South Africa's Sleepy Pretoria Awakened by Apartheid's End

Trendy is not a word that instantly springs to mind to describe South Africa's administrative capital, Pretoria. During the dark days of apartheid the city was better known for political repression and as a bastion of white conservatism than for its hipness.

But now the Jacaranda City, as Pretoria is called for its avenues of flowered trees, is shaking off its dowdy image. While business flees from the inner city of Johannesburg, Pretoria's calm and increasingly black face is a pleasant surprise even for inhabitants.

With South Africa's first black majority government seated in Pretoria since 1994 elections, the city has changed as much as the nation overall.

"Pretoria is a lot nicer now," says one young black resident, Mduduzi Mashiani, who is savoring the new jazz clubs and a more relaxed interracial atmosphere. "It has definitely improved."

Real estate has boomed. More than a dozen new embassies have opened since the end of apartheid. Pretoria's neat, grid-like streets are still reminiscent of, say, Cleveland, but the presence of so many foreign diplomats and a new black elite creates a cosmopolitan ambiance.

Nightclubs have opened to the joy of residents long craving more nightlife. Pretoria now boasts an arts cinema and a rave club, DNA, which promises to be better than anything elsewhere in the country.

Pretoria's changing face also entails new flea markets, sidewalk cafes, and brasseries with names like Dreamers, Cafe Galaria, and Mzure Underground.

Besides striving to be hip, or at least lively, Pretoria is by all accounts a more tranquil alternative to Johannesburg. The quiet capital is attracting an increasing number of refugees from the nation's financial hub, a 45-minute drive away, who are tired of what is one of the highest levels of violent crime in the world.

Among them is freelance journalist Robin Green, who has grown to love Pretoria over the past few years. She is moving to Cape Town with great regret. "For the first time in my life, I feel this is my place," she says. "As soon as I reach the highway bypass into Pretoria, the tension lifts. I think: 'Whew, no more check the doors and the panic buttons.' "

While Pretoria still remains short on panache, flashy advertisements have been trumpeting its most famous resident, the country's first black president, Nelson Mandela.

City tourism officials have circulated a slick magazine ad that urges visitors to "See Pretoria through new eyes. He did." Computer-generated pictures show Mr. Mandela's beaming face in 16 roles such as a sky diver, game ranger, opera buff, zookeeper, botanist, and miner to sell everything from nature trails to African art and historical monuments.

Another ad sports a sunny picture of an outdoor festival. It proclaims, in a colloquial mixture of English and Afrikaans: "Pretoria 'n Lekker place to be" ("Pretoria is a wonderful place to be").

WHILE Pretoria basks in its newfound acceptability, retailers and city planners in Johannesburg are desperate to find ways to save its downtown from urban decay. Muggings, shootings, and car hijackings have left the city nearly empty at night. Many shops, restaurants, and businesses have closed and fled to the leafy northern suburbs.

The inner-city blues deepened a couple of months ago when the Carlton, once a premier luxury hotel where Mandela held his victory party in 1994, cut its staff by 40 percent and closed 499 of its 668 rooms because of falling trade and negative perceptions of the center city.

The shrinkage of the hotel's operations after 23 years as a prestigious symbol of the city hurt surrounding shops and sent a chilling message to tourists.

Visiting American urban consultant Richard Bradley recently told city fathers that they must craft an improved image of Johannesburg. He warned local government and business leaders that the development sprawl in the northern suburbs was a threat to the city center that could deepen racial divisions.

But all is not lost, he said, pointing to the rejuvenation of various American cities. He especially noted the upgrading of New York's once-seedy Times Square as an example of what could be done.

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