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The Empire City strikes back

Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic capital, makes a comeback after white flight, overcrowding and neglect led to the decline of the inner city. Extracts taken from an article by Simon Allison, first published on Good Governance Africa

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’…

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…

By [the 1960s and ‘70s], 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. Unsurprisingly, the apartheid government hammered the final nail in the coffin of the inner city as a space for well-heeled gentility. President P.W. 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 innercity Johannesburg resembled a ghost town.

A year later, with South Africa teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Mr 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… 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; landlords exploited their often vulnerable tenants; and 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. 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.
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… 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…
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 per month, according to the JDA. 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… 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 (City of Johannesburg v 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….

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. 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.

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 SA National Traders Retail Alliance, which estimates that around 4 000 illegal and licensed traders were chased off the streets…

The so-called transformation could have been handled better… ‘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,’ says Sharon Lewis of the JDA. ‘It’s a balancing act that we’ve had to achieve and we’ve kind of wobbled on both ends.’


All photographs published alongside this article are taken by members of the Joburg Photowalkers, a social group which combines their love for Joburg with their love for photography. Members have been meeting regularly to explore public space and streets in local suburbs as well as to go on photographic road trips together since 2009. The group has a varied photographic interest which includes street, wildlife, nature, night time and painting with light, studio, macro and astro photography.
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