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Reclaiming Johannesburg’s inner city …




… with bicycles and daring


When a swarm of cyclists – reports say about 2 000 – rode with whistles and lights on their bikes in the dead of night last weekend into the most decrepit parts of the Johannesburg CBD, they brought it alive with enthusiasm and laughter.

But not only that: they also made a statement that this is their city and its decline, which started some 20 years ago, must be stopped. They are “gatvol” of it being hijacked and are reclaiming it.

As part of the decline, major corporates who had been in the inner city for decades packed up and left for Sandton or other areas, saying it had become so dangerous because of crime that their staff didn’t want to come there anymore.

The process accelerated through doomsayers who embellished the horrible stories and rumours. Things snowballed until the negative perception was so extreme that most people in the northern suburbs wouldn’t dream of going there.

Many buildings were actually abandoned by their owners after futile attempts to get rid of illegal occupants, and with rates and taxes still mounting. Those buildings quickly became derelict with no water, electricity or other services, and turned into health hazards. A free-for-all developed, with people who were desperate paying slumlords just for a miserable roof over their heads.

In the last several years, however, daring entrepreneurs (with several Jewish ones in the forefront) started moving into the inner city and buying up dilapidated buildings – many of them architecturally beautiful and worthy of heritage status. With faith and foresight and lots of determination, they began painstakingly regenerating parts of the area. Some of these entrepreneurs initiated much-needed community enterprises, like schools and gardens. These efforts came from a diverse mix of South Africans, including many young people.

The cyclists are part of the same spirit. Their route encompasses the Arts on Main precinct, which a Jewish entrepreneur started several years ago as a well-defined arts and culture area around Main and End Streets, with the involvement of prominent artists who set up studios there. Its restaurants and theatres are buzzing over weekends, filled by students and others, its perimeters guarded by security personnel.

Older Johannesburgers will remember with fondness and nostalgia the central city of yesteryear, with its fine-looking buildings, vibrant stores and cafés as a place of excitement and stimulus. People would actually dress up to the nines to go there (particularly women) and have tea at Anstey’s and Stuttafords.

Some companies like Standard Bank, Absa and Anglo American refused to leave the city when it started decaying and remain until today as bulwarks of grit and optimism. They deserve our gratitude and admiration. Let’s hope other corporates will see the benefits and consider moving back into the city.

People of all stripes should stop regarding the CBD as a dangerous “no-go zone” into which one ventures at one’s peril. These cyclists, businessmen and artists are the vanguard, the pioneers we hope will lead the revitalisation. It is a work in progress which won’t happen overnight. It has to be constantly injected with new energy and jealously nurtured. By doing this, we will also be reclaiming a rich part of our history.

The cyclists do their thing once a month. Their route starts at sunset in Braamfontein near Wits University, winds its way through the darkest parts of the city, led by monitors, and returns later at night, the riders energised and inspired.

Others should follow their example in other creative ways – particularly those who have not been there for years because of the scaremongering stories. The truth is, many parts of the inner city are as safe today as any place in Johannesburg, including many secure, gated complexes.

Imagine the Johannesburg CBD in 10 years’ time as a place we again all frequent to shop, to browse, enjoy and relax in. A worthy goal.

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  1. Yateen Mistry

    Feb 24, 2014 at 8:43 pm

    ‘I do feel that with the correct course of action Jhb inner city could become better than its former glory.’

  2. Nomathemba

    Jul 16, 2015 at 8:29 am

    ‘fast forward July 2015.  i had to go into town to collect a bank card because it had been sent to my old branch.  was very irritated for having to go into \”slum\” Johannesburg CBD.  but what a pleasant surprise! what a joy it was to walk down Main Street and the surrounding areas! it looks like any other suburb streets with some well known restaurants placing tables and chairs on the pavement. the Marshalltown part of the CBD is clean and uncluttered and the city is indeed being reclaimed block by block.  many thanks to those who had the courage and vision to stay and revitalise the city.

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