Maboneng Precinct: An island in the city

2013-11-05 10:00

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Joburg, where class lines are drawn by inner-city property developers

Joburg is all the things big cities are: busy, big, mad, bad, mixed and moneyed.

If not moneyed then in constant flux of the hustle and grind. When I was back in the city, I stayed in the Vodacom building, or Ponte, as locals know it. Ponte is on the edge of Hillbrow.

Yes, Hillbrow: the suburb of sin, as international news agencies would have you believe. Regularly, it’s just a neighbourhood where families stay.

There’s good food, fresh fruit and everything else you can buy on the street. It’s close to the main arterials of taxi routes and has Joubert Park and the Johannesburg Art Gallery, also at its edge.

In short, people are living here. They are not thugs, they are not thieves (maybe a few are), most are simply trying to get their kids to school and themselves to work and are the people of that great city, Joburg.

Travel to the east side of the city and now we don’t hear of Jeppestown or Troyeville, places that actually are on the map.

Rather, this area has been rebranded the Maboneng Precinct – quite literally, a two-block radius that houses a swish restaurant I’ve never been to; one of those themed boutique hotels and two equally expensive apartment blocks; a pizza place and an independent cinema I have been to; a great Ethiopian restaurant; a smattering of young designer stores; and further down the street, a courtyard space hugged by a few galleries and a large interior space that turns into Cape Town’s Old Biscuit Mill every Sunday, replete with people who salsa on one of the rooftops.

Welcome to “the place of light”.

In a new film, Place of Light, the film makers (remember the co-director from last year’s sensationalist Afrikaner Blood?) have tried but failed to offer an even-handed discussion of the seeming benefits and pitfalls of “urban rejuvenation”.

Vusi Kunene is the owner of The Blackanese, a popular sushi restaurant in the Maboneng Precinct. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo/City Press

The film is really 20 minutes of boosterism for Maboneng Precinct, with two minutes of mild critique.

Falling short of highlighting the real outcomes of such developments, the academics they do interview – even when they touch on the issue of displacement – never speak explicitly of the divisive nature that gentrification brings to long-standing communities.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard not to get excited about change in Joburg’s CBD and to laud the opening of a space in which to stake a claim in the burgeoning new turn this city will take.

But for Dr Ela Manga to say, “For me, Maboneng really represents the future of South Africa. It’s how we all want to live. It’s the way we should be living,” in the context of what I’d just seen in this documentary, made me balk.

Not because I don’t want to live in the centre of town and be a part of everything that Joburg has to offer, but because of the way this intersection between the individual and the city is presented by the Maboneng “regeneration project” (‘gentrification’ is too suitable and honest a word).

In Maboneng, this intersection is a strictly curated experience that takes place along clearly delineated class lines, class lines that keep some in and most others out.

A curated space, this Maboneng: even the ghettoised image of the old-school boxer is included for added street value and is allowed into the space so that the residents feel they’re at the cutting edge.

(I think it’s worth asking whether George Khosi, the owner of the Hillbrow Boxing Club, was also offered residential space inside Maboneng and not just the rooftop for training.)

Maboneng is a space kept closely cordoned off to the everyday passer-by, spearheaded by developer Jonathan Liebman, where even visitors act as the neighbourhood watch.

Says one shop owner, John Mallis, highlighting how he sees the rejuvenation project has “cleaned up” the space: “Criminal elements are not welcome. People in the street if they see someone they don’t like, they’ll come in and tell us: ‘There’s somebody here that we don’t like, won’t you go and see or call the police ...’ The criminals (then) find they’re not comfortable so they leave.”

Yes, and does “someone they don’t like” mean a black person walking down a street where you assume they have no business to be? Usually that’s the case with racial profiling.

I think that’s what you might actually be saying if a black, working class man came walking down Fox Street. Any one of these men could be “someone they don’t like”.

(Jeppe on a Friday, a documentary by Arya Lalloo and Shannon Walsh is actually what you should watch. It chronicles the lives of five men whose livelihoods are tied to Jeppestown and makes clear the impact the spreading gentrification will have in the area.)

Liebman is honest about his intentions. All he sees is a mess and he’s looking to capitalise on that mess. He forgets that most people don’t know how to fix elevators or install proper plumbing in buildings that have been forsaken by their owners.

Attracting suburban Joburg’s trendy, edge-seeking set, Maboneng Precinct serves more as a curated inner-city space than it does as a true reflection of the city. Picture: Lucky Nxumalo/City Press

Government officials who don’t receive rates and taxes don’t offer basic services to buildings in any city in any part of the world, so let’s not frame the people of Joburg’s repurposed buildings as the problem.

Rent-controlled buildings and low-income housing would do more for the regeneration of this area and its people than hip new hang-out spots and art galleries would. Private businesses don’t need to prioritise the poor but they do need to take stock of the frame of reference in which they want to operate.

If “engaging with urban Joburg”, as Liebman puts it, is what Maboneng and similar ventures want to do, then engaging needs to extend into the spaces that already exist with the people who already live there.

Not just have them be the backdrop for the “ground-breaking experience” for those who’ve never “engaged” with the greater Joburg that Russell Grant, the co-founder of The Bioscope, says has changed his whole lifestyle: “My world is completely different. I feel more part of the city, more part of greater Joburg. My whole lifestyle is different.”

We are changed when we move to the city, when we take a chance on our dreams in a place that affords us the space and the opportunity to do so.

Others make a way here too. Their striving deserves as much recognition as ours. So go to the local lunch place, get your haircut inside the makeshift barbershop and buy your milk at the bubie (bodega).

If anything, you will find yourself discovering more of the city there than you will inside the small confines of Maboneng.

» This article first appeared on

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