From slum city to urban living hub:
He rubs his sleepy eyes with his hands as he sits up on one of the two double beds in the single room he shares with his brother in a high-rise building in Berea near the Johannesburg city centre.
It is just before midday on a weekday. Musawenkosi Zulu has been sleeping after a gruelling night shift at a restaurant where he was hired three months ago. This is his first job since he migrated to Johannesburg from KwaZulu-Natal in 2013.
Home is not necessarily a glittering castle. It is a cramped room on the first floor of an old, rundown building that was recently the subject of a protracted court case. But it is home, nevertheless: an abode near the city, near work and other amenities such as stores and recreational facilities.
Zulu, who migrated to Johannesburg from Mfongosi in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal, loves the convenience that comes with living near the city. It takes him just one taxi ride to get to his workplace in Eastgate.
If he lived in one of the far-flung townships that are a legacy of apartheid’s notorious Group Areas Act, which led to the ejection of black people from the city to faraway locations with dysfunctional public transport, he would probably have to spend more time and money to get to work.
It is estimated that, on average, 10000 people from across the country and beyond its borders migrate to Johannesburg every month.
All roads lead to the roaring big city, just as they have since the 1886 gold rush that gave birth to this bustling metropolis.
Whereas in years past the Jo’burg inner city was mainly a place where people came to work during the day before retiring to homes in far-flung townships, suburbs or informal settlements in the evenings, it is now increasingly becoming a place in which people sleep and set up homes.
As a result, the already congested city has now become a new battleground for space, for a place to live while pushing the hustle in the ’burg.
Johannesburg property agent Max Katz has been working in the inner city for the past 15 years. Through his company Synprop, Katz searches for and identifies buildings that have the potential to be converted into lowcost residential units.
He is an active player in the gentrification of the inner city that has turned commercial buildings, old office blocks, warehouses, garages and derelict residential blocks being rescued from near-collapse and converted into trendy, modern living spaces.
Katz reckons it will never be possible, at least not in the near future, to create sufficient accommodation to cater for the thousands of people who pour into the city every month.
“We will never, ever, ever. Not in your lifetime, not in my lifetime,” says Katz.
The migration into the city is not only an issue confronting the City of Gold, it is also a challenge faced by cities globally and experts say it is likely to accelerate in the next decade as people abandon rural areas for the bright lights and the lure of better opportunities they believe exist in the city.
United Nations agency Unesco predicts in its Global Trends Towards Urbanisation report that, by 2030, nearly five billion (or 61%) of the world’s people will live in cities.
Unesco says the movement of people towards cities has accelerated and the world’s urban population is now growing by 60-million people a year.
Johannesburg, given its legacy as a racially segregated city designed for commercial and not residential purposes, faces particular challenges.
As thousands of black people poured into the city after the 1994 political settlement, Johannesburg’s white-owned businesses and landlords, overwhelmed by the unexpected influx of people who for decades were not allowed to live in the city, took flight.
In some cases, landlords left buildings unmanaged, leaving tenants confused and vulnerable to organised gangs of building hijackers. In time, much of the city deteriorated into a disgusting slum of crumbling, unserviced buildings and crime-ridden streets.
But the gentrification of the inner city is slowly putting the shine back into this historic metropolis. Buildings like One Eloff, which was once a warehouse for high-end cars in what was traditionally the city’s motoring hub, is now a trendy residential and business hub.
The ground floor serves as business space, with small retail shops, coffee shops, art workshops and a restaurant. The top floor, where once engines roared and tyres screeched, has now been transformed into bachelor and two-bedroomed units.
The voices of motor mechanics shouting out instructions have been replaced by the chatter of residents and music playing softly from their rooms. Elsewhere, what used to be government department offices, such as those at the corner of Eloff and Commissioner streets, are to be developed into 400 residential units, to be completed by 2019.
A building that once housed the offices of retail giant OK Bazaars, also in Eloff Street, which in decades gone by was Jozi’s commercial capital, has been sold and will also be transformed into residential units.
“Big business in the inner city is residential [units], not commercial,” says Katz.
Bachelor and two-bedroomed flats are going for monthly rental rates of between R3 500 and R5 000. Developers have put in stringent measures such as biometric access control systems to manage the number of people living in the buildings. They have also installed prepaid meters to regulate the use of electricity and water.
The scars of old Jo’burg still prevail, though. An example is the derelict 44 Nugget Street building, an eyesore whose windows are shuttered with cardboard boxes. It stands next to a newly developed and beautifully painted building, Diamond Place, whose owners have had to change the entrance to move it away from 44 Nugget.
“Derelict buildings — to have people living in a building without toilets, lights, water — it’s a crime,” says Katz.
The Gauteng department of infrastructure development is also driving the inner city’s rejuvenation with the Precinct Project.
The project aims to turn existing government-owned multistorey buildings into one-stop hubs where people can access healthcare, government administrative services, insurance, banking, schooling and public transport in reasonable proximity.
The province has also set aside R8-billion for the Kopanong Gauteng Government Precinct project, in which 21 buildings in the Johannesburg city centre will be rehabilitated and developed over a three- to five-year period.
Many of the city’s newly revamped, privately owned buildings mirror One Eloff, offering shopping, business and retail space on the ground floor with the upper floors serving
“Derilict buildings — to have people living in a building without toilets, lights, water
— it’s a crime”
Visionary: Property developer Max Katz has been working hard to identify derelict buildings that can be converted into low-cost residential units to address the city’s dire housing needs. Photos: Delwyn Verasamy