Jo'burg's downtown turns upmarket

Living and playing in the city, as he puts it, was such an appealing idea that two years ago Khabo Baloyi decided to buy an apartment in downtown Johannesburg.

Labelling this a high-risk investment, the bank would not approve his mortgage application, however.

Authorities are now trying to change perceptions that the central business district of South Africa’s financial hub is, at best, neglected—and, at worst, dangerous. But, rehabilitating the inner city in one of Africa’s liveliest cities is a mammoth undertaking that has pitted sceptics against optimists.

During apartheid, every effort was made to restrict the access of South Africa’s black majority to Johannesburg’s city centre. The 1952 Pass Laws Act, for instance, made it obligatory for blacks older than 16 to carry a pass book: a document resembling a passport that stipulated whether they had government permission to be in certain areas.

The repeal of this law in 1986 was key in allowing impoverished black South Africans to move to the city, which found itself ill-equipped to provide employment for all newcomers.
This set the stage for an increase in crime, which in turn prompted businesses—many white-owned—to flee central Johannesburg.

What remains in the worst areas are abandoned buildings, some cut off from the city’s water supply and power grid due to non-payment of rates.

The demise of apartheid in 1994 also saw an influx of immigrants and refugees from elsewhere on the continent, adding to the pressure being placed on facilities.

Regeneration

An urban regeneration programme that got under way in 2000 aims to arrest this decline.

A blueprint for the initiative, titled “Your City in the Year 2030”, has been launched. “They chose a 30-year development period as it was deemed a sufficient time to be able to solve the

developmental challenges facing the city,” says Tsepo Nkosi, spokesperson for the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA), a government body formed to spearhead improvements in various areas.

Increased inner-city policing, coupled with the introduction of closed-circuit television to monitor public areas, has seen a reduction in excess of 80% of “contact crime” such as robberies, murder and rape, according to Nkosi.

The 2030 plan aims to improve public transportation, address skills shortages and assist in efforts to contain the Aids pandemic. South Africa currently has more citizens infected with HIV than any other country: upwards of five million.

Various developments are also taking shape, such as the new corporate office of the multinational AngloGold Ashanti.

Two streets away are three new apartment blocks celebrated as an example of what is possible in the inner city.

Constructed at a cost of more than R94-million, the project is the city’s largest housing development jointly undertaken by the public and private sectors.

Thembi Matsena*, a 27-year-old single mother who sells CDs at a busy adjoining taxi rank, lives in the biggest of these blocks.

“Compared to where I used to live, the rent is still the same and I don’t have to catch a taxi to get to work,” she says. “Everything is close; I wake up and take my son to school on foot.”

It doesn’t bother her that the two-bedroom apartment is rather small. Other things do, though. “I hate the fact that when it is really hot you can’t open the windows on the main road side; it stinks, it smells of something dead.”

In the vicinity of the main road are open fires and informal food stalls that cater for those working within and around the taxi rank.

Despite this, the apartments are popular. Demand for parking space by tenants has forced the takeover of parking bays formerly reserved for visitors.

Property boom

A few blocks down, private developers are converting office blocks into loft apartments: Johannesburg’s booming property sector has persuaded some that there is a healthy profit to be made in the inner city. In the past five years, the general value of houses has risen by about 230%, making this one of the best-performing property markets in the world, according to property economist Erwin Rode.

One of the developers, Urban Ocean, owns 21 buildings in what used to be the city’s financial district. The JSE has since moved north to the affluent suburb of Sandton. But Alfonso Botha, co-director of Urban Ocean, sees Johannesburg residents returning to the city centre in the future.

Loft apartments do not come cheap: a bachelor flat goes for about R530 400. Yet Urban Ocean has sold almost all 60 units in Shakespeare Place, a former office block facing the City Hall.

Buyers have the option of living in their newly acquired properties, or allowing a company associated with Urban Ocean to manage them as hotel rooms. The hope is that the 2010 Soccer World Cup, to be hosted by South Africa, will bring an influx of visitors eager to rent upmarket accommodation.

The problem experienced by Baloyi of securing mortgage finance also appears to be receding. “We have convinced the banks,” says Botha.

Victor Mukwena is among those who have reaped the benefit of this change. Last year the 27-year-old accountant bought into The Franklin, another of Blue Ocean’s converted office blocks.

Describing his new-found neighbours as being like himself—“young, daring and unmarried”—Mukwena sees nothing but possibility in the once-maligned city centre.

“I saw the potential of making a big return [with the property],” he says.—Sapa-IPS

* Not her real name

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