Wild West gets free rein

2012-04-21 15:56

Democracy in Roodepoort is alive and well and has

been privatised. In just over a decade, a giant cluster city has been

born on the Witwatersrand’s western frontier. It is home to a brand-new

population: a racially mixed, self-governing, DIY dreaming middle class

with a common culture called “mind your own business”. A special report

by Nicki Güles

Freedom happened while ­no one was watching.

The ­estimated 40 000 people who inhabit what once was Roodepoort have made their homes in what was peri-urban backwater of plots, plant nurseries and cabbage farms.

These townhouse complexes, which from the ridge to the south appear like a giant jigsaw puzzle, did not exist 12 years ago.

And what used to be the domain of the white, predominantly Afrikaans, working classes, is now home to all.

Without fuss or fanfare, this vast swathe of the West Rand has been settled by ­singletons and families of all races who, flexing their new middle-class muscle, have carved out their own place in the West Rand sun.

The area, now called Region C by the City of Johannesburg, is jokingly known as the Wild West by many others.

On the surface it appears peaceful, even boring. But armed private security guards hunt for thieves and robbers in thigh-high grass, left to grow by an increasingly cash-strapped city on vacant plots scattered between face-brick complexes.

Pistol­-packing plot owners, who live just beyond the urban development zone where complexes may not encroach, have organised themselves into neighbourhood watches. The nearest police station is 20km away.

“Middle classing”, as it has been dubbed by The Public Affairs Research Institute (Pari), has become an occupation with ­little interference – many say neglect – from the city.

Children attend private schools. The sick are treated at private clinics and ­hospitals.

And white-collar workers travel in private cars on gridlocked roads, past a plethora of Pentecostal churches and warehouse-like shopping centres packed with DIY stores and decor chains.

But although it may be a land of self­sufficiency and tense security, like the Wild West it is also a land of opportunity.
Charl Fitzgerald, to borrow a phrase from Western parlance, struck it rich.
Responsible for many of the complexes in the area, Fitzgerald began his property development company, Genesis Projects, in 1994 – right there in his home town.

From his offices on the second floor of The Ridge shopping centre in Honeydew Ridge he can see much of his company’s handiwork; he can also see his own home, on a nearby plot, in the distance.

He may have made a lot of money, but that was no reason to move. He attends the Moseik Pentecostal church in nearby Fairland, and his children go to a local Afrikaans high school.

“There was a big need back then for what we called a lock-up-and-go lifestyle. ­People needed smaller gardens and smaller units, not as expensive to build as a big house.”

The product that appealed to the elderly, their initial target market, soon appealed to younger buyers in search of starter homes, as well as newly divorced mothers.

“Initially it was predominantly white people who bought. Now and again you would find a coloured or maybe an Indian person and a black person.” But, says ­Fitzgerald, “all that has changed”.

Now, 60% of those who buy Genesis Projects units are black, many from Soweto, Kagiso and Munsieville.

Says Fitzgerald’s managing director, Brian Scannell: “The majority are aged ­between 25 and 40 – the Facebook age. We sell more than 95% of our properties off our website. Sometimes we only meet the customer when he or she comes to choose the finishes.”

Developers like Fitzgerald offer the ­burgeoning middle classes value for money and secure, low-maintenance homes. Driving along the area’s main artery, ­Hendrik Potgieter Road, one sees developments advertised on giant billboards; a three-bedroom unit in one sells for R550 000.

Pari’s research report, Middle Classing in Roodepoort, says cluster developments in Region C are important as they are “places where people are renegotiating their relationship to race” and to class.

They are also places where people leave their freedom at the gate and willingly submit to complex rules. In these spaces, one may not slaughter an animal to present a new home to the ancestors, make a noise after 10pm or park a car that leaks oil on pristine brick paving.

A search for a place to “middle class” may take prospective residents to the Milky Way, a Fitzgerald super complex of almost 1 000 units of separate sectional ­title developments with exotic names like Florin and Himalia.

Its streets – built by Genesis Projects, not the city, and ­ultimately paid for by the buyers – have ­aspirational names like Lubbe Rouge, Sjampanje Street and Merlot Close. Better than nearby Krediet Avenue and Oulap Street.

Fitzgerald soon became a victim of his own success.

“Initially the land was cheap, because there was nothing here, there was no interest from developers. Market value wasn’t high because the demand was very low, so we got it at quite a good price,” he says.

“But within a year the prices were ­double, in another year it was triple, ­quadruple – it just went crazy.”

As land prices escalated, so did building costs, but so too did demand.

It is ironic that many residents who live cheek by jowl in what appear to be identical face-brick boxes chose the area for what Delphinus resident Marie Singh calls its “nature” and “breathing room”, which the Highveld bush and imposing ridge with its two waterfalls appear to provide.

In this neighbourhood where people live so close together, the culture is not one of chats over garden walls, but rather one of “mind your own business”, as Weltevreden Park townhouse resident Daniel Mokautu puts it.

An unwillingness to become involved in anything outside of their own units ­extends to the political sphere. Municipal councillor Jaco Engelbrecht, of the Democratic Alliance, won Ward 97 in the 2011 local government election by an 81% landslide. Yet he is struggling to assemble a ward committee of 10 people.

“It’s an awesome ward as far as support for the DA is concerned, but it’s an incredibly bad ward as far as participation is concerned. They don’t want to leave their DStv and their couches and get involved,” he says.

He now “totally understands” why the ANC wins elections.

“I drove past the Strubens Valley library shortly after the elections and there were 4x4s, BMWs, expensive German cars . . . It was so full that people were parking in the petrol station across the road.

“And it was an ANC branch meeting. In Ward 97, a DA stronghold. People came out of their expensive houses to come and attend a branch meeting . . . Compare that with a DA branch meeting where there will be five cars in the parking area – if that many.”

Yet, for all his ward’s middle-class ­apathy, Engelbrecht feels like a sheriff from the Wild West.

The area has been allowed to be grown by private developers with little town ­planning and scant provision by the city for adequate roads, electricity and sewage infrastructure – despite the contributions of a significantly increased ratepayer base.
The city admits this.

Peter Ahmad of the department of ­development planning and urban management, who himself bought a townhouse in Weltevreden Park as a first-time home buyer, says this is because of a “hangover effect”. Before 2000 there were several transitional local councils all “pulling in different directions” before the City of Joburg took the reigns.

The result is traffic mayhem, where ­residents can take an hour to drive to work five kilometres away, frequent electricity outages, and a dysfunctional sewerage network.

Fitzgerald says the city simply wasn’t paying attention to the phenomenal growth taking place on its western edge.

“It would have been a very simple exercise for the council to have noticed that this area is one of the biggest developmental nodes in South Africa,” Fitzgerald says.

The harsh reality is that Region C is not a pr

iority for the city which, says Ahmad, is concentrating on development in more “deserving” areas such as Ivory Park, ­Alexandra and Diepsloot in the north, and Soweto and Orange Farm in the south.

Perhaps the fact that street names ­honouring apartheid leaders such as JG Strijdom and John Vorster have been allowed to remain 18 years after freedom is an indication of how little the city concerns itself with Region C.

Since democracy, normalisation of ordinary life for a diverse slice of South Africans has happened here – right under the noses of the city fathers whose gaze was turned elsewhere.

But it is a freedom that is being paid for by those who continue to flock there, to middle class in its warehouse malls, ­Pentecostal churches and little face-brick boxes on the hillside. 

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