Joburg: squalid slum-city in eternal decline or glittering example of urban regeneration that has righted all the wrongs etched into its past? Or – as is more likely – is Johannesburg something in between?
That was the discussion taking place at JoziHub this afternoon as part of a global event about the future of all our cities, organised by those masters of online mediasphere, TED. The main event, TEDxCity2.0 is a day long series of talks in New York, hosted by TED founder Chris Anderson, but all around the world 135 cities have been hosting spin-off events involving local speakers and live streams from the Times Center.
Here in South Africa, the focus has been on Johannesburg where the team behind TEDxJohannesburg invited three different speakers to talk before the streams began. Things kicked off with Gerald Garner, the highly enthusiastic brain behind JoburgPlaces. Garner has written several guidebooks to Joburg and its history, and really, really loves the place. Garner is the unofficial tourist information centre for the city, and runs a walking tour program for visitors. To hear him eulogising about the city’s regeneration over the last decade is to want to live there.
The inner city of Johannesburg is providing a glimpse into the future of South Africa,” Garner reckons, “It’s the first place where we’re beginning to see a new society emerging, with people from all walks of life and income groups mingling… Many people still perceive downtown Johannesburg as being a crime ridden, grimy city in severe decline, but it’s undergoing a remarkable transformation.”
If you want to know anything about the place, Garner is the man to ask. He knows when the rot set in, and it wasn’t in the 80s and 90s. Back in the 50s, he says, bylaws that limited the number of black workers a company could employ sent the manufacturing industry running to places where labour was still cheap, and that’s when buildings started closing up.
Garner ascribes the change in the city to investment in public spaces. Make it habitable, with new parks and monuments, and it will become so is the gist of his speech.
He rounded off with a couple of pleas – firstly that when tourists come to Joburg, they don’t stick to Sandton and Montecasino, but actually get into the downtown area and see what’s happening at Maboneng and Braamfontein. Secondly, that the city council and private developers carry on investing in the big stuff, like public transport and public spaces – but also the small things, like replacing manhole covers that get stolen in a timely fashion.
An alternative view
In contrast to Garner, Capetonian architect Thiresh Govender is much more sceptical about the city’s current state.
“Joburg is massively unequal,” he began, “Messy and unfair and aggressive.”
It is, he rightly points out, a place of massive inequality. Where the rich have almost infinite resources to create their own realities and the majority rely on survivalist instinct. There are many similarities between Govender’s stance and Garner’s though: both believe that its the way we use public spaces that will affect the way the city functions in the future.
“Pre-1994,” Govender said, “We were very aware of the politics of space… post-1994, we seem to have lost that understanding and abandoned them to the free market.”
Govender’s personal contribution, he says, will be create features and places that feed the imagination and subvert the expectations of ‘gentrification’. That goes from the large scale of building design to the little things – like stone benches with strategically places holes that street vendors can use to erect canopies if they wish.
Vincent Truter is one of JoziHub’s closest neighbours, as he owns the Windows bike shop inside the same 44 Stanley complex. In a previous life, he says, he worked for a creative agency doing exactly the sort of regeneration stuff that leaves Govender cold – but it was exhausting and pretentious and didn’t seem to change the fact that most people still focussed on the crime and the fear for which the city is most famous.
His Damascene moment came when his car was stolen and he borrowed an electric bike that a client had left in his office to get around.
The experience of cycling around the city for a few weeks was like “changing gear physically and mentally”. On the first day, he says, he noticed a large tree near his office which he’d driven past every day for two years but never seen before. He became more aware of the people and what was really happening around him.
“You’d be surprised to know how much is going on when it comes to non-motorised transport in Joburg.”
Now he’s an evangelist for a movement he terms ‘Cycology’, and encourages everyone to see the city from outside of a motor vehicle, in a way that’s more environmentally sensitive – although he does admit that:
“I still have a car, and its a guzzler.”
Three different ways of seeing Joburg, all well worth catching up on. We’ll let you know when the official TEDxJohannesburg videos are live.