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The joy of Jo-burg

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Except for the great piles of mine waste there is nothing to distinguish the turf on which Johannesburg stands from anywhere else on Africa's eastern plateau. South Africa's largest and busiest city is surrounded by utterly flat, barren grasslands of the "highveld," which extend to the horizon in every direction. With a population of more than 5 million Jo'burg is twinned with Birmingham and New York, but unlike most of the world's other great cities it has neither a seaport nor a river and the surrounding countryside is too dry for agriculture. Johannesburg, one of the newest major cities in the world, is there because of the gold, and the quest for wealth continues to sustain it.

As we drove in from the airport to our hotel in the Sandton district I got occasional overviews of the city – a downtown cluster of nondescript high-rise buildings surrounded by a sprawling residential and industrial megalopolis beneath a pall of brown smog. But as we moved from the drab countryside into the northern suburbs I was impressed by the lush gardens and the number of trees, particularly the bright purple jacaranda trees. Like almost everything else that grows here the jacarandas are imported from somewhere else.

The freeway was choked with impatient traffic and at one point Mtusi, our driver, took off across the open veld and bounced onto a side road. We passed the stark remnants of a derelict coal-fired generating station, its huge colourfully decorated cooling towers forming one of the few prominent landmarks on Jo'burg's skyline. The headframes of an abandoned mine are now part of an amusement park and earth-movers are busy excavating one of the old mine dumps in an effort to squeeze a little more gold from the rock.

But what Jo'burg lacks in aesthetic appeal it makes up for in its rich and colourful history. From its beginnings as a small prospecting settlement to its present status as the economic and financial hub of South Africa, Johannesburg has often led the way and the country has followed.

Nomadic Bushmen and later Bantu-speaking farmers inhabited the Johannesburg region for hundreds of years before the first Europeans arrived. A few adventurous Boers started small subsistence farms in the area as early at the mid 1600s but major European settlement did not begin until the discovery of gold in the 1880s. The ensuing gold rush brought thousands of prospectors from around the globe and an influx of black laborers seeking work in the mines. Johannesburg was suddenly overwhelmed by an explosive growth of both its black and white population. Conflict between the gold-seekers, "uitlanders," and the early Boer settlers culminated in the Anglo-Boer War, a conflict that was followed by bitter guerilla warfare and draconian British reprisals that resulted in the deaths of 26,000 people in British concentration camps.

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