A decade of address choices

2004-04-22 15:59
Johannesburg - Ten years after the end of apartheid, distinctions between the formerly white, black and coloured areas have blurred, with people revelling in the new-found freedom of living where they want - if they can afford it.

For many it is not just a simple change of address.

Said Suliman, for example, a doctor of Indian origin, now lives near former president Nelson Mandela in a leafy Johannesburg area reserved for whites during the racist era.

Speaking at his sprawling home in Houghton, lined with mansions on half-hectare plots where swimming pools and tennis courts are de rigueur, Suliman said he felt an "exhilarating experience of liberation" when he moved to his new home eight years ago.

"For the first time we are in an area where we choose to live, not where we are forced to live," he said.

"It makes us feel like real South Africans, free to buy property anywhere, free to move anywhere, free to go to any restaurant, theatre, cinema or hotel."

The transition to democracy after decades of white minority racist rule which ended in 1994 was preceded by the lifting of the infamous Group Areas Act of 1948 which pretty much reserved residential areas inside the cities for whites and banished blacks to townships and homelands.

In Johannesburg, for example, blacks were shunted out to ghettos like Soweto on the fringes of the city. A night curfew prevented them from being on the streets of "white" areas.

Indians were forced to leave their traditional quarter of Vrededorp (Peace Town) abutting Johannesburg once-posh city centre to areas like Lenasia about 45km away.

Changes all over SA

Similar changes have taken place elsewhere like in the eastern port city of Durban, where a former whites-only area on the beachfront is now open to all.

In Cape Town, blacks and coloureds who were driven out of a sprawling mixed-race suburb, recently had keys to new homes in the area given to them by Mandela.

John Ngobeni, a black gardener at a posh Johannesburg hotel, earlier had trouble commuting to work but now lives in a flat in Killarney, a white, Jewish-dominated area inside the city where "people of colour" have moved in.

"It's great. I cycle to work now," he said.

Some areas in Johannesburg have gone to seed however, like the central district of Hillbrow where whites started moving out when blacks and many illegal African immigrants started moving in. It has become synonymous with crime, muggings and drug dealing.

And Johannesburg's upmarket northern suburbs are still predominantly white. Many of the blacks and coloureds seen here are domestic staff, street vendors or beggars.

Real change light years away

Lone Poulsen, professor at the School of Architecture and Planning at Johannesburg's Witswatersrand University, said a real change in the demographic pattern of cities was light years away.

"The racial divide has now given way to an economic divide," she said, adding that the basic apartheid framework of blacks and coloureds living in townships on the outskirts of cities would survive for a long time "as 80% of our population is poor and can't afford to live anywhere else."

"In poor and more run-down areas there is more racial mixing and working class whites, blacks and coloureds are increasingly living in the same areas," she said.

Yet, there is hope.

Johannesburg's city centre - once measured with the same yardstick as grimy Hillbrow - has had closed-circuit television cameras fitted to curb crime and is now the subject of various urban renewal projects.

Its skyscraper rooftops are being turned into apartment lofts which increasingly attract the attention of young and well-to-do buyers - both black and white.

Another emblem of the change is Sophiatown, in the west of Johannesburg, which managed to remain mixed-race despite the Group Areas Act.

The apartheid government bulldozed the area in the early 1960s and renamed it Triomf (Triumph) and turned it into a white working-class area.

Today, Triomf is once again Sophiatown and gloriously multi-racial.

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