The history Johannesburg, both in the ancient past and in recent times, outlines a story of human survival, struggle and triumph. The high plains in the northeastern region of this country at the tip of Africa have been home to hunter-gatherer tribes for a thousand years or more. But it was the discovery of some of the world’s richest deposits of gold here in 1884 that unleashed a tide of expansion and drew newcomers from Africa, Europe and across the world.

For a century and more, the wealth from that gold, as well as diamonds and other treasures from the earth, made Johannesburg – or Joburg, Jozi, Egoli, among its other names – the epicenter of business and commerce in South Africa, and hence, the African continent. Today, however, that status is being challenged by riches of a different color – black gold – as countries elsewhere in Africa transform themselves into leading producers of oil.

With that in mind, South Africa has turned its attention to cultivating other major industries to bolster its economy. One of the big beneficiaries of these efforts has been the travel and tourism sector which has drawn an increasing number of guests from across the rest of the continent and throughout the world; in fact, travel and tourism now outranks mining as a driver of GDP, contributing nearly 7 percent to the nation’s economy, according to data from the World Travel and Tourism Council.

The country enjoys a rich variety of places to visit, from the expansive beaches of Durban on the Indian Ocean to what is consistently voted one of the world’s best cities, Cape Town, on the Atlantic coast. There’s plenty in between as well, like the Stellenbosch wine country, cultural and archeological finds and of course, Big Five safari adventures.

But for all these opportunities South Africa has to offer, the country’s economic and social heartbeat is Johannesburg. In large measure, Joburg owes its role as the gateway to the region to O.R. Tambo International Airport. This facility, which is the only airport in sub-Saharan Africa with service to all six inhabited continents, handled some 21 million passengers last year.

From Sandton to Soweto

Johannesburg and its surrounding suburbs comprise a relatively large urban area of nearly 1,300 square miles, a little larger than Minneapolis/St. Paul. However while the latter has about 2.4 million residents, Johannesburg is home to more than 6 million people. Despite this population density, there’s still plenty of green space and major highways to connect everything.

However all those people and all those cars do create a traffic nightmare, especially along the much-traveled route from Johannesburg to the nation’s administrative capital, Pretoria about 35 miles north. To relieve the congestion, the Gauteng provincial government built the Gautrain, which links the downtown and the airport with the affluent suburbs of Sandton and Rosebank, and beyond to Pretoria.

Sections of the Gautrain (“gau” is pronounced with a guttural “how” sound – think, “chutzpah”) was opened in time for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and the entire 50-mile route was up and running by 2012. While relatively expensive by many world metro standards – R158 ($10.62) one-way peak from O.R. Tambo to Sandton – it’s probably the quickest and certainly most comfortable way to make that trip.

Sandton is among Johannesburg’s most affluent areas. Originally an upscale suburban residential neighborhood, it started attracting corporate offices and financial institutions in the1990s as South Africa’s old apartheid system crumbled and the central business district of downtown Joburg fell victim to urban blight. Today the city is putting much effort into restoring the old CBD but Sandton maintains its position as Johannesburg’s premier business address.

In large part, Sandton’s status is being sustained by the ever-growing presence of retail, meetings and lodging outlets, including the Sandton Convention Centre, one of the largest meetings and events venues on the continent. Located in the heart of Sandton, the convention center is conveniently attached to one of Africa’s largest shopping centers Sandton City, which in turn is connected to Nelson Mandela Square. In the center of the square, surrounded by hotels, restaurants and high-end shops, stands a 20-foot statue of the South African president and Nobel Prize winner.

Ironically this square is bounded on one side by Rivonia Road, which leads to another affluent suburb of Johannesburg. It was in Rivonia that Mandela and 10 other anti-apartheid leaders of the African National Congress were arrested in 1963. The subsequent trial found the activists guilty of sabotage and sentenced to life in prison. It was during this trial that Mandela delivered his much-quoted “I am prepared to die” speech. And Mandela’s release in 1990 after 27 years was a milestone on the road to ending apartheid.

In fact, there are few places in Johannesburg that have not been touched by Mandela’s life and legacy. But perhaps the most poignant of these settings is the South Western Townships, known to the world as Soweto. It was in this segregated and impoverished section of Johannesburg that Mandela and his family lived from 1946 until 1962.

Today the tiny red house at No. 8115 Vilakazi Street, Orlando West, is a National Heritage Site and a museum. The furnishings inside its rooms, the photographs and memorabilia are all genuine family articles, and even bullet holes in the walls are untouched. The little house exudes a real sense of place about the man and his times. Open 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM; Admission R40/$2.75; mandelahouse.com
While Soweto is hardly what one would call ‘gentrified,’ the township today seems a more convivial place than the gritty images seen in films of the bloody 1970s Soweto Uprising. Just down the hill from Mandela’s home on Vilakazi Street (so-called Nobel Laureates Way, the only street in the world where two Peace Prize winners have lived – Desmond Tutu’s house is just down the road), visitors to Soweto can quaff a beer and watch the scene from the covered tables at Sakhumzi Restaurant.

The eatery came into existence almost by accident; Sakhumzi and his friends used to hang out under a tree near his home and share food and drink. Now 15 years later, the eating area has spread. Expect community-style seating, informal, friendly service and a la carte and buffet options. Open 11:00 AM – 10:00 PM; sakhumzi.co.za

Long Walk to Freedom

While Soweto is certainly an icon of South Africa’s past struggles, it needs context. And that comes with a visit to the Apartheid Museum, where the history of this dark period is presented in a multi-media collection across 22 exhibits. Displays, photographs, artefacts and films educate visitors on how apartheid came to be and the fight for freedom that, eventually, brought it to an end. Open 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM; Admission R95/$6.50; apartheidmuseum.org
Finally, a far cry from both Sandton and Soweto, Constitution Hill commemorates South Africa’s journey to democracy. The site includes the Old Fort, built in 1893 as Johannesburg’s central prison. During the Anglo-Boer war, the prison was fortified and served as both a military garrison and a POW camp. When that conflict ended in 1902, the prison was expanded. Across the next 80 years it housed both the renowned – Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, Joe Slovo, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Fatima Meer – and tens of thousands of everyday citizens.

The prison was closed in 1983, but it would be another decade before freedom – and justice – would be represented on Constitution Hill. With the collapse of apartheid and the first democratic elections in 1994, a new Constitutional Court was established as the highest court in the land to ensure the human rights of all citizens under the law.

The new building which houses the court is a masterpiece of symbolism; even the bricks were painstakingly taken from the infamous Awaiting Trial Block and used to construct a wall in the Constitutional Court foyer, a wall directly behind the judges’ chairs and the Great African Steps, which lie just outside the court.

From the stirring art collection to the court doors, engraved with the 27 Bill of Rights, the somber museum complex that is the Old Fort, Constitution Hill is a living monument that truly tells the story of South Africa’s struggles and ultimately, its hopes.