From majesty to mothballs

Lizeka Mda: CITY LIMITS

An interviewee once told me she knew her husband was the one for her when he took her out to dinner at the Three Ships in the Carlton hotel. No boyfriend had ever put himself out like that for her before.

But her two sons will never know this symbol of glamour where her momentous decision was made: the Three Ships is no more.
Gone too is the whole Carlton hotel, which has been mothballed after years of losing money. Not surprising, say many, when the whole of Johannesburg’s city centre has been overcome by filth and street traders.

Last Friday, the last joint was welded into the double steel-picket fence that has been erected around the Carlton. Should one clear the fence on Main Street, there is another securing the entrance to the hotel itself, whose revolving doors stopped swinging at the end of March. It was very abrupt, as a dozen backpackers who had made bookings found out to their dismay.

The very idea of backpackers in the Carlton! What more fitting image of the decline of this one-time symbol of all that wealthy white South Africa was about.

The Carlton we came to know was not even the original. The original Carlton, on Eloff Street, opened in 1906 and was, in the manner we have come to know so well in Johannesburg, bulldozed in 1963 - to be replaced by the latest one in 1972, which was whites-only for years. It, too, has now been handed over to bats.

The hotel had battled this fate for a decade, and watched as its competition, other luxury hotels, died. First went the President at the corner of Eloff and De Villiers streets in 1985, which became the headquarters for Hekro. Then followed the Landdrost on Twist and Plein, which for a while was downgraded to a Holiday Inn, before becoming a police barracks.

The four-star Victoria hotel, also on Plein, a favourite of the National Union of Mineworkers when it still had Cyril Ramaphosa as its secretary general, also closed. Today business and luxury hotels have a new home in the northern suburbs.

In mid-December the Carlton retrenched its entire staff of 276 and re-employed 59 on contract, to run the 61-room Carlton Court annex of the hotel and the Koffiehuis until the end of March, when casino licences were due to be awarded.

Last October the hotel hosted its last banquet in honour of former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere. Among the guests were President Nelson Mandela, most of the Cabinet and several hundred black business executives. And, as if to hand over the baton, the old elite was represented by Anglo American’s Nicky Oppenheimer and Julian Ogilvie Thompson. The Carlton, symbol of the mining barons, had just edged into the new South Africa with one last grand gesture before dying.

Last week, only the lobby of the Carlton showed any activity, as workmen trod up and down where a mere four years ago the African National Congress had its famous victory party. One lift worked, and it only stopped on the third floor where the security offices were.

The shops in the lobby - a foreign-exchange bureau, a diamond merchant, a pharmacist, a book and gift corner, car hire and tour operator - were all closed. In the Koffiehuis restaurant, they were pulling up the carpets.

Taped on a few surfaces are inventory lists. In the lobby area, what’s left of the sumptuous furnishings, according to the list, are: one chandelier, four carpets, six brass frame notice boards, one reception counter, one wooden back wall with five pictures, five safe units in reception safe room, one armchair, one wooden dustbin, two plastic dustbins, four pairs light brown curtains, four wooden handrails, seven glass display units, one garage counter, one armchair, two display units.

No one knows what is going to happen to the Carlton.

“We are just here to make the place secure,” said Nick Martin, the director of Three Cities hotels, which used to manage the hotel for Anglo American Properties. “We are responsible for tidying the building up, so in case someone needs it, it’s there. Whether or not the building will be let or sold, I don’t really know. That’s in the hands of the owner ...”

In the adjoining Carlton Centre, many stores are closed. Like the South African Airways office, with the advertisement for Kruger rands in the window, a jewellery store and several clothing shops. Many, many more, including the OK Bazaars, closed some years ago.

Business is so bad Wesley’s tobacconist, which has been in the complex since it opened, will be closing in two months. Fortunately, it has a branch in Rosebank. “At least when the hotel was open, it was not this quiet,” said an assistant at the shop, “even though we were not as busy as in the earlier years.”

Around the centre young men walk up and down and seem to have all the time in the world.

One says, “I’ve come to market” - which means looking for a job in unemployed-speak.

Music blasts from the shops. Kwaito here, soul there. Completely unthinkable some years back, when shop assistants used to reluctantly pull themselves away from the “superior” sounds of Schubert to turn up their noses at shoppers who wandered in and dared to ask the price of merchandise displayed in the window.

Cyril’s is one of the oldest shops in the centre. Abie, the manager, is at his wits’ end. He finds the closure of the hotel depressing because for an upmarket shop like his, custom from the streets is not so reliable. But the closure of the hotel was inevitable as far as he is concerned. Crime is out of hand, he says, and he has tales of muggings in the streets around the centre every day. “What did you expect? Tourists would go to the toilet and be mugged. There are 19-year-olds who are running around the place with guns. And there is no security.”

Which is not exactly true. Not as far as the centre is concerned, anyway. There are three security companies that operate in and outside the centre. The security officers are very visible. But it’s an uphill battle they are waging against the criminals, confesses one.

The Carlton is the latest casualty in the long-running saga called The Decline of Johannesburg. In its very short life of 113 years, the history of the city is littered with examples of the short-sightedness of the city’s management.

Remember how the city had electric trams as early as 1906, but which were discontinued and the tracks pulled up 60 years later? And now we lament the absence of public transport. Who can forget the wilful implosion of the Colosseum theatre? Of course it was no Paris Opera House, but the city was deprived nevertheless of a venue that added to its culture.

The Gauteng Gambling and Betting Board received four applications for Johannesburg South/Centre, from The Carlton and City Urban Renewal Enterprises (Cure) for the CBD, one for Gold Reef City and another for Soweto.

While all four applications were feasible, the outright winner was Cure, which promised R2,2-billion capital investment in the city centre. But Cure’s projections would be adversely affected if a licence were awarded for another mega-casino close by.

Faced with a choice between Cure and Tsogo Sun in Fourways, which wouldn’t be affected one way or another, the board chose Fourways, and the licence for the central region was awarded to second-placed Akani, the Gold Reef City applicant. And so another opportunity to revitalise the Johannesburg CBD was squandered.

Gerald Leissner, the managing director of Anglo American Properties, says the company is investigating the possibility of turning the hotel into residential units in the long term. But in the meantime, it will sell equipment on tender and auction off some of the fine objects from the hotel before the end of June. Traditionalists can snap up a memento of an era lost forever.

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