Inner-city slickers

2015-03-11 14:00

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When Given Sithole looks out of the window of his upmarket inner-city flat he sees not only a spectacular view but also money: properties to be bought and sold, commission to be made, deals to be done.

His neighbour Bangi Msikinya sees something different: convenience and excitement, living, shopping and playing in the most vibrant, diverse, “happening” part of Johannesburg.

Neither Sithole nor Msikinya started out in Joburg’s inner city.

Sithole, who is formal in a business shirt and well-pressed trousers, hails from Zimbabwe, where he lived until the “situation” forced him to leave.

Msikinya, who is young and hip, in artfully distressed jeans and designer sneakers, comes from a township outside Bloemfontein.

They each occupy bachelor flats in The Franklin, a residential building at the western end of Johannesburg’s CBD, and they both sing praises to the wonders of inner-city life.

When Sithole left Zimbabwe in 2006, he spent two years with his uncle in Daveyton on the East Rand. But he soon realised the advantages of inner-city living for an entrepreneur – who he describes as “someone who starts with nothing and makes something”.

Although he had come to South Africa with the intention of studying, he came across “a guy doing finance in property” who was prepared to mentor him. He embarked on a career buying and selling buildings instead.

Sithole next moved into a small room in the Benoni CBD in an old office block that had been converted to housing.

The advantages included a 24-hour Spar and easy parking for his car, “because even today it’s not that populated and the place isn’t congested”. The downside was an absence of entertainment: “There wasn’t much nightlife compared with Joburg. There weren’t many clubs. I spent most nights watching soccer with a few guys and having drinks.”

Sithole made the big move to Johannesburg in 2009 and moved into a bachelor flat in The Franklin on the 14th floor with his South African-born wife.

According to Sithole, “opportunities soon started coming” for brokers like him, who sold on behalf of landlords and earned commission. His first deal in Johannesburg’s inner city was an 18-storey building at the corner of Fox and Maclaren streets.

Sithole loves city living and how easy it is to get around. Even though he has a car, he makes regular use of public transport – especially the Gautrain to get him to meetings in Rosebank and Sandton.

But Sithole’s preferred mode of transport is by foot: “I like walking,” he says, “because that’s how I learn about buildings in the CBD. I know who owns the buildings, if they’re sold or not, and even how much they were sold for.”

Living in the city provides him with easy access to buyers and sellers.

He also likes the shops. “Edgars, Truworths, Woolworths – the big national tenants who are open on weekends?…?When I came to live in town, the only mall we had was the Carlton, which was quite claustrophobic. Now there is Newtown Junction, which is convenient and quite open.”

Sithole feels “completely safe” in his flat. He needs an access card to get to his own floor – and even when he visits someone living in his building on another floor, he needs to pass the receptionist on the ground floor, who will phone upstairs to make sure Sithole is expected.

Compared with Sithole, Msikinya is something of a newcomer to inner-city living.

He arrived in Joburg in April last year to manage and promote the well-known music group Mi Casa, famous for “House, fusion, jazz and R&B”.

When he arrived in the city, he was already primed for urban life.

He had a good private school education, a BCom in marketing from the University of the Free State and had done promotions in Bloemfontein for big companies such as SAB.

He had also made a name for himself as a DJ on campus and community radio.

Msikinya had started out in the township and then moved into a cottage in the northern suburbs of Bloemfontein to be near the varsity campus.

Somewhat surprisingly for someone who had been making his living in the taverns of the township, Msikinya “liked the quietness and seclusion” of suburbia.

“I was quite famous in Bloem. I didn’t want to be surrounded by people all the time. I needed peace and quiet.”

When Msikinya made the move to Joburg, he spent his first two months in Lyndhurst, a suburban area northeast of the inner city.

He admits it was a bad idea to live so far out, “always having to drive for long, stuck in traffic?…?a first-time Joburger’s mistake”.

Within weeks, he was looking for another place. A friend told him about flats in The Franklin, and Msikinya grabbed the chance. For someone at the cutting edge of popular culture who hangs out with “celebrities – musicians, journalists, TV producers?…?” the location couldn’t have been better: “I need to be part of the people?…?I need to know about things first?…?I needed to be in the middle of everything.

“Living in the CBD is far more convenient than anywhere else,” adds Msikinya. He feels sorry for his friends who live in far-flung places such as Fourways: “It’s hell for them in peak hour, whereas I never complain about traffic.” He also loves the “fabulous shopping”. The only issue is the steep rent – a whopping R7?000 a month. “There are places in Midrand that are much cheaper than town, but then you have to factor in the travelling expenses.”

Msikinya has a car, but it’s a secondary means of transport.

He sometimes uses it at night, when the Gautrain has stopped. Days can go by without him having to use his car.

“At night in Joburg, you can’t drive more than a kilometre without being stopped by the cops. In Bloem, they do their jobs. But in Joburg you have to pay them off.”

Msikinya’s apartment, which he describes as “pretty classy”, offers him a sense of security within the building.

“I completely have no worries about safety.” But he particularly loves the nightlife. Although he claims he and his girlfriend are “not big party people”, he regularly goes to Maboneng, a short hop away on the eastern side of the city, to eat and listen to music. Mainly, he invites friends over.

Msikinya and Sithole are part of a growing trend in South African cities, turning areas once dominated by nine-to-five businesses into vibrant mixed-use 24/7 neighbourhoods.

In the process, they are helping to regenerate previously declining parts of the city.

Today, residential vacancies in the inner city have reached historic lows and are creating a new surge of investor interest. It’s only a question of time before other people wake up to the wonders of inner-city living. Msikinya could well be faced with even more expensive rent in the future. But Sithole plans to close more deals.

»Postscript: In spite of his enthusiasm for city living, Sithole has recently moved to the suburbs.

This was because the rent in the inner city was becoming too expensive and the cost of parking more exorbitant than ever.

In November 2014, he bought a repossessed house in Midrand. According to Sithole, “part of the decision was taken by my wife. She’s much happier here.”

But Sithole “misses the inner city absolutely – the shops, the restaurants, the vibrancy, everything”.

His only regret about the six years he spent in the inner city was all the money he spent on rent: “By now I would have paid off my house.”

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