Johannesburg no longer a no-go for tourists, investors

Johannesburg has a reputation for high crime, but efforts to rejuvenate the South African city are having an impact.

Lungelo Mbulwana/AP
A woman walks by a freshly-painted mural in Johannesburg, South Africa. The city has made a concerted effort to reverse urban decay.

In recent decades, downtown Johan­nesburg achieved near-mythical status as being one of the most dangerous places in the world. Its spiraling crime rate and rapid urban decay drove white business and residents out. Foreign visitors were warned to stay away for fear of their lives, and investment in the city ground to a near halt.

But in the last few years a remarkable turnaround has gathered momentum. A number of city blocks have been reclaimed, where middle-class people of all races sip coffee and type on laptops at sidewalk cafes.

Buildings that only a few years ago were derelict shells partitioned into slum quarters where people lived without water, sewer systems, or electricity are now gleaming office buildings with marble floors and brand-new elevators. A growing number of quality, affordable residential apartment buildings have been built or are being renovated.

Private security guards are visible on many street corners and the authorities have mounted high-tech security cameras that cover the entire downtown area.

"The city is much safer than it used to be," says Edna Mamonyane, spokeswoman for the Johannesburg Metro Police Department. "We are very happy at the way things are turning."

Private-public partners kept the faith

Statistics from Johannesburg Central Police station show murder and attempted murder down by more than 60 percent since 2003. Theft and carjacking have dropped similarly. In the rejuvenated areas there is very little crime.

"The success of the inner-city rejuvenation was spawned by a group of private- and public-sector leaders who sustained their activities and faith during the lean times," says Gaynor Mashamaite-Noyce, deputy director of communications for the City of Johannesburg.

One of the earliest investors was Gerald Olitzki. "I've been called crazy more times than you can imagine," he says. "But this city never died. At least 1 million people came through here every day, even though it was increasingly decaying."

In 1994, when the African National Congress party came to power, after decades of racist apartheid government, Mr. Olitzki approached them for a mandate to revive the inner city, which was already suffering badly. His plan was to renovate the area around a central bus terminal. He renamed it "Gandhi Square." It took him seven years to establish, but by 2000 it finally happened.

He leans over a map of Johannesburg. "We are creating a central spine," he says, his finger tracing a route down Main Street and Fox Street, which runs through the heart of the city. "Each phase takes less and less time to achieve. We have a private lease for 45 years, and it is our obligation to clean and secure it."

There are still a number of shockingly derelict buildings dotting the urban landscape. Some of them have been invaded by criminal gangs, who take over a building and extort rent from the tenants. "All of these are pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. They're starting to come together," Olitzki says. When the city declined it was like a disease spreading, he says. "Its revival is that process in reverse."

There are still many no-go areas in Johan­nesburg, but the same process is happening now all across the inner city. Art galleries, a couple of boutique hotels, restaurants, and cutting-edge fashion stores are opening monthly.

Latest success in old industrial quarter

The latest and trendiest example of urban renewal is happening in the old industrial quarter of Jeppestown. Known as the Maboneng Precinct, it combines affordable apartments, office space, retail space, art galleries, theaters, a boutique hotel, and a cinema to create a community-based living area with more than 90 percent occupancy. It is a popular place for tourists and suburbanites to visit over the weekend.

The young developer of Maboneng, Jonathan Liebmann, sums up the optimism of the new Johannesburg:

"The city is back," Mr. Liebmann says. "It's not the old city of the 1960s and the 1970s. It's a new African city with multilayered experiences."

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