Johannesburg: where criminals don’t discriminate, property developers do

Johannesburg is all those things big cities are: Busy, big, mad, bad, mixed and moneyed. If not moneyed then on the constant overhaul and remix of the hustle and grind. When I was back I stayed in the Vodacom building, or Ponte as locals know it. Ponte Tower is at the edge of Hillbrow. Yes, Hillbrow: suburb of sin as international news agencies would have you believe. Regularly, it’s just a neighborhood 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 (free entry) at its edge. In short, people are living here. They are not thugs, they are not thieves (okay maybe a few), most are simply trying to get their kids to school and themselves to work and are the people of that great city, Johannesburg.

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 (and I speak from experience) 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 Ethio 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 filmmakers (remember the co-director from last year’s sensationalist “Afrikaner Blood” film) have tried but failed to offer an even-handed discussion of the seeming benefits and pitfalls of ‘urban rejuvenation’. The film is really 20 minutes of boosterism of Maboneng, with 2 minutes of mild critique. Falling short to highlight 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 longstanding communities:

Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard not to get excited about change in Johannesburg’s CBD, to laud the opening up of a space in which to stake a claim in the burgeoning new turn this city will take. But for Dr. Ella 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 ghettoized 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 was also offered residential space inside Maboneng and not just the rooftop for training? A space kept closely cordoned off to the everyday passerby, curated and spearheaded by developer Jonathan Liebman, where even visitors to Maboneng act as the neighborhood watch.

Says one shop owner, John Mallis, highlighting how he sees the rejuvenation project has ‘cleaned up’ (cleaned out more like it) 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 or do something. The criminals find they’re not comfortable so they leave.

Yes, and by ‘someone they don’t like’ does that 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. Yes. I think that’s what you might actually be saying if a black man of working class means came walking down Fox Street. Anyone of these men could be that man who you deem: “someone they don’t like.”

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

Jonathan Liebman is honest about his intentions. All he sees is a mess and he’s looking to capitalize 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 property owners. 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 Johannesburg’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 business doesn’t need to prioritize the poor but it does need to take stock of the frame of reference in which it wants to operate. If “engaging with urban Johannesburg” as Jonathan puts it is what Maboneng and similar ventures want to do, then engaging needs to extend into the spaces that already do exist with the people who already live in this space. Not just have them be the backdrop for the ‘groundbreaking experience’ for those who’ve never engaged with “the greater Johannesburg” (whatever that means) Russell Grant says has changed his whole lifestyle: “My world is completely different. I feel more part of the city, more part of greater Johannesburg. My whole lifestyle if different.”

Yes, granted. 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. But let’s not forget we don’t live in a bubble. It’s not just our dreams that exist inside that primal, transitioning space of the city. 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.



  1. Inner city development always means gentrification. Property developers only invest in the inner city because it is cheap, with tax incentives, etc. and hence worthwhile to invest there, to refurbish buildings, etc. All the noise about doing good etc is just that: noise. If no money were to be made, nobody would do it. Unless government chips in with the intention to create livable neighbourhoods for poor people, the well-to-do will push out the rest. I find the Sunday spectacle of suburbanites traveling to the safe and reclaimed Maboneng zone somehow worrisome: it is branded as improving things in mzansi, but it primarlly improves life for us who have already much.

  2. There seems to be a massive downplay also on the extent of removals in the name of development. The idea that recognition is simply the visiting a “local lunch place” or going to the barber is a simplistic account of what it means to recognise inner city life. Its about being apart of a network of city life which also include various other activities like sharing a room with loads of other people, or working on the side of the road selling your goods, or using the public transport. but most importantly the idea of recognising the so called ‘others’ (a problematic name to describe anybody) is in direct contradiction to the cities plans in creating a ‘world class’ city and (judging from the actions of the municipality) there is no room for those informal traders whose lives are more connected to the city than the gentrified areas (i.e. Maboneng, bank city, etc) whose sheer number of security personal show a need to ‘keep the city out’

    1. @ Heather: We’ve removed your photo. Our bad; we should have seen that copyright note. Our apologies.

  3. Also, I spend a lot of time in Maboneng and have been training with George Khosi for two years, both in Maboneng and at his gym in Hillbrow. I disagree with the way George is characterized in this article and the way Maboneng is characterized as a whole.

    The more time I spend in Maboneng, the more I see efforts to integrate the new development projects with the surrounding community. I have never seen an unsavory person being “removed” from Maboneng — as far as I can tell the entire world comes and goes from the area at will. (And I’ve spent a lot of time sitting around people-watching there.) I’ve also chatted quite a bit with people who live and work in Jeppestown (I shot a whole photo exhibition on the area — the photo you’ve used here is one of the pics from my exhibition) and everyone I’ve ever talked to in Jeppestown either doesn’t seem to care about Maboneng at all, or expresses approval of the rejuvenation that’s happening in the area.

    If you were to ask George Khosi what he thinks about the development in Maboneng (which you obviously did not), I think he would tell you that he’s very happy with the opportunity he’s received to market his services there. My friends and I discovered George because he was at Maboneng, and we have now all become regular customers at his Hillbrow gym, which we like better than the Maboneng rooftop. I guess all I’m trying to say is the situation is not as simple or one-sided as the way you’ve presented it here.

  4. I was subjected to an attempted car hi-jacking at gunpoint on the infamous corner of Joe Slovo and Abel roads, Berea, this year. Last year, I was held up at gunpoint on Bree Street. Last Sunday a friend’s car was hi-jacked on Jacoba Street in Troyeville. And as we all know, Jeppestown precinct has a high murder rate. I have been to Maboneng and welcome the fact that it is safer – who wouldn’t? The Maboneng walking and bike tours take visitors around the area and local businesses are promoted. The problem is not with Maboneng but with city structures that have enabled shocking degeneration in the area. Have you seen the trash strewn on the highway onramp at the Mai Mai market? Have you seen the filthy, squalid, derelict buildings in which people are squatting on Commissioner street? Maboneng has not compromised the livelihoods of locals by any means. And it has brought increased security and civic order. If the City of JHB’s officials can’t do that, at least Maboneng has. This article should be asking why heritage buildings in the area are being allowed to deteriorate in slum zones. And why these areas are more dirty, underesourced and unsafe than they were ten years ago. Ask anyone who lives there whether they’d like Maboneng’s well-lit, clean and safe streets to go and you have your answer.

  5. Investing in the city is a gamble that developers took and they wish to see a return. If you are against Gentrification or the re-development of an area then don’t do anything that may increase the value of your home, don’t complain about your noisy neighbour and don’t pick up or clean anything in or around your home. As for the the security personnel, they’re a feature inherent to South Africa, if you do wish to see them in the city, then remove them from your boom gates, from your malls,from your businesses premises and cancel your ADT. I bet the majority of the people commenting on this are mainly middle and upper class and would die if a vendor set up his stand on their pavement and drove through the CBD saying “oh looks its so disgusting” no wonder all the businesses moved to Sandton, well now that there is development, stop complaining. If you feel so sorry for those evicted from a building they where many of them never even held a lease, why don’t you let them live in your homes or pay the increased rent the manager was hoping to earn once he developed the building and attracted a new class of citizen? To go with that, you must make sure that never again in your life do you make a profit on anything, not even a R1 because that will make you no better than those developers.

  6. A “journalist” who steals photos and cant distinguish the difference between two separate property developers. ‘Jonathan “JJ” Liebman’.

    Please do proper research before doing a half assed job.

  7. This is quite a poorly researched article. It seems you haven’t even spent time in Maboneng or with the developers in the area. You probably didn’t even speak to Bheki and the other guys who do the Main Street Walks (, which in itself is a success story from the existing community. They can actually tell you about real stories where the development has done many positive things for the existing community. Small examples are giving children in the area free lessons to learn guitar and also learn how to skate on the half pipes in the streets.

    You also failed to mention the fact that all the buildings that were bought in Maboneng were previously industrial buildings, people have never been kicked out or pushed away. I like 2summers spend a lot of time in Maboneng (I also find it ironic that you used Heather’s image without her permission, considering the tone of your article.) and often walk around the area to take photos and speak to people who own businesses in the surrounding areas (many who were there before) and they often welcome the chatter and love seeing the regeneration happening in the city.

    So before you give a false or skewed image of an amazing precinct, you should really give a proper account of what you’re writing about and not just a one sided personal opinion.

  8. Real journalists don’t bring their own agendas and preconceptions to their stories. Clearly Antoinette has got her own point to prove, or simply wants to regurgitate what numerous other writers have already done more eloquently but just as incorrectly. Basic factual errors like confusing Jonathan Liebmann (the developer) with JJ de Castro Maia (from the film, and who no longer works in the area) and calling Dr Manga Elga (her name is Ella, and she also doesn’t live in the area anymore) are indicative of an inexperienced, unprofessional journalist who would rather stand on her soap box than do any proper research. And who on earth calls Ponte ‘the Vodacom building’? No one! This story belongs on Mahala or countless other rubbish adolescent opinion blogs, not this one. Race has got nothing to do with any of this, most of the ‘middle class’ inhabitants of the area are black. Anyone is welcome to walk down Fox Street. No one is getting ‘cleaned out’ – none of these buildings were ever residential, they were either abandoned or used for small factory spaces or panelbeaters, in any case underutilised and largely empty. No one is trying to hide that this is gentrification, but gentrification is not always a bad thing (except for the ignorant with a chip on their shoulder). If you don’t like what the area stands for and what its developers are doing, just don’t come! Stay in the suburbs – we won’t feel the need to judge you!

  9. I suggest those commentators who throw their indignation at Antoinette pour some water into their wine. Or is their whine no more than the outrage of the apparent do-gooder who is upset that not everyone jumps up and down out of joy about the benefits that some apparent trickle down is to deliver to the poor of Johannesburg? Yes, of course it is nice when a run-down neighbourhood can be visited by middle class people again; but we should not think that does not come at a social cost for those who now no longer fit into this neighbourhood. Or are we hearing that Maboneng is somehow a non-racial, class neutral oasis? Braamfontein, over the past 12 years since I know the area, has changed so much for the better: good coffee and services abound where previously only a run-down grocery store sold expired cans of food. Some of you say that poor people benefit and I ask you: well, is it more than trickle down? Is this really a development that tries to integrate services, living space and pleasure for the well-heeled with those who struggle to get some of it? Or is it pushing the lesser into other areas? In the 1980s and 1990s, mayor Giuliani of New York had ‘cleaned up’ the parks and streets of lower Manhattan and people could again go there and enjoy the city. What had this done to poverty and marginalization than just push it to another place ?

    1. I lived in Yeoville, 2 blocks from Ponte and 1.5 km from Maboneng, until September this year. I’ve played in Hillbrow, Yeoville, etc for the past four years, and for five years before that in the CBD, so I have some chops.

      Firstly, with all the yammering about the effects of gentrification on the people who live in the area, the south-east end of town is not, and has not ever been, a residential area. Maboneng was formerly light industrial space, and so are all the surrounding blocks. No poor residents were harmed in the making of this (admittedly ersatz, self-conscious) space.

      Secondly, there are plenty of worthy causes and groups that are supporting the poor in the greater JNB CBD area – in areas where the poor *actually* live. You can volunteer or donate to the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI), based in Braamfontein. Or see what the Affordable Housing Co is doing to create rent-controlled spaces (mostly on Pritchard St). You can support the Keleketla Library in Hillbrow or the work done by some of my friends in Antseys or even South Point’s efforts in Braamfontein to provide social outlets for the students that rent from them.

      What is a complete waste of time, however, is to write a poorly researched, slightly plagiarised article about how crap Maboneng is. I wouldn’t want to live there myself; the place is overpriced and the flats are too small and nasty for my tastes, but the development is hardly the enemy of the working poor.

      What is even more tiresome to me than the weekend hipster hangabouts at Arts on Main is the anti-hipsters sneering down their noses, sparkling in their faux-activism like so much body glitter. Bang out a few hundred words, rail against the evils of gentrification and then lie back, feeling like you’ve achieved something.


    2. Thank you for bringing Braamfontein into this conversation. My perception was that Maboneng was isolated from the surrounding community while Braam’s “borders” are more porous. This, to me, made for a much more vibrant, diverse area. That Pick N Pay still sucks though. ;)

  10. There is nothing wrong with hipster hang-outs, there is nothing wrong with criticizing gentrification. What is wrong is to claim that somehow gentrification is such a tremendous benefit to the city and its people. Lets have some perspective.

  11. Arthur Patel i like you…tell it like it is.
    Antoinette your article is incredibly badly researched, shame. on. you. Also Maboneng and the developers have never bought buildings with a residential profile, why didn’t you just go into this with an open mind and play devils advocate and ask the right questions instead of relying on assumption. you just wanted to be published in a ‘cool’ blog neh, do us a favor, stay in the western cape you are not doing JHB city any favors

    1. The clearing of informal traders is a travesty and a violation of their rights.

      To say that property rights in Joburg (and almost every other big city) are skewed in favour of the rich and the elite is true. There should be a reform of municipal property laws that allow for informal trading, mixed-income housing and zoning laws that are more pro-poor.

      You’ll find many people that agree with you there. But to keep banging on about these things as an addendum to the article above is dishonest and trying to sneak real issues in by stealth.

      The article is poorly researched and only tangentially related to the issues of gentrification and the rights of the poor. No amount of lipstick is going to make this pig look any prettier. It just makes AIAC look bad.

  12. I live in Maboneng, and this article infuriates me. If capitalizing on this space means curating and enabling small businesses and entrepreneurs, establishing local headquarters for several respectable international nonprofits, opening impressive and well-recognized art and design galleries, building playgrounds and parks, and creating a place in Johannesburg where people can actually integrate and spend time learning about each other, then surely the developers are guilty. This is a community that is as dynamic as it is close knit. How many other big cities can claim that? I got mugged in town a couple weeks ago; and although it was midday and the streets were filled with people, not a single person stopped to help me – even as I was literally being dragged down the street. Someone was carjacked and shot tonight in Maboneng, unfortunately not completely unheard of in Johannesburg, but uncharacteristic of this often apathetic city was the mob of Maboneng residents who gathered to mourn together in silence. The people who live here, we support and celebrate each other, irregardless of class and race, and just to spell it out for everyone it is a space where black people and white people actually hang out in South Africa. That alone in itself is a wonderful, recognizable accomplishment. Jonathan Liebmann has stepped in where government has massively failed. I have never met a single person who lives or works here that would say otherwise.

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