Get to know historical Gauteng

Gauteng, the economic heartland of South Africa, is a place of startling beauty and striking history. This is where gold was discovered in 1884, sparking the world’s largest gold rush and a civil war. This is also where much of the resistance to apartheid was stoked, planned and executed. Stay another day – or two or three or more – and discover some of South Africa’s smallest province’s tantalising history.

Mandela House Museum

Mandela House
The house in Vilakazi Street, Soweto, where former president Nelson Mandela lived with his family. (Image: Erik Torner)
Mandela House
Former president Nelson Mandela's Soweto house is just one of many fascinating historical places in Gauteng. (Image: James Cridland)

Former president Nelson Mandela’s tiny Soweto house, where his family lived from 1946 to the 1990s, is now an evocative museum.

This is the home Mandela returned to when he was freed from 27 years’ imprisonment in 1990, although he only spent 11 days there before moving into an official residence. He had last been in the house in 1962, the year he was arrested.

Mandela lived there with his first wife, Evelyn Mase, and then with his second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who resided there from their 1958 marriage to her banishment to Brandfort in the then Orange Free State in 1977.

The four-roomed structure houses memorabilia, awards, honorary doctorates and family photographs. It also shows some scars from the apartheid years.

Vilakazi Street is a hive of tourist-friendly activity, with street traders, several restaurants serving traditional dishes, and urban art to enjoy. The street is the only one in the world to have been home to two Nobel Peace Prize recipients – Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, whose house stands on a corner diagonally opposite Mandela’s.


In January 1905, the largest gem-quality diamond ever found (for now!) was unearthed at Premier No 2 mine in Cullinan, east of Pretoria. It was presented to King Edward IV of the United Kingdom, and cut into several large gems that are still nestled in the Crown Jewels, on show in London.

Today Cullinan is an attractive small town, with fascinating museums that offer a glimpse into life in the early 1900s. The Cullinan Diamond Mine offers interesting tours of a working mine (you can choose between a motorised surface tour or an underground walking one) and the town boasts a craft brewery, curio shops, restaurants and even adventure sports.

Liliesleaf Farm

Former president Nelson Mandela posed as a cook and gardener at Liliesleaf Farm, bought in 1961 by Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe as headquarters for the underground Communist Party and as a safe house for anti-apartheid activists fleeing South Africa’s apartheid-era authorities.

Several activist organisations were banned in 1960, pushing them underground and towards new tactics, including armed resistance. It was at Liliesleaf that many of the first armed anti-apartheid attacks – mainly sabotage – were planned.

When the police raided the farm in July 1963 many of the anti-apartheid leaders were arrested, including Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Lionel Bernstein and Dennis Goldberg. It was a major blow to the anti-apartheid struggle. The arrests, and that of Mandela in 1962, led to the notorious Rivonia Trial in which Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life for treason.

Liliesleaf is now a museum and archive, and a place where dialogue can take place in a peaceful setting.

Liliesleaf Aerial View
Liliesleaf, place of struggle and tragedy, from the air. (Image: Liliesleaf)

Apartheid Museum

Visit the Apartheid Museum to remind yourself how far South Africa has come. (Image: Apartheid Museum)

A multi-disciplinary team of curators, film-makers, historians and designers collaborated to produce the exhibitions that tell the Apartheid Museum’s story of the legislated separation of South Africa’s races: apartheid.

There are 22 individual exhibition areas that make up what has been described by many as an intensely emotional journey and a reminder of all that we have gained.

Constitution Hill

Con Court
The Constitutional Court ends the Constitution Hill tours, putting a seal of enlightenment on a dark story. (Image: Constitution Hill)

Simultaneously crushing and uplifting, Constitution Hill is a living museum and a tribute to South Africa’s tumultuous journey to democracy. It is also where the democracy and equality are kept on course, in the Constitutional Court.

A complex of prisons, and the court, Constitution Hill is where thousands of ordinary South Africans were incarcerated for crimes as varied as transgressing council by-laws against brewing traditional beer and treason (Nelson Mandela, who was jailed here shortly before being transferred to Pretoria for the Treason Trial). Other famous prisoners include Mahatma Gandhi, Joe Slovo, Albertina Sisulu, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Barbara Hogan.

There’s the court, which is open to visitors regardless of whether it is in session, and its impressive contemporary art collection, and the jails – the Women’s Goal, the Old Fort and Number Four. Guided tours are available.

Sharpeville Memorial

The Sharpville Human Rights Precinct stands on the site of one of South Africa's most appalling police massacres. (Image: GTA)

There are few, if any, massacres in South African history with the same resonance as the police killing of 69 people protesting pass laws at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960.

A 45-minute drive from Johannesburg, the Sharpeville Human Rights Precinct stands on the site where many of the bodies lay.

The centre was created to commemorate those who fell, many while running away after the first shots were fired. There are black and white photographs of the massacre and its aftermath, which included protests and riots that spread across South Africa.

Union Buildings

Union Buildings
The Union Buildings, seat of government in South Africa since 1910. (Image: Paul Saad)

The Union Buildings are one of the most recognisable landmarks in South Africa, and the official seat of the national government.

Designed by Sir Herbert Baker in 1910, they stand imposingly on Meintjieskop, from where there are panoramic views across the city. The buildings have been the backdrop for some of South Africa’s pivotal moments, including the 1956 Women’s March in which approximately 20 000 women of all races protested against the imposition of pass laws on black women. These laws required these women to carry “pass books” in so-called white areas. In May 1994, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, was sworn on at the Union Buildings.

The beautifully terraced gardens, filled with indigenous plants, are host to several memorials, including one to the South African soldiers who died in the 1916 Battle of Delville Wood, part of the greater Battle of the Somme. Of the 3 153 officers and soldiers ordered to hold the wood “at all costs”, only 142 emerged unscathed.

Tswaing Crater

Tswaing Crater
A massive meteorite crashed into the Earth at Tswaing – the result is this crater, 1.4km across. (Image: City of Tshwane)

About 220 000 years ago a meteorite the size of half a football field crashed into the Earth, about 40km from where Pretoria is today. The impact formed a crater 1.4km in diameter and 200m deep, in the middle of which lies the salt lake that gave the crater its name – Tswaing means place of salt in Tswana.

Just east of the crater is the Soutpanspruit, a stream that feeds a rare wetland system home to game, a large number of bird species, small mammals, reptiles and frogs. There is a 7.2km hiking trail in the nature reserve that surrounds the crater site.