South Africa: a building site

Justice Malala

Everyone seems to have a Confederations Cup story to tell since the spectacular opening ceremony on June 14. Here is mine.

It isn’t really a Confed story, as it happened weeks before the actual tournament. But I hope it will, in its own small way, illuminate the football matches and the festivities.

My wife and I went out for dinner a few weeks ago. We ended up eating at the Troyeville Hotel, a shambling but charming hotel in Kensington, just east of Johannesburg. It serves brilliant rustic Portuguese cuisine and very cold beer. The bar is unusual and fun, with an eclectic crowd. But that is not the point of the story.

On leaving the hotel we followed our usual route home. But it was unusual in one way: there were building works everywhere. The Troyeville Hotel sits right behind the Ellis Park and the Johannesburg Stadium.

Already among the best stadiums in South Africa, both have now been refurbished so extensively they are hardly recognisable. They look and feel like international institutions – huge, glitzy, sleek and modern.

We made our way through the warren of roads that encircle Ellis Park, just below the notorious Hillbrow flatland area and Bertrams. The roads were narrowed down, with massive ditches on either side due to digging and other roadworks. As we pushed along and emerged on the Hillbrow side, near the towering cone-shaped building called Ponte City, crowned with its massive neon Vodacom advert, we realised we could not turn left onto the motorway and on home.

The road was closed due to road works.

We inched along into the heart of Hillbrow. Now, Hillbrow became renowned the world over for violence, drugs and other crimes in the 1990s as its buildings – formerly reserved for whites only – started to accommodate blacks. It became known as the epicenter of Johannesburg’s tragic descent into crime.

I know Hillbrow. I lived right in the centre of the Hillbrow flatland – at the Highpoint building – when I first moved to Johannesburg to start a job as a journalist at the Star newspaper in the very early 1990s.

I watched as Hillbrow became overrun by dirt and grime and as it nearly collapsed under the burden of maladministration and failure to deal with its myriad problems. However, there have been spectacular new developments over the past few years.

Young entrepreneurs started moving in and buying old buildings and renovating them. A new breed of tenant – professional and dedicated to the neighbourhood – can be seen in many parts of the flatlands.

Plus, authorities came to the party. Parks, roads and all sorts of other public facilities are constantly being done up.

But back to my journey. As we inched along the dark road I realised that the neighbourhood whose streets I had walked so long ago is being transformed. There were road works all over. New, glitzy, shiny bus stops to accommodate the new bus rapid transit system were being built. They were gorgeous, and in design and structure reminded me of the London underground stations.

Then we turned up into the heart of Hillbrow. The works I had noticed continued on until we reached one of my favourite sites in this town: the Old Fort building, now known as Constitution Hill, the seat of the highest court in the land.

Then on into Braamfontein and around the Civic Centre. Here too the roads were narrowed as the building work continued. The whole thing was astounding.

The truth is that many parts of South Africa today mirror what I saw in Hillbrow that dark night. The country is a building site. The N1 route from Johannesburg to Pretoria is clogged – and makes many motorists angry – because the three-lane highway is being widened to make more lanes and accommodate more cars. I was in Cape Town recently and the whole Sea Point area is being transformed by the Green Point Stadium, one of the venues for the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

As I write this piece, new GDP figures are out and we are staring recession in the face. Yet one looks at all this work – plus the R787-billion (US$97.9-billion) that is still to be spent by government on infrastructure development – and it becomes clear that, like many parts of the world, economically we are be in a bad state. But we could have been in a far worse state.

The 2010 World Cup and all the associated activity around our roads, buildings and other infrastructure are probably the single most important factor for our economy as the global economic meltdown bites. The stimulus brought on by this spending means we will not be as affected as many of our neighbours and will most likely recover far faster than many economies across the globe.

From an economic perspective, the southern tip of Africa looks like the best place to be as the world faces its most turbulent economic times in decades. And it is all there for us to see: men and women in blue overalls building a country, brick by brick.

Justice Malala is an award-winning former newspaper editor, and is now general manager of Avusa’s stable of 56 magazines. He writes weekly columns for The Times newspaper and Financial Mail magazine, as well as a monthly media and politics column for Empire magazine. He is the resident political analyst for independent television channel e.tv and has consulted extensively for financial institutions on South African political risk. Malala was also an executive producer on Hard Copy I and II, a ground-breaking television series on SABC 3. Hard Copy I won the Golden Horn Award for best television series. Malala’s work has been published internationally in the Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, Financial Times, The Independent, Forbes, Institutional Investor, The Age and The Observer.