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Historic events in Gauteng

Illustration by Janet Berger


Bantu-speaking people move south from central Africa, displacing the San tribes, the original inhabitants of the present-day Gauteng area.

1100s to 1700s

Early settlers recognise the mineral wealth of the region centuries before the arrival of Europeans or the discovery of gold and diamonds. Late Iron Age archaeological sites are plentiful throughout the present-day Johannesburg area.


Sotho-Tswana communities inhabit stone-walled dwellings, grazing livestock, and mining and smelting copper, iron and tin.

Late 1700s to 1800s

The Mfecane or Difaqane Wars begin in Zululand. The fleeing Ndebele (named the Matebele by the local Sotho-Tswana) establish their territory and dominance northwest of Johannesburg, around what is now Hartebeestpoort and Rustenburg.

Early 1800s

Dutch-speaking Voortrekkers (pioneers) oust the Matebele with the help of the Sotho-Tswana tribes. They claim sovereignty over the settlements of Rustenburg and Pretoria.


Two Voortrekker republics emerge – the South African Republic (later called the Transvaal), with Pretoria as its capital, and the Orange Free State.


Gold is discovered on Kromdraai Farm, 7km from Sterkfontein. Kromdraai Gold Mine is one of the first gold mines in South Africa.


When gold is discovered  on Langlaagte farm, it becomes evident that the reefs of the Witwatersrand hold copious mineral reserves. Europeans settle on East Rand, later to become Johannesburg.
Boer. Illustration by Janet Berger

December 16, 1880

The First Anglo-Boer War breaks out when the Afrikaners revolt against th
e British annexation of the Transvaal. In the March 23, 1881 peace treaty, the British grant the Boers self-government.

Late 1890s to 1900s

The suburbs of Johannesburg develop – the west, where land is cheaper, occupied by the working class and the east accommodating Johannesburg’s affluent residents. Mining makes the Randlords , the moneyed class, extremely wealthy. Mansions leap up on Parktown Ridge, many designed by Sir Herbert Baker.

October 11, 1899

War breaks out between Great Britain and the South African Republic (Transvaal) and the Orange Free State. Johannesburg encounters very little military action during the South African War, which is also called the Second Boer Waror Anglo-Boer War, but Pretoria is surrendered to the British, who win the war .

May 31, 1902

The Treaty of Vereeniging, signed in Pretoria’s Melrose House , brings the Boer War to a close. In total, the conflict claims 75 000 lives and results in the annexation of the region under the British Empire.


The 3 106.75 carat Cullinan Diamond is discovered on Thomas Cullinan’s Premier Mine (now called the Cullinan Diamond Mine), east of Pretoria. The Transvaal government buys the stone and presents it to King Edward VII on the occasion of his birthday. The mine is still the third richest diamond producer in South Africa.


Sir Herbert Baker is commissioned to design the government building  of the Union of South Africa.

May 31, 1910

Pretoria becomes the administrative centre of the new government. In November 1910 the cornerstone of the Union Building is laid. The structure is completed in 1913 at a total cost of £1 310 640 for the building and £350 000 for the site.

January 1912           

The African National Congress (ANC), an organisation designed to promote the rights and freedoms of the African people, is formed.

1914 to 1918

Louis Botha and Jan Smuts controversially engage South Africa in World War I on the side of the British.


The ANC in the Transvaal initiates a campaign against pass laws, which restrict the movement of black South Africans.


Building development takes place during a major economic boom after South Africa abandons the gold standard and printed currency is matched by gold reserves.

October 14, 1931

Pretoria gains status as a city. Pretoria City Hall is built to celebrate the achievement.

1939 to 1945

World War II proves a divisive factor in the white community in South Africa. Sm
uts supports the British, but others back neutrality or support Germany. Jan Smuts  becomes Prime Minister of South Africa and declares South Africa at war with the Axis powers.


The Imperial Military Hospital – later to become Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital – is built for British troops.


The Smuts government introduces the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Bill, restricting Indians’ rights to own and occupy land. It takes more than a century before South African Indians are granted full status as citizens.


“Mrs Ples”, the famous fossilised skull of an Australopithecus africanus estimated to be 2.1-million years old, is discovered at the Sterkfontein Caves  by palaeontologists Dr Robert Broom and John Robinson. More than 3-million years ago hominids belonging to this genus roamed the Cradle of Humankind where about 1 000 hominid fossils have been discovered, spanning several million years.


The National Party comes to power in South Africa and formalises racial segregation with the policy of apartheid.

Late 1940s to 1950s

The Johannesburg suburb of Hillbrow goes high-rise when the Johannesburg Council removes restrictions on building heights. New freeways encourage massive suburban sprawl to the north of the city. For a brief period the skyline of Hillbrow is considered cutting edge and world class. Once desirable and cosmopolitan, this flatland today is an urban slum.
Saxophonist performing in Sophiatown. Illustration by Janet Berger

February 9, 1955

Armed policemen forcefully remove families living in the Johannesburg
suburb of Sophiatown to Meadowlands, south west of Johannesburg. Over the next eight years Sophiatown is flattened by the government and replaced by the suburb of Triomf (Afrikaans for “triumph”), reserved for whites.

June 26, 1955

The Freedom Charter is adopted by a coalition of anti-apartheid organisations at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, Soweto. The document calls for a democratic, non-racial South Africa. As a result, 156 people are arrested and charged with high treason


Indian residents are forcibly removed from the non-racial areas ofVrededorp (or Fietas) and Fordsburg. As segregation increases, people of Indian extraction are limited to living in Lenasia, about 35km south of the Johannesburg’s central business district. The area gets its name from a combination of the words “Lenz”, from the occupied land that was once the Lenz Military Base, and “Asia”.

March 21, 1960

The Sharpeville massacre takes place in what is now southern Gauteng. A peaceful protest, organised by the Pan African Congress (PAC), in which demonstrators burn their pass books turns violent. Police open fire on the crowd, killing 69 and wounding 178. Today, March 21 is celebrated as Human Rights Day.

April 1960

The ANC and PAC are banned by the apartheid authorities.


Pretoria is named the capital of the Republic of South Africa, the title it still enjoys.


The name Soweto (South Western Township) is adopted for the sprawling township to the south of Johannesburg. The township achieves international renown: Nobel Peace Prize winners Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu both lived in the Vilakazi Street  precinct in Orlando West – named after Dr BW Vilakazi, one of the country’s foremost black intellectuals. The Orlando West School is notable for its role in the riots of 1976.

July 11, 1963

Police arrest 19 ANC leaders at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela and his peers are charged with sabotage and face the death sentence.


Ten leaders of the ANC are tried for 221 acts of sabotage in the Rivonia Trial. At the end of the infamous trial, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsloaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mahlaba and Ahmed Kathrada are sentence to life i
mprisonment and sent to Robben Island. Denis Goldberg is sent to Pretoria Central Prison.

1960s and early 1970s

Tower blocks such as the Carlton Centre  and the Southern Life Centre erupt out of the central business district of Johannesburg.

June 16, 1976

High school learners in Soweto march against the imposition of Afrikaans as an official medium of instruction. Police open fire on the crowds and one of the first to be killed is 12-year-old Hector Pieterson. On June 16 each year, South Africans remember the events of 1976 on the Youth Day public holiday.


Urban decay sees businesses and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange  migrate north from the Johannesburg central business district, lured by suburban shopping malls such as Sandton City and Rosebank Mall . Boarded-up buildings become a common sight. Today, there is evidence of urban renewal, with initiatives such as tax relief measures bringing investors back to the CBD .

February 1990

President FW de Klerk unbans the ANC and other banned political organisations. Nelson Mandela is released from Robben Island.


The apartheid government, ANC and other political organisations engage in a series of negotiations to end apartheid.

April 27, 1994

South Africans go to the polls in the country’s first democratic elections. The ANC wins 62% of the vote.


After the elections, South Africa is divided into nine provinces – Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North West and the Western Cape. The seat of Gauteng’s provincial government is Johannesburg.
Makarapa headgear worn during the 2010 World Cup. Illustration by Janet Berger

May 10, 1994

The inauguration of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa at the Union Buildings heralds the beginning of a new era in South Africa’s history. FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki become the country’s deputy presidents.

December 4, 1996

The Constitutional Court approves South Africa’s Constitution, which is hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. It takes effect on February 7, 1997.


Palaeontologist Professor Ron Clarke and his assistants Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe, discover the full skeleton of “Little Foot,” an Australopithecus, inside the Sterkfontein Caves .

June 11 to July 11, 2010

The 19th FIFA World Cup™ is hosted by South Africa. Matches in Gauteng are played at Loftus Versfeld  (Pretoria) and Ellis Park and Soccer City  (Johannesburg). The final is played at Soccer City, whose design is inspired by the iconic African pot, thecalabash.