Capitalizing on a mess

Johannesburg: the city where criminals don’t discriminate, but property developers do.

"Welcome to Maboneng" by Pascal Parent. (, CC)

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. I stayed for a while 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. In truth, it’s just a neighborhood where regular 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 these days 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 babbie (bodega). If anything, you will find yourself discovering more of the city there than you will inside the small confines of Maboneng.

Further Reading