Joburg reinvents itself as Africa's hip hotspot

2014-05-05 10:36

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Twenty years after the end of apartheid, Johannesburg is changing its image from an ugly and crime-ridden city into one of Africa's most dynamic, exciting and innovative places to be.

In the long-abandoned Maboneng neighbourhood of Johannesburg, old industrial buildings now mingle with trendy cafes and fashion shops.

An old brick building with a garden has been converted into an arts centre.

More than 50 businesses have sprung up, including a gym and a night club.

A residential building with 190 flats has risen on a street dotted with restaurants and teeming with life. "Six years ago, hardly anybody was living in 10 derelict buildings that have now been renovated," says Hayleigh Evans from the Maboneng Regeneration Project.

About 1 500 new people have moved to the neighbourhood.

"The project has brought life back to the streets," said Kassahun Gebrehana, a 33-year-old Ethiopian who runs a restaurant in Maboneng.

Maboneng is an example of the rebirth of the inner city of Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city with 4.4 million residents, affectionately known as Jo'burg or Jozi.

Twenty years after the end of apartheid, Johannesburg is changing its image from an ugly and crime-ridden city into one of Africa's most dynamic, exciting and innovative places to be.

Johannesburg emerged from a 1880s gold rush which drew European fortune-seekers and African and Asian mineworkers.

"It remains a socially mobile, fast-paced and opportunistic city, welcoming different kinds of people," said Sharon Lewis, planning executive manager at the municipal Johannesburg Development Agency.

The scenic Cape Town, with its expensive real estate market fuelled by foreign investors, "is for the wealthy. Jo'burg is for everyone," said Shaakir, a 32-year-old shop assistant.

Projects to revive the inner city started already before the 2010 football World Cup, which improved Johannesburg's infrastructure and boosted tourism.

The industries that had operated in Maboneng left in the 1980s, joining a general capital flight from the inner city as whites-only areas were opened to blacks whose inability to find jobs fuelled crime.

Thousands of affluent whites relocated in the 1980s and 90s to suburbs such as Sandton, now Johannesburg's financial centre, filled with shimmering high-rise buildings and gigantic shopping malls.

After decades of decay, the inner city - an area with 220,000 residents and 800,000 commuters passing through daily - is now reinventing itself.

The municipal authorities poured nearly 2 billion rand (180 million dollars) between 2007 and 2012 into repairing pavements, upgrading outdoor areas and fostering culture and sports, Lewis told dpa.

A rapid-transit bus system now serves the downtown area, while the high-speed Gautrain links the inner city with the administrative capital Pretoria and other business districts.

So-called Freedom Corridors will further improve transport links in an attempt to break the divisive legacy of apartheid and to reunite the city.

Intensive policing and the installation of hundreds of security cameras have reduced crime.

In Hillbrow, one of the most feared inner city neighbourhoods, the number of cases of serious crime dropped from 23,000 in 2003 to 12,500 in 2011, according to police.

The biggest financial contribution has come from private investors encouraged by tax incentives.

Maboneng is the brainchild of businessman Jonathan Liebmann, who restored buildings and pavements with initial financing from a private equity funder.

Critics say the regeneration scheme plays into the hands of big business, while thousands of squatters have been evicted from derelict buildings earmarked for restoration.

"Parts of the inner city are being 'revived', but this revival is being conducted at the expense of the poor and marginalized," attorneys Zeenat Sujee and Keamogetswe Thobakgale wrote.

The revival of the inner city has drawn more investment into the city that was already South Africa's economic powerhouse.

Johannesburg has Africa's biggest stock exchange and generates about 17 per cent of the gross domestic product of Africa's strongest economy.

A 2012 study commissioned by the stock exchange said South Africa's black majority owns less than 10 per cent of the Johannesburg stock market, showing that the economy remains largely in white hands.


Johannesburg remains a city marked by inequality, with light years separating the luxury villas of the northern suburbs from slum dwellings in the outskirts.

Frustration erupted in 2008 race riots against immigrants from other African countries, who were seen as upping the crime rate and competing for jobs.

Despite the occasional tensions, Johannesburg takes pride in its diversity, with a neighbourhood like Maboneng bristling with people of different skin colours and foreigners from Africa and Western countries.

"Maboneng does not discriminate on the basis of age, race or class. It attracts everyone," said Cornel Visser, 26, who runs a bar in the neighbourhood.

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Read more on:    johannesburg  |  good news  |  africa  |  travel

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