22 April 2014

South Africa: Healing Johannesburg's Apartheid Scars

Under apartheid, the center of Johannesburg was reserved for white South Africans. Many moved out when segregation was abolished and poorer black South Africans moved in. Now real estate developers are returning.

In the Braamfontein and Maboneng neighborhoods of Johannesburg, apartheid is mostly just a distant nightmare. People of all colors flock to the coffee shops and boutiques. Cosmopolitan local markets sell finger food from all over the world.

But these two districts are the exception rather than the rule because ethnic and class divisions persist in most of Johannesburg's other neighborhoods. In downtown Johannesburg, white South Africans are rarely seen on the streets.

"It was amazing how particularly the white communities, or the economically empowered, wealthier communities, started to leave the city and relocate to suburbia in the wake of the insecurity that accompanied the end of apartheid," said local architect and urban planner Guy Trangos.

"It's often said as the walls of apartheid came down, the walls of suburbia went up," he added.

'Gated communities' in the north, 'no go' areas in the city center

Johannesburg's more affluent residents live in well-protected and gated communities in the north of the city. They are surrounded by barbed wire, high walls and watchdogs.

Johannesburg's city center, once the sole preserve of white South Africans under apartheid, has undergone through rapid urban change since the 1990s. Banks and other big corporations moved out. As the white and mostly wealthy residents disappeared, poorer black citizens, along with refugees from neighboring countries, moved in and occupied the empty buildings.

Many houses in Johannesburg's Maboneng neighborhood are being renovated

"Slums developed at that time," said South African architect Anne Graupner, the daughter of Austrian immigrants. "People left their homes and simply stopped paying water and electricity bills. Their houses were taken over by other people, some of whom illegally claimed ownership of the deserted buildings. These self-appointed landlords would then collect rent from squatters.

"The real landlords didn't stand a chance of reclaiming their property, unless they were prepared to resort to the use of force," she said.

There are hundreds of occupied buildings in Johannesburg's city center that are in the hands of illegal slum landlords. Hundreds of squatters live in the properties with dozens crammed into a single small apartment. There is no electricity and running water. There is no regular garbage collection and refuse is often thrown out of the window on to the street.

Danger zones

"If you pass a squat, you have to watch out that you don't get hit by a broken TV being thrown out of the window," said Bafikile Mkhize laughing.

The 42-year-old lives in the run-down, dangerous and crowded neighborhood of Hillbrow, which borders Johannesburg's business district. Mkhize runs Ekhava, an organization which is trying to make Hillbrow cleaner and safer. She has teamed up with a private security firm and social workers.

Hundreds of houses in downtown Johannesburg are still occupied by squatters

"I don't want to live in a city where I can't leave my house after nightfall because I'm scared of attacks," she said.

Crime is a problem in most parts of Johannesburg. The city center is especially dangerous at night - for everybody. Many of the buildings are dilapidated.

But real estate developers and investors are moving back into selected districts. Developers Urban Ocean have bought up individual historic buildings in Johannesburg's former commercial district for conversion into luxury apartments or office space which they sell or let.

Attracting the city's middle and upper class

South African businessman Jonathan Liebmann focused on an entire quarter renovating old warehouses and industrial buildings in Maboneng. New movie theaters, offices, galleries and upmarket restaurants are helping to attract Johannesburg's prosperous middle class into the once run-down area.

Local urban planner Thireshen Govender was intrigued by the project. "I appreciate the sentiment of stimulating something in downtown Johannesburg," he said. "I appreciate that it's using existing building stock, so it's not like someone is dramatically changing the existing fabric. I like its proximity to other neighborhoods close by," he said.

But he believes that Maboneng will remain an anomaly in what will continue to be a poor district. "I cannot see people outside Maboneng benefiting because they are not part of the same economic loop," he said.

Fikile Zulu Phala sees Maboneng as a blessing. She is a fashion designer who sells dresses that combine western and South African styles. "I love Maboneng," she said. "It's really pleasant to work here and you meet people of all colors. And I feel safe here." She commutes to Maboneng from her home in Soweto.

No place for the poor?

Some people fear the investors will drive poorer, mostly black South Africans out of the city center once again. Gentrification is a global phenomenon, but it is seen by some as having a sharper edge in South Africa because of the country's apartheid past.

"When you have deep economic divisions along racial lines, you're polarizing communities in the most basic of ways," Trangos said. "And if you have this growing privatization that again serves to polarize society even further."

While it may be true that many buildings will have to be refurbished in order to make downtown Johannesburg a safe space for all South Africans, it is also considered important to make sure affordable apartments are available for the poor. Only then would Johannesburg become a city for all South Africans thereby truly confining apartheid to the past.

"It will be interesting to see what the city looks like in ten years time and who will actually be able to be part in it," Trangos said."I hope that there will still be space for the city's current inhabitants. There has to be."

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