/ 8 September 2023

Why I chose but now question living in downtown Johannesburg

Ansteys In Rush Hour (1)
Joubert Street, Johannesburg: The author says there is nowhere else on earth that he would rather be. Photo: Scott Peter Smith

People often ask me, particularly in my working circles or some family members knowing my suburban roots, “Why do you live downtown? You have options you know.”

 “Yes, I know, but I like it,” I reply, often adding words such as vibrancy, bustle, experience or phrases like “keeping my feet on the ground”, “in touch”, “among the people”.

In mid-2010 I moved into the city. Not on the fringes, but almost Google map pinpoint centre of Johannesburg. On Joubert Street, the one exiting south of Park Station and leading right into Gandhi Square. One of the highest foot traffic streets in the city. 

I’ve loved it. My choice of residence has always been out in the bush, or skyscrapers. My work required the skyscrapers.

 But that is starting to change when it comes to inner-city Johannesburg. I’ve started asking myself the same question and the ready answers are harder to find. And it isn’t about recent events — fires, exploding streets or perception of a rising crime rate. It’s the feeling — the growing feeling that it is more difficult to live here because the municipality is making it harder to live here, either through simple absence or looking the other way.

 This lacklustre service delivery, this not-quite-knowing whether that service will be here tomorrow; the chunky and ineffective bureaucracy that makes it impossible to attempt any resolution of administrative matters. 

These things undermine anyone’s personal decision to live in the city. I use the word “decision” deliberately. The city should want people to decide to live here, not stumble into it and be stuck in the mud under the grind. 

But the perception from the municipality is that the inner city is not occupied by those people. Rather the city is occupied by migrants, the unemployed and unemployable and so the less valuable. It’s this perception that justifies the lack of urgency to respond to abandoned or soon-to-be-abandoned buildings and the almost inevitable hijacking — so allowing the problem to expand over the city.

Johannesburg isn’t even at war with its people. It’s more like a cold war. Just a lingering threat of potential disasters dealt with by pop-up politics, maladministration and shady enforcement. 

In these circumstances, the faint din of traffic and bustling people reaching me on the 15th floor becomes less of a comfort and more of a reminder of what is really going on out there.

I used to write about and take photographs of dark buildings when I first moved to the city. When I still had a deep need to learn how these streets worked. There are many examples, but just two blocks west of me was an occupied dark building. Less criminally hijacked, but slipping rapidly so early in the last decade. 

It started by falling behind on its rates, having a dysfunctional and weak body corporate, having rate agencies stealing from them through corruption and the city eventually turning off services. This leads to abandonment and then a ripeness for criminality.

The people in this building were not migrants or the desperately poor, or suspicious of the authorities. They were legitimate property owners, now finding themselves unable to protect their investments. And as the first dominoes fell, they were eventually threatened and bullied out of their homes as the building slipped into inevitable disrepair. 

The body corporate, then individual owners, once strong, get worn down by the sheer forces standing against them.

I, and my neighbours, are in the same predicament. Perhaps this is how is starts. Lift not working, empty flats around me, unable to be filled up because of the non-operating lift, a growing backlog of rates not being paid, inability to collect this backlog from property owners because of legal obstacles; a number of compounding problems. An ever-so-slight slippage, one month at a time.

But here we are. We are a little different, our body corporate and smaller select of trustees has some renewed vigour. We met again just earlier this week — talking about loans, solutions, special levies, how to fix the lift, our crumbling facade. It’s positive. We can still stop this. It is this action and behaviour we must expect to be supported by the city.

But just last month, my municipal rates doubled after an arbitrary and non-assessed increase in my property value by the city. Normally that should be considered a good thing, but it makes our problem of collecting rates and imposing special levies to solve our problems all the less affordable. We made our objections through the right channels before the assessment was made. These were ignored. Calls, even from lawyers, remain unanswered. For years most of the residents of the building have been trying to change our status from a business residence to a residential one — most people in my building are just that — residents. Home owners. This too, has proven impossible.

Is this a city trying to help itself? Is this the kind of behaviour we can expect from officials towards those who are choosing to invest in the city, buy homes, and still commit to live here? It seems so. Then how can we expect abandonment and hijacking to be curbed by this same municipality?

As I ponder whether to leave the city, to give up, knowing full well what the knock-on effect of my own abandonment can lead to, I still wonder how I can possibly be anywhere else and feel the same. 

Scott Peter Smith is the chief digital officer at the Mail & Guardian and a downtown Johannesburg survivor. He writes in his personal capacity.