Change in Jozi


By Sarah Cangley

A day spent exploring and enjoying the inner city of Joburg? Unthinkable, even five years ago, but Joburg is a city that knows the meaning of metamorphosis. From its dusty gold rush beginnings, it enjoyed ‘glory days’, when its bustling streets were full of magnificent stone buildings, then fell into desolation in the 1990s. The city is re-emerging as a cosmopolitan, African city, full of life, art, thriving businesses, and astonishing vistas from inner city loft apartments. Jozi is cleaning up its act and becoming a vibrant, exciting place again.

Driving down Jan Smuts Ave into Braamfontein on a beautiful summer’s day, the first sight that greets me is Clive van den Berg’s ‘Eland Sculpture’, a public artwork erected by the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) and the Braamfontein Improvement District. The city is full of such artworks, from William Kentridge’s ‘Firewalker’ over the Queen Elizabeth Bridge to the Johannesburg Art City project, the world’s biggest outdoor art exhibition, which will appear on 19 giant billboards around the city for one year. Looking up at Mary Sibande’s ‘Long Live the Dead Queen’, I could be in a huge art gallery.

The latter was the work of Artists at Work (AAW). The AAW and fellow public art management company, Trinity Session, have established cutting-edge, temporary installations, using new media. Lesley Perkis of AAW says they have sanctioned performance art in places such as Newtown, and are working on “freedom of expression” topical artworks. All of this positions Joburg as a “real art city”—not the dirty, crime-ridden hellhole of popular perception.  

I am on my way to Turbine Hall, a shining example of what a once-vagrant-occupied broken shell can become with the right investors and passion. It’s an eco-friendly office space with venue and conferencing facilities. The structure has kept the original steel ribs and old coal hoppers, the turbine hall itself, and the southern boiler room, a building where the northern boiler room once housed AngloGold Ashanti’s headquarters.

I meet Glynis Hyslop, CEO of Turbine Hall, in the beautifully-lit downstairs bar. The venue has seen parties from the World Cup to SA Fashion Week and the AngloGold Ashanti Collections. There is local artwork on the walls, handpicked by Glynis. “You have to know what to take away and what to leave behind,” she confides. “You can have exposed beams and original concrete, but I include expensive and luxurious touches like the bar front.”  

Something typical of the inner city regeneration is the clean, strong, refurbished lines that reflect original industrial roots. Joburg is a city that has enormous soul, without pretensions to prettiness. Another is the way in which history is being re-interpreted. “The past should enrich our experience of how the city developed,” says Eric Itzkin of the City of Joburg’s heritage centre.

My stomach growls so I head for brekky at Arts on Main. Driving down Market Street, I encounter the bipolar nature of the city. From the chilled, beautifully-designed space of darkness and light at Turbine Hall, I hurtle into a honking hell of taxis, jaywalking pedestrians, no street names, indifferent Metro cops, litter, and chaos.

A coffee at popular spot Canteen, with its Provençal style olive trees, revives me. Ponytailed property developer Jonathan Liebman, who owns the Maboneng Precinct, including the Joburg art hotel, the 12 Decades, and The Bioscope at Main Street Life, meets me on the roof, where we share the space with a vintage car.

Jonathan is brimming over with his venture, Market on Main, a high-end food market using suppliers from the area, such as the Ethiopian centre. He plans ‘Revolution House’, for the skateboarding, arts and music business; ‘Place of Light’, penthouse floors in the French industrial style; the ‘Artisans’ Residence’, with a collaboration between artists and artisans, some of whom are being educated in the area; and a museum of African design.

Jonathan wants alternative living, working and shopping experiences for Joburgers. The rooms at the hotel are designed by 12 creative designers to cover the 12 decades of Joburg history, each one different in its treatment.
What of the Corporate world? Veteran property developer Gerald Olitski’s philosophy is: “The public sector is there to facilitate and the private sector is there to implement.” We walk through the paved areas of Fox Street and Gandhi Square, where he has acquired a 45-year lease from the City of Joburg, down through Main Street (restored by the mining houses) to the Magistrate’s Court. All Gerald’s office spaces are taken and the buildings, some art deco, are beautifully restored with sophisticated African decor.

There is a busy sense of purpose in the square, leading into tables and chairs off the street, where office workers pull into busy fast food chains and coffee shops. It’s calm, clean and quiet, and I don’t have to hang on to my handbag. This is how an inner city should be, with a flow of design that is human friendly, and green spaces to walk in.

Gerald spots smoke coming out of the boarded-up Old barracks, under the aegis of the Department of Public Works and gets on the phone. “I never have to call in the Red Ants; I negotiate with squatters. If they don’t want to move, rather than pay the legal fees to get rid of them, I offer them the money. And they move on.” 

It’s not all plain sailing. “There was one building that was an inch thick in human excrement when I bought it. I threw away my shoes!”
How did my city degenerate to such a point? Steven Sach of the City of Joburg’s Arts, Culture and Heritage division, says: “The city was bankrupt post-1994 and needed to be unified with a single mayor, which allowed a cross-subsidised rates base between rich and poor neighbourhoods. There was also a complete refusal to implement bylaws perceived as part of a heinous past.”

Five years ago the Mayor of Johannesburg Amos Masondo passed the Inner City Charter and sat with business communities and organisations to develop a ‘war plan’ urgently. The result was that the JDA was set up to act on behalf of the city and to engage in infrastructural development.
Steven’s department had a policy called ‘The One Percent for Public Art’ approved, which meant that a percentage of whatever was spent by government or business on infrastructural projects went towards public art. This has extended all the way into Hillbrow and Yeoville.

It’s off to Braamfontein, where I enjoy homemade lemonade and a prego roll at coffee shop POST with entrepreneur Adam Levy, who has invested in the street.

There are two galleries at 70 Juta Street, the Brodie Stevenson and The Co-op, plus brightly-coloured niche-market shops and offices. Designer David Tlale rents a shop along the strip, as does Afronova and a shop with designer teddy bears.

Artists Wayne Barker and Johannes Phokela are setting up a studio in the neighbourhood, and the French Institute is moving in. Adam plans an indoor food market. Across the road is the Milner Hotel, the second-oldest operating bar in Jozi. All original floors, pressed ceilings and staircases will remain intact, and Adam intends to turn the hotel into office spaces.

Perhaps the greatest abnormality that developed in the inner city was the inability to walk around, to enjoy life, to feel safe in an attractive environment, and to enjoy the same benefits at night. I feel inspired by the people I have met and their passion in bringing people out onto the streets.

“Joburg needs to go out at night, to have the constant buzz that other cities have, to take back the streets. You have to engage with the street, not shut it off,” says Adam.

Adam’s loft penthouse in the iconic 155 Juta Street apartment block has the best view in town. The loft is glassed and flooded with light and colour. Running the length of the apartment on one side is a sensational view of the Nelson Mandela Bridge, the railway and skyline of Joburg, and its arterial highways pulsating with traffic.

Joburg’s revival is due to its finest asset—its entrepreneurial people. “The World Cup was our finest hour—it allowed the world to see our city’s dynamic people and its pulse!” concludes Adam.