The history of Gauteng

Gauteng has a rich history – one that has been shaped by extraordinary and diverse events. Much of the province’s heritage has been preserved, and visitors can relive the past and gain insight into significant events, periods and personalities by exploring the many historical attractions on show. Broadly categorised, these cover the origins of humankind, the rush for gold and diamonds, the turbulence of war and the country’s oppressive political past.

Origins of humankind

  • More than 3-million years ago early hominids, Australopithecus africanus, roamed the Cradle of Humankind. About 1 000 hominid fossils, spanning several million years, have been discovered in the area
  • In 1947, palaeontologists Dr Robert Broom and John Robinson discovered the fossilised skull of “Mrs Ples” at the Sterkfontein Caves
  • The Cradle of Humankind is a World Heritage Site. Its 47 000ha area encompasses the Maropeng Visitor Centre and fossil sites such as the Sterkfontein Caves, Swartkrans and Kromdraai


  • Gold was discovered on the farm Langlaagte in 1886, heralding a gold rush that led to the formation of Johannesburg
  • The “Randlords”, the leading industrialists of the day, built luxurious homes that symbolised the prosperity of the time.In the late 1890s and early 1900s their mansions, many designed by Sir Herbert Baker, leapt up on Parktown Ridge
  • In 1905, the 3 106.75-carat Cullinan Diamond was discovered in Cullinan on Thomas Cullinan’s Premier Mine (now called the Cullinan Diamond Mine). Today, the mine is the third-richest diamond producer in South Africa


Smuts House Museum, in Irene, southeast of Pretoria, reveals much about the life of Jan Smuts

Smuts House Museum, in Irene, southeast of Pretoria, reveals much about the life of Jan Smuts

  • The Mfecane or Difaqane Wars began in Zululand in the late 1700s. Fleeing Ndebele established their territory northwest of Johannesburg
  • From 1880 to 1881, Boers fought the British in the First Boer War to re-establish the independence of the Boer republic of the Transvaal (which encompassed present-day Gauteng)
  • The Second Boer War, fought between 1899 and 1902, saw the Boers of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State take up arms against the British in a war that claimed 75 000 lives. The conflict ended with the British annexing the region, which would later become part of the Commonwealth in the Union of South Africa (the precursor to the Republic of South Africa)
  • From 1914 to 1918, Louis Botha and Jan Smuts controversially engaged South Africa in World War I on the side of the British
  • World War II (1939 to 1945) proved a divisive factor in the white community in South Africa. While some backed neutrality or supported Germany, Prime Minister Jan Smuts declared South Africa at war with the Axis powers


  • In January 1912, the African National Congress (ANC) was formed to promote the rights and freedoms of the African people
  • In 1919, the ANC in the Transvaal initiated a campaign against pass laws, which restricted the movement of black South Africans
  • The Smuts government introduced the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Bill in 1946, restricting Indians’ rights to own and occupy land
  • The National Party came to power in South Africa in 1948 and formalised racial segregation with the policy of apartheid
  • The 1950 Group Areas Act saw the implementation of “urban apartheid”, with race groups assigned to particular residential areas. The resultant forced removals of the 1950s saw about 60 000 black residents from Johannesburg suburbs such as Sophiatown resettled in the South Western Township, or Soweto. Indian residents from the non-racial areas of Vrededorp (or Fietas) and Fordsburg were forced to resettle in Lenasia
  • The Freedom Charter was adopted by a coalition of anti-apartheid organisations at the Congress of the People in Kliptown, Soweto, on 26 June1955. The document called for a democratic, non-racial South Africa. Authorities arrested 156 people, charging them with high treason
The South Western Township, or Soweto, where thousands of black residents were relocated after forced removals from Johannesburg suburbs

The South Western Township, or Soweto, where thousands of black residents were relocated after forced removals from Johannesburg suburbs

  • On 21 March 1960, the Sharpeville massacre took place in what is now southern Gauteng. A peaceful protest – organised by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and during which demonstrators burned their pass books – turned violent. Police opened fire on the crowd, killing 69 and wounding 178
  • In April 1960, the ANC and PAC were banned by the apartheid authorities
  • Police arrested 19 ANC leaders at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, Johannesburg, on 11 July 1963
  • Nelson Mandela and his peers were charged with sabotage and faced the death sentence.
  • Ten leaders of the ANC were tried for 221 acts of sabotage in the Rivonia Trial, which lasted from 1963 to 1964. At the end of the infamous trial, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mahlaba and Ahmed Kathrada were sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island. Denis Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Central Prison (now the Kgosi Mampuru Prison, renamed after a man who was hanged there in 1883)
  • On 16 June 1976, Soweto high school learners, protesting the imposition of Afrikaans as an official medium of instruction, came under police fire. About 550 people were killed in the countrywide violence that followed the Soweto Uprising.
  • In February 1990, President FW de Klerk unbanned the ANC and other banned political organisations. Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island.
  • From 1990 to 1993, the apartheid government, ANC and other political organisations engaged in a series of negotiations to end apartheid.
  • On 27 April 1994, South Africans went to the polls in the country’s first democratic elections. The ANC won 62% of the vote.
  • On 10 May 1994, Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president of South Africa at the Union Buildings. FW de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki became the country’s deputy presidents.
  • On 4 December 1996, the Constitutional Court, situated in the Constitution Hill precinct, approved South Africa’s Constitution, hailed as one of the most progressive in the world. It took effect on 7 February 1997