Urban Geography: Gold Rift

With a greater metropolitan area of about 8 million people, Johannesburg is the largest city in Africa, and the largest cities in the world not built next to a major body of water. The sprawling, low-density fabric of the city has been woven rapidly and oftentimes without a well-developed urban plan. Less than 150 years old, Johannesburg is literally and metaphorically pock-marked by its intertwined history of gold mining and racial inequality. Reminders of both surface throughout the city, in the form of abandoned gold-mining shafts and the still evident racial divides that characterize many neighborhoods. Over the last two days—during which time I’ve been in the archives looking at historic photographs and urban plans for Jozi, and out exploring the city on the ground—both of these aspects have come repeatedly to the forefront. I’ll cover the gold-mining landscape in this post, and return to the issue of human geography in my next installment.

Gold mining headgear preserved downtown. During our bus tour, we saw headgear all over the city – as heritage object, abandoned in situ on old mining sites, and recycled as tourist attraction. Photo by SR.

In its early days as a rough, frontier mining town in the Transvaal (the independent state ruled by the Dutch-descended Boers in the late nineteenth century), Johannesburg developed largely in response to the continual process of excavating gold from the massive reef beneath the city. Due to reasons that geologists still do not entirely agree on, the reef below Jozi slopes downward at an angle, meaning that some areas have gold very close to the surface while other locations require the construction of very deep shafts. As the mining camps expanded to access the deeper mines, the city shifted in response. The wealthy “Rand lords” who owned the mines moved north, building extravagant mansions in the hills looking out over the mine town. Worker housing for white workers and carefully controlled compounds for black workers ballooned as further deposits were discovered and exploited. Today, the mining belt is still visually evident in the landscape, as massive ridges formed by slag heaps. Although gold mining as an industry has declined over all, there are active mining sites through the city (as indicated on the map below). Additionally, the chemical processes for extracting gold from “banket” (the conglomerate rock that contains trace amounts of gold) have improved over the past century, and today some of the previous sites are back in operation as old slag heaps are processed to remove the remaining gold.

Slag heaps, currently being reprocessed to extract additional gold. Photo by JG.
Diagram of gold mining areas in and around the Gauteng province of South Africa. Based on map from The JoBurg Book (see references below). Created by SR in Concepts.

On the whole, however, Johannesburg is now a mostly post-industrial metropolis (I’ll discuss the exceptions in a later post). The transition process from an industrial to a post-industrial economy has been consciously a part of the city’s urban planning considerations since at least the 1950s. On Friday, at the archives of the architectural library of Witwatersrand University, I was able to view several urban planning documents dating to the 1950s and 1960s, which dealt explicitly with the transformation of Johannesburg. This is the same time frame in which apartheid was being fully developed as a strategy of urban spatial coercion, and it was fascinating (and frankly, rather horrifying) to see the ways in which racial segregation was covertly bound up in the rhetoric of urban economic redevelopment. During the era of apartheid, the gold belt became an even more explicit dividing line, separating the black townships to the south and the white suburbs to the north.

Based on a  “Structural Diagram for Greater Johannesburg” featured in a 1962 city planning document. On the original document, there is no reference to race, only economic zones, but in the textual descriptions accompanying, the implications of the new city plan are clear. Thanks to the archives at the University of Witswatersrand for providing access to their collections.

Yesterday, John and I went into full tourist mode and undertook a hop-on-hop-off bus tour of Johannesburg. Our tour took us on a loop through a wide swath of the center city, revealing how the imagined boundaries and divides from those earlier urban plans actually played out on the ground. We also took a trip to the “Roof of Africa” – the fiftieth floor observation deck in Carlton Tower, Africa’s tallest building. From there, the scale of the post-industrial landscape was even more evident. The dune-like heaps to the south looked not entirely dissimilar from those that appear of the fringes of the 1960s aerial photography I had seen the previous day. Looking back on a recent visit to another historic mining town, Colorado Springs, I was struck by the extent to which mining in Jo’burg has remained such a palpable part of the lived experience of the city. In CO Springs, by contrast, the city’s gold mining past manifests largely as place names. The marks on the built environment and landscape have been largely covered over, except for the few nostalgic tourist attractions where visitors can still pan for alluvial gold.

View from the “Roof of Africa” towards the Southwest, showing transitional gold mining areas.
An aerial view to the Southwest, undated (likely late 1950s or 1960s). Archives of the University of Witwatersrand.

What does it mean that Jo’burg’s industrial past is still so viscerally present in the city? As part of South Africa’s journey to democracy, many places that embody the injustice of apartheid have been carefully preserved to correspondingly preserve the human histories they house. I would argue that even though many of these industrial sites are not being intentionally preserved as heritage sites, their presence in the city serves a similar mnemonic function. It is hard not to gaze up at one of these towering mounds of yellow slag dirt without imagining the people and machines that created them.

In my next post, I’ll explore how the industrial landscape explicitly connects to racial politics through case studies at Constitution Hill and the Worker’s Museum, and why “freedom of movement” plays such an important role in South Africa’s constitution.


Brodie, Nechama, ed. The JoBurg Book. Northlands, South Africa: PanMacmillan South Africa, 2014.

Leggo, V.R. “The Elements of a Plan for the Witwatersrand Metropolitan Area.” Report submitted as part of the requirements for the 1962 Final Examination of the Town Planning Institute.

2 thoughts on “Urban Geography: Gold Rift”

  1. This perspective of the city and its development is really enlightening! I look forward to future installments! Safe travels


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s