do this area justice; you have got to experience it for yourself. If you find yourself enjoying a hubbly, I recommend blue mix, for the ultimate head rush. You can thank me later.
- Take a walk down Juta Street, Braamfontein
Braamfontein’s most famous landmark is undoubtedly the Nelson Mandela Bridge, which starts at the intersection of Juta and Bertha Street. This is a striking architectural feature, beautifully lit at night. If you’re not the walking type, you can simply book yourself a tour for the Joburg City Sightseeing Bus operates throughout Braamfontein, and is a great way to explore the inner city if you aren’t too keen to drive there yourself. You can park your car securely at Gold Reef City and catch the bus from there. Tickets cost R120 if bought online and buses depart every 40 minutes, seven days a week. The bus will drop you off at The Grove, a small public square overlooked by various eateries. Go on a Saturday between 9am and 3pm and visit the Neighbourgoods Market, on the corner of Juta and De Beer Streets.
- Take a ride on the Gautrain.
Gautrain is Africa’s first world-class, modern rapid rail and bus service for Gauteng, a province regarded as the economic heartland of South Africa. I recommend getting off at every stop for a truly amazing experience.
What are some of your favourite spots in Gauteng? Let us know below or simply tweet us @blazonmagazine.co.za