Joburg, South Africa’s Empire City, strikes back

Johannesburg skyline Central Johanneburg at dawn. Established in 1886, Joburg is one of the world’s youngest major cities. (Image: Brand South Africa)


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Simon Allison

Kassahun Gebrehana is sitting at a pavement table at an Ethiopian restaurant in a former industrial area in downtown Johannesburg. It is a crisp autumn afternoon. Young and trendy hipsters are sipping organic lattes and nibbling on artisan bread. He is the proud owner of this bistro, Little Addis Café, one of a half-dozen eateries on this newly-regenerated urban strip called Maboneng (“place of light” in Sotho).

Gebrehana is a refugee. He came to Johannesburg 13 years ago, escaping the bitter Ethiopia-Eritrea war. He has watched the city change from several different vantage points: first as a waiter in someone else’s diner, then as a street vendor of fragrant, cardamom-infused Ethiopian tea, and finally as the boss of his own restaurant.

When he first arrived in Johannesburg, this area on the eastern fringe of the inner city was a dangerous and dirty warren of streets. Now it is a thriving complex of art galleries, restaurants and boutiques.

For Gebrehana, two powerful factors have turned Maboneng into a showpiece of African urban renewal: the fearless guts and vision of entrepreneurs who saw the city’s potential; and the willingness of the local government to come to the party, by providing reliable electricity, water and refuse collection.

These basic services are still not guaranteed throughout Johannesburg, which in promotional material styles itself “a world-class African city”. The 2010 World Cup, hosted in South Africa, “started the entire thing”, Gebrehana said. “People said now we have visitors and we need somewhere to show them, so the authorities cleaned up the streets. That is the biggest change.”

Soccer CityJohannesburg’s flagship stadium Soccer City with the city skyline behind it. The massive stadium seats 60 000 spectators and was completely rebuilt for the 2010 Fifa Football World Cup. (Image: Gauteng Film Commission)

The young gold boom town

Gerald Garner, an architect among various other professions, has crafted a career chronicling this rapid transformation. From his office in one of the inner city’s stranger buildings – an ornate cream turret reminiscent of a medieval castle – he runs tours of the area and has published several books on Johannesburg. His most recent, Spaces & Places 2.0, records the city’s architectural history, which is surprisingly short.

Johannesburg came into being in 1886 after vast quantities of gold were discovered in the Witwatersrand reef. People flooded in to make money. Within ten years, Johannesburg was a bustling town of 100 000 people; within 20, it had become one of the jewels of the British colonies and became known as “the Empire City”, Garner says.

By the 1930s, Johannesburg was stretching upward and adopted the New York template of art-deco skyscrapers. By the early 1950s, it was a hub for international business and a playground for the rich, who – because this was the apartheid era – were exclusively white.

“A lot of people remember the ’60s and ’70s as Joburg’s glory time,” Garner said. “But they do forget that…it was a very harsh and unjust city.”

The seeds of downfall

By then, the seeds of Johannesburg’s eventual downfall had already been scattered onto the pavement. A bylaw passed in the 1970s limited companies in the central business district to six black employees. This forced most factories and offices to relocate, leaving the city’s industrial periphery vacant. In the early 1970s, a new development, Sandton City, which included residential, commercial and office space, and acres of parking, began luring downtown businesses away. Thus began the northern migration out of Johannesburg.

Sandton CBDSince the 1970s continued development of the Sandton central business district to the north of Johannesburg’s traditional CBD has drawn businesses away from the inner city. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Unsurprisingly, the apartheid government hammered the final nail in the coffin of the inner city as a space for well-heeled gentility. President PW Botha’s “Rubicon” speech in August 1985, in which the finger-wagging president reaffirmed the government’s commitment to racial segregation, generated an international backlash and signalled the widespread implementation of sanctions against South Africa. This forced most international companies to leave South Africa. They abandoned their headquarters in the inner city and their staff hurriedly left behind their plush apartments in nearby Hillbrow – then the most densely populated suburb in the British Commonwealth, thanks to the huge expatriate presence. By the end of 1985, parts of inner-city Johannesburg resembled a ghost town.

HillbrowThere was a time when Hillbrow was the most densely populated suburb in the entire British Commonwealth, as UK expatriates flocked there to enjoy the opportunities apartheid offered white people. (Image: Brand South Africa)

A year later, with South Africa teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Botha abolished the laws regulating the movement of black South Africans, inciting a huge migration from rural to urban areas.

Tens of thousands descended on Johannesburg, according to Garner, forming huge squatter camps on its periphery or occupying the inner city’s abandoned buildings, which were closer to the few available jobs. Some property owners rented out space in defiance of the Group Areas Act, which still classified the inner city as a whites-only area. Buildings became overcrowded as landlords exploited their often vulnerable tenants. By the late 1980s the local government, unimpressed with the new demographics of the area, had scaled down or suspended any meaningful services, such as water, electricity and refuse collection.

The congestion, coupled with the official disinterest, precipitated the inner city’s transformation from empire showpiece to urban slum, eventually home not only to South African migrants but also to refugees, asylum seekers and would-be entrepreneurs from all over the continent.

Rebirth and utopian plans

From this point on the rot was inevitable, but not irreversible. In the early 2000s, a new mayor, Amos Masondo, armed with a new vision and generous public funds, started to transform the inner city once again. Pockets of space were cleaned up and made safe. Investment flowed into the area for the first time in three decades.

The blueprint for Johannesburg’s regeneration can be found in “Joburg 2030”, a near-utopian plan written in 2002 that envisions a city where crime is a faint memory, a service-based economy thrives, public transport is smooth, government is clean and efficient, and all its citizens are highly skilled, enjoying a quality of life on a par with London, San Francisco or Tokyo.

Nelson Mandela BridgeThe Nelson Mandela Bridge spans the Park Station train shunting yards to connect Braamfontein with central Johannesburg. The bridge was one of the Johannesburg Development Agency’s first major projects. (Image: Brand South Africa)

Although dreams often differ from reality, over the past decade Johannesburg authorities have demonstrated a commitment to redevelop and provide services to the inner city. The Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) has spearheaded this inner-city regeneration programme.

Its first move was to invest in public space, according to Garner, hoping this would give private developers the confidence to invest. JDA started by building the Nelson Mandela Bridge, spanning a railway yard to link Newtown with Braamfontein, another downtown district. This was followed by a brand new Constitutional Court on the site of an old prison fort, completed in 2004, and projects in the Newtown neighbourhood. By the mid-2000s the municipality was offering tax incentives to would-be investors, which contributed to the regeneration of Main Street and Gandhi Square.

Constitutional CourtThe Constitutional Court precinct, another JDA project, is home to the highest court in South Africa. (Image: Brand South Africa)

While Joburg 2030 targeted commercial interests, a 2007 charter – drawn up jointly by the city, tenants’ associations and business forums – focused on making the inner city attractive to residents. It called for providing more and better services and affordable housing for the lower-middle class, people who are economically active. Since then, the private sector has built about 50 000 units, with rents ranging from R3 500 to R7 000 (US$350 to $700) a month, according to the JDA.

Gentrification – a difficult issue

Despite this success in drawing back business and residents into the inner city, the new, regenerated Johannesburg has turned its back on the people who have lived in it for the past three decades: the poor.

“The whole idea of gentrification is tricky,” said Kate Tissington, a senior officer at the Socio-Economic Rights Institute, or Seri, a non-profit organisation that helps South Africans, mostly in the courts. South Africa’s vulnerable communities are not protected from the sweeping changes affecting the inner city – changes which invariably squeeze out the poor, Tissington argued.

The main problem is that renovation cannot begin in abandoned buildings that squatters occupy illegally. The attitude of municipal authorities is that trespassers “must just disappear”, Tissington complained. “We’ve heard the city say things like … if you’re not a productive member of society … you don’t have a place,” she said.

But where do they go? On several occasions, the city has forced them out in contravention of a 2008 law which seeks to limit illegal evictions and prohibits dislodging anyone without arranging alternative accommodation.

A 2011 landmark Constitutional Court judgment between the City of Johannesburg and Blue Moonlight Properties refined this law even further, ruling that it was the municipality’s responsibility to provide emergency temporary accommodation for all evictees, even those dislodged by private property developers. The city vehemently disputed this interpretation, arguing that it could not afford to provide temporary housing. Forced to implement it, the municipality has done the bare minimum.

These displaced people are often assigned to shelters with daytime lockout policies and gender segregation at night, regardless of the impact on families, Tissington said. After six months, this fragile safety net is removed and these homeless must make their own arrangements. Most move back to rural areas, far from jobs and basic services, jobs and other opportunities.

Developers are also frustrated because their projects are often delayed by months or years as they try to evict the squatters. Some private developers have taken matters into their own hands by paying off the trespassers to leave or simply removing them by force, with the help of private security companies or hired heavies.

Chasing vendors off the streets

The inner city was once home to South Africa’s poorest because they could afford the low rentals. Street vendors catered to their food and clothing needs. But peddlers too are no longer welcome.

Street vendorA vendor selling roasted mielies (corn cobs) on Diagonal Street in the Joburg CBD. (Image: Gauteng Film Commission)

In October 2013, Parks Tau, Johannesburg’s mayor, launched Operation Clean Sweep. Police rounded up unlicensed small-time vendors, sometimes confiscating their goods, according to media reports. Many legal traders were caught in the dragnet, according to the South African National Traders Retail Alliance, which estimates that around 4 000 illegal and licensed traders were chased off the streets.

Edmund Elias is one of them. He sells spy thrillers, old classics and battered textbooks from the boot of his red Ford Escort parked near the same stand that he has occupied on Joubert Street for 20 years. Despite holding a licence for this space, Elias was forced out during Operation Clean Sweep and could not return for three months. In his years as a trader, he has seen Johannesburg at its worst, and has witnessed its slow but steady development. He is not impressed. Elias particularly criticises the authorities for linking informal trading to the city’s other problems like crime, rubbish and overcrowding. “They’re practising development and preaching oppression,” he said of the municipality.

Inner-city transformation

In an interview with Africa in Fact, Sharon Lewis, an executive manager at the JDA, acknowledged these concerns and admitted that the city sometimes made mistakes. Seri and other organisations, however, do not always give the city the credit it deserves.

“Seri’s criticism discounts the value of the housing delivered,” she said. “It’s not for the poorest of the poor, and the city has certainly not delivered enough subsidised social housing in the inner city … but now the market is delivering student housing, delivering community residential units with dormitory-style accommodation, and this is very affordable. For a bed you pay just over R800 ($80) a month, so that starts to compete with some of the hijacked buildings where you are not getting any services for around R500 ($50) a month.”

African cities should learn from Johannesburg’s experience with inner-city regeneration, or transformation, which is the city’s preferred term, Lewis said. “Overall I do think our inner-city transformation has been successful. If you look at property values, which have risen, there has been a big investment in refurbishing and renewing properties, office vacancies are down, and we’ve managed to do that while providing relatively affordable accommodation. And we’ve also transformed the image of the inner city, positioning the inner city as a cool place to live, work and play … for all of those reasons, I think it’s absolutely a good model.”

The so-called transformation could have been handled better, Lewis admitted. “It’s [a] balancing act between being a really inclusive society that allows anyone to make a living anywhere, and being a clean, well-managed city that can compete in economic terms and grow businesses,” she said. “It’s a balancing act that we’ve had to achieve and we’ve kind of wobbled on both ends.”

Simon Allison is the Africa correspondent for the Daily Maverick, based in Johannesburg. He has previously reported from Egypt, Palestine and Somalia for the Asia Times and Agence France Presse. He holds a BA from Rhodes University and a master’s degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

This article originally appeared in Africa in Fact, a magazine published by Good Governance Africa