SOUTH AFRICA: Neglected Johannesburg Neighbourhood Rises Again

  • by Chris Stein (johannesburg)
  • Inter Press Service

Though he held the deed to the building, a group of de facto landlords calling themselves the 'Saint Luck Committee' controlled the building. Their scheme was simple: overcrowd the building with tenants - many of them undocumented migrants grateful for any accomodation - and collect the rent themselves.

Unable to verify the identities of the occupants before he bought the building, Montwedi - who asked that his real name not be used due to threats he has received - tried to get the tenants to sign new leases after he took ownership in October 2008.

Violence ensued. The building manager was threatened and fled the premises. Another employee who ventured into the building was assaulted. When his unarmed security guards eventually had to abandon the building in fear of their lives, Montwedi realized he was the owner of a hijacked building.

'If you buy a building you can’t know if the criminals are already there or not,' said Montwedi.

After 18 months, he got a court order allowing him to evict all the tenants in the building. During the eviction, he discovered the extent of the overcrowding: 8 to 10 people in a bachelor flat, or more than 330 people in a building that should have housed about 100.

'I’m selling the building,' Montwedi said. 'It was a traumatic experience.'

Montwedi’s story is emblematic of Berea and other parts of Johannesburg’s inner-city core. With rows of high-rise flats, including the cylindrical 56-storey Ponte City Apartments, Berea dominates its part of Johannesburg’s skyline, but along Abel Road, the district’s tree-lined main thoroughfare, apartment blocks with broken windows and barbed wire fences rise above pockmarked sidewalks. Commerce thrives wherever it can; on one block, a gutted house has been transformed into a makeshift fruit stand.

Between 35 and 45 percent of the approximately 1,200 neglected, abandoned or hijacked buildings in the city lie in Berea and neighbouring Hillbrow, according to Shaun O’Shea, manager of communications for the City of Johannesburg. O’Shea estimates at least 30 percent of these have been hijacked.

Our place

Nine precisely demarcated blocks between Park Lane, Olivia Road and Catherine and Lily Avenues are different. Designated a City Improvement District (CID), this tract of Berea sports guard towers at intersections, high-rise complexes with fresh coats of paint and sidewalks regularly swept free of litter. Since the inception of the CID in 2007, this cluster of buildings has become a model that may be adopted elsewhere in Johannesburg’s troubled inner city.

Called Legae la Rona, or 'our place' in Sotho, property owners here each pay a monthly levy that funds additional services in the district, while keeping the city abreast of missing manhole covers, broken streetlights and other issues with public works, said Bryan Miller owner of Ithemba Property Trust, which owns six apartment complexes in the district.

Though it varies, Miller said the current levy per flat is about four dollars, which is either paid by the owner or passed directly on to the tenants as part of their rent. There are many similar improvement districts in South Africa’s cities, but Legae la Rona is Johannesburg’s first official effort in a residential neighborhood, according to Miller.

Seeing the difference between the Legae la Rona and the rest of Berea is as easy as glancing across Lily Avenue, the CID’s eastern boundary. Within sight of the Manhattan’s gilded doors and stern barred access gate is a building called Hillandale, where plastic shopping bags cover broken windows and the ornate sign out front is slowly turning green from water damage.

Crime and grime

An under-allocation of resources and mistakes in city planning are to blame for the lack of service delivery in Berea, town planning and urban consultant Dr Tanya Zack said.

Beginning in the 1980s, upper and middle-class whites left Berea for the suburbs as poorer blacks left overcrowded townships for the vacant flats. The influx was so intense that the new accommodation became overcrowded and many building owners gave up trying to manage the influx, neglecting the buildings instead, according to Zack.

She says some of these buildings became home to illegal drinking establishments or havens for drug dealers, which, combined with Berea’s crowding and an overwhelmed police force, led to a spike in crime, Zack said.

'Police inadequacy provides protection [for crime],' Zack said. 'One of the most prominent crimes is [building hijacking] which succeeds in the absence of adequate law enforcement and where there aren't alternative places for people to live.'

Though Legae la Rona is only about kilometre from a police station, Sandy Barnes chief executive of property management company Jozi Housing, said crime dropped only after the CID introduced private security on the streets.

When he first moved in to Preston Place in 2005, Gabriel Moeng said he couldn’t walk the neighborhood at night without being mugged.

'Now I don’t know what happened,' Moeng said. 'You can walk safely, you can use your cell phone. I don’t know anyone who's been mugged in the past two years.'

Rania Fakhoury, a Lebanese immigrant, said she feels safe inside her apartment in the Metropolitan, but not when she is in the small market she owns directly across Alexandra Street from the apartment building, where she hands customers cartons of cigarettes and slips for cell phone airtime through an enclosure of black metal bars.

'I was robbed three times [by] armed robbers,' Fakhoury said, adding that she has not been robbed since she put up the enclosure. Though security guards patrol the street outside her shop, she said they didn’t come during the robbery because though the robbers were armed, the guards were not.

The CID is only a partial solution to reviving inner city neighbourhoods. With rent on a one-bedroom apartment running to about $285 a month, Zack said Legae la Rona doesn't answer the need for affordable housing that drives crowding and building hijacking in places like Berea.

'Legae la Rona… has come a long way,' Zack said. 'They’re incredibly good and revitalized. But it may not be in Legae la Rona’s power to create a stable neighborhood.'

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service