Bridging the great divide

Nelson Mandela once said: “If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, there are also roads that lead to their goal.” This weekend’s launch of Johannesburg’s long-anticipated landmark bridge, named after the great man, will constitute a physical memory of his words.

The razmatazz opening of the massive structure, one of the highlights of Mandela’s 85th birthday celebrations, is seen by planners and Gauteng’s political drivers as symbo-lising the bridging of the schism between the street vendors, slum lords and barefoot children of the Johannesburg inner city and the air-conditioned offices, white-washed haunts and stiletto heels of Sandton City.

“Whereas before there were only a few access routes across the huge railway divide — a river dividing the inner city from the northern suburbs — that divide is bridged again,” says Elsabe Brink, historian and author of (among other titles) Soweto, 16 June 1976: It All Started with a Dog.

The Nelson Mandela Bridge, punted as the Eiffel Tower of Johannesburg, is the largest cable bridge in South Africa and has a citadel-like grace about it. “There is a poetic justice in this bridge. It is indicative of the 21st-century. From here we can start layering our history again,” says Brink.

The bridge spans the Braamfontein railway yards and forms part of the new link joining Braamfontein in the north to Newtown in the south.

It will provide direct access to the Newtown cultural precinct, a R300-million Blue IQ initiative that includes the Market Theatre, five housing developments for mixed-income families and South Africa’s first outdoor craft market.

It links the metropole’s CBD with one of the city’s longest arterial roads, Jan Smuts Avenue, which is expected to be renamed in the near future after either Mandela or one of the key liberation-struggle heroes

“The bridge is a critically important piece of road infrastructure and addresses a whole lot of issues around north-south linkages, and [those] into Braamfontein and Newtown,” says Graeme Reid, CEO of the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA).

“But it’s also to a large extent a symbol of the revitalisation of the city centre and a symbol for the whole of Johannesburg in terms of its aspirations as a world-class African city.”

The R115-million structure is the mother of the Blue IQ initiative, an infrastructure investment programme conceived by the Gauteng provincial government in 1995 to bring the shine back to the City of Gold. Blue IQ, together with the Gauteng Tourism Authority and the JDA, were given R3,5-billion in seed money by the government and were tasked with implementing the 2030 vision of Johannesburg as a “safe, economically productive and efficient city”.

Eleven mega-projects were set up to boost growth in Gauteng’s transport, tourism, manufacturing and technology sectors.

These include a R184-million commitment to upgrade the Cradle of Humankind world heritage site; Constitution Hill (a R357-million initiative to transform the Old Fort prison into a celebration of South Africa’s Constitution); and the bridge, which was co-funded by Blue IQ, the City of Johannesburg, National Roads Agency and the National Department of Transport.

The tender to design and build the bridge was won by the LBA Consortium, a combination of seven firms including architects Dissing & Weitling, a Danish company.

“Part of the proposal was that tendering companies should pay attention to design issues and not just the engineering and technical features — that is, the positioning of the bridge and its relationship to the skyline,” said Reid. “We chose Dissing & Weitling because their design was innovative and light in terms of its appearance. From an architectural point of view, it provides a superb gateway into the inner city and is an icon of the city’s skyline.”

But some people disagree with the epochal status the bridge has been given. Lindsay Bremner, chairperson of the School of Architecture and Planning at Wits University, says that it is “ordinary”.

“The image the bridge is trying to portray is of Johannesburg as a world-class city. It does draw on this in terms of high-tech construction. Having said this, in my view it isn’t a competitor for the world’s most beautiful, most awesome, most striking or most structurally phenomenal bridge. I think it is quite ordinary.”

She is also sceptical about the practicality of the structure from an architectural point of view. “I will be interested to see how the bridge is going to work. I think its junction with the [old] Queen Elizabeth bridge looks very awkward and it turns [on] a knee junction into Braamfontein, so the flow on to the bridge will have to be controlled by traffic lights.

“I think it might be a traffic-slowing nightmare for users. Pedestrians are also ill-catered for. There are sidewalks, but they are narrow, and existing bridges across the railway have the reputation for being the most dangerous areas of the city.”

The JDA predicts that the new gateway will carry up to 3 000 cars per hour. More than 200 000 people live in the inner city. Up to 800 000 commuters enter the city daily.

Whether the bridge lives up to its billing as South Africa’s Eiffel Tower and whether it contributes to the undoing of apartheid city-planners’ crazy distortions, only time will tell.

While the official launch of the bridge will kick off at dawn on Sunday, South African singer Lucky Dube has already set the cultural ball rolling by filming his latest video for his single, Ding Ding Licky Licky Licky Bong (from his new album, The Other Side), on the bridge.

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