Johannesburg Is Trying to Lure Back Businesses

Times Staff Writer

Twenty years ago, the Carlton Centre was Johannesburg's fanciest address. Its office tower, the tallest in Africa, was home to top corporate headquarters. Wealthy tourists stayed in the Carlton Hotel, the preferred site for banquets and conferences.

Now barbed wire and thick iron gates ward off squatters from the empty hotel. Hawkers hunker down on surrounding sidewalks, selling single cigarettes, stacks of apples, loose rolls of toilet paper.

Signs on the dingy ramp leading to the Carlton complex's underground garage still proclaim "Carlton Centre, The Centre of Africa." But trying to escape the increasing crime and grime, the moneyed center of this city -- from the Johannesburg Stock Exchange to the restaurants, hotels and department stores -- fled north to the suburbs years ago.

As more and more businesses have relocated to Sandton, a suburban business center of sleek office-park architecture, the old city, founded in 1886 when miners struck gold in the nearby reefs, has become a bustling, often anarchic marketplace.

Music pours out of small shop fronts with hand-painted signs: "Hawker's Paradise" and "EVER CHEAP! Clothing." Barbers snip hair in wooden shacks or tents they pitch right on the sidewalk. The air is filled with the unceasing singsong of sales pitches in many languages, English rarely among them. Most of the street vendors are illegal immigrants from other parts of Africa.

Businesses often abandon old downtown cores, but it's usually gradual. One shop closes. Time passes. Another moves out. Here, the bulk of the departures occurred virtually overnight about a decade ago, just as apartheid was ending and the country's government structure was changing hands. Practically before anyone had time to take note, squatters had moved into empty buildings, muggings and carjackings were scaring off tourists and office workers, and the main downtown streets had turned into a crumbling no man's land.

Adam Goldsmith, contract manager for the Johannesburg Development Agency, which is working to repair the damage, said the neglect was natural.

"When the new government came in, they had far more important things to worry about. Things fell apart," he said, as he drove around the city to show off recent improvements.

Cleanup in Progress

Efforts to spiff up downtown are certainly in evidence. From many spots on downtown streets, it's possible to glimpse the handsome white cables of the Nelson Mandela Bridge, due to open in May. The bridge will make it easier to drive from the northern suburbs to Newtown, the city's rough-edged but fast-expanding arts district. Overlooking the downtown from Braamfontein to the north, a new Constitutional Court, law library and museum are rising fast on the site of the former municipal jail, the Old Fort. Bolted to buildings in downtown and in Newtown, small but powerful security cameras are helping authorities crack down on crime.

But Goldsmith was quick to admit that downtown has yet to turn the corner.

"Without the cameras, I wouldn't walk around, I don't deny it," he said as he pointed out one of 184 so far placed around the city. Above a doorway, with its rounded white cover, it looked like a streetlamp.

The cameras are monitored from a large room on the sixth floor of the Carlton tower, where specially trained operators scouring banks of video screens can adjust their angles with a push of a button, zooming in to read a car's license plate or to check for the telltale bulge of a gun in a man's pocket.

Created in a government-business partnership, the system is funded largely by the city and police. In the monitoring room, a station shared by the national and metro police forces can quickly and efficiently deploy officers.

Since the first cameras were installed in 2000, downtown crime has dropped 80% and city streets are looking tidier, said John Penberthy, chairman of the surveillance technology division of Business Against Crime, the company that developed and operates the system. That's because the city increasingly relies on the help of camera operators to report not just crime but clogged drains, piled-up trash and broken streetlights, he said.

"This is the major city in the country, one of the major cities on the continent, and if the city self-destructs, it's going to be a disaster," Penberthy said.

News of the cameras' effect on crime, plus extremely low office rents and property costs, have lured some business tenants downtown in recent months, Goldsmith said. A recently announced government tax incentive program for inner-city investment should help lure more.

But downtown vacancies are hardly the only challenge.

All around the city center, Goldsmith pointed out once-proud apartment buildings, now shabby, with drying clothes hanging out of broken windows or on dirty balconies.

Owners of such buildings rake in rent from the poor, but often they don't spend a penny to fix their buildings or pay the utility bills, he said.

Many of the city's historic buildings also have suffered. Even skyscrapers only a decade or two old already have missing or broken glass panels and sit empty. Once vacant, they become home to the homeless.

Last year, Goldsmith said, five squatters died in a fire in the nearly century-old Drill Hall, the site of the famous 1956-61 Treason Trial that sent Nelson Mandela and other activists to Robben Island. Squatters took over the hall right after the military vacated in 1994. Now the building, which the city had hoped to fix up, will be demolished.

The grand Rissik Street Post Office, built in 1897, was abandoned by the postal service in 1996. Before the city managed to get it boarded up, thieves had made off with its copper dome, as well as the hands of the clock in its tower, the clock's bells, and many of the building's antique interior fittings.

A New Color Line

Downtown Johannesburg once catered to white people. Now many white Johannesburg residents won't go near it, and in parts of the central city, to be white is to turn heads.

"This is a hellhole," said debt collector Jacob DuPlessis, 26, an Afrikaner, as he stood tensely waiting for a streetlight to change near the Carlton Centre on a recent weekday morning. "We've got a government that doesn't know what it's doing. This place has been ruined."

But his is just one view. Standing on a plaza near the provincial government building where he works, Sivusiso Mpofu, 31, said a trip downtown in the old days was anything but easy if you were black.

"That time, first of all, you had to have a reason why you were down here. There was a lot of harassment or perceived harassment," he explained.

Mpofu admitted that Johannesburg has problems. But he pointed out that the hawkers and the crime have to be seen in the context of the country's high unemployment and poverty levels, byproducts of the country's transformation from white rule to democracy.

"Now this is a good city and it can carry whoever -- Japanese, white, black, anyone. There's an element of integration now, and the culture here will be very much different in the future," he said proudly.

Under apartheid, black South Africans came downtown each day to work and shop. But at that time, they could not live there or linger after working hours.

On a recent weekday morning, the streets of downtown Johannesburg were almost car-free. The bulk of visitors these days arrive from the townships, by minibus taxis or trains.

"Don't be shy, mama. Hello, mama. Don't be shy," Patrick Mkhwana called out merrily to women who walked by his sidewalk table a few blocks from the Carlton Centre, where he was selling poisons to kill bedbugs and cockroaches.

"The white people, they're scared," said the 56-year-old from Soweto. "But black people, many thousands and thousands come here every day.

"I'm thinking there's apartheid again, but there's no apartheid. The whites don't come, but the blacks come too much. Now it's our city."

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