Johannesburg, tales of broken Internationalism & Urban decay


As you commute around Johannesburg, you notice various abandoned buildings in the CBD, and began to wonder, the history behind the buildings. Who built them, when were they built, how many dinner parties were held to convince investors to put in their hard earned money and finance the construction. Which bank financed the construction and how many workers were involved in the construction. I am fascinated by buildings and Joburg is a tale of old buildings all saying “how recent now seem one’s young days and yet how long ago it all was”. Or better yet, “the architecture of an earlier age – quite as much as its paintings, its books, its clothing styles or household objects – tells us about its people: how they lived and thought and designed and diverted themselves. Old buildings, more than any museum exhibit, can still be used as part of a living city environment.” “But then the case of Johannesburg is fraught with racial segregation, brutality, violence with glimpse of hopes like Sophia town for black people. Not hope but escapism…

According to Heidi Holland And Adams Roberts,since the 1980’s Johannesburg’s fortunes have declined, revived, taken new directions, gone up, wobbled again and the city has spread in all directions with hopeful shifts. In the face of the municipal refuse workers strikes every month, it is the stench and smells of the city streets that raises the question, why do four million live here? A combination of sigh and snigger escape when that slogan “A world class African city” is trotted out. An expletive bubbles when the  city’s call centre puts through a courtesy cell call to inform Joburg residents to pay for Toll Gates and or municipal rates. After all the city knows very well, to be a true Joburg citizen, you need to be a bit of an outlaw. Rules are meant to be bended and or broken in Johannesburg.

According to Wikipedia, Johannesburg also known as Jozi, Jo’burg, and eGoli) is the largest city in South Africa and one of the 50 largest urban areas in the world. It is the provincial capital and largest city of Gauteng, which is the wealthiest province in South Africa. While Johannesburg is not one of South Africa’s three capital cities, it is the seat of the Constitutional Court. The city is located in the mineral-rich Witwatersrand range of hills and is the center of large-scale gold and diamond trade. The metropolis is an alpha global city as listed by the Globalization and World Cities Research Network. In 2011, the population of the city of Johannesburg was 4,434,827, making it the most populous city in South Africa. In the same year, the population of Johannesburg’s urban agglomeration was put at 7,860,781.

But Johannesburg as a city has some of the most promising and finest architectures you can find in South Africa. The Carlton Hotel for example, once considered the best hotel in Africa, has stood empty and untouched for nearly two decades, is one of the most fascinating abandoned buildings in Johannesburg.

Circa 1990s. Carlton Hotel in the Central Business District of Johannesburg. © Tiso Blackstar Group

The hotel is a haunting spectacle. When it opened in 1972 the hotel was envisaged as the emblem of a boom-fuelled, glamorous new era. Pre-eminent Joburg architectural historian Clive Chipkin, in his architectural history of the second half of the century, Johannesburg Transition, mockingly quotes a journalist at the time for his hip claim that the scale and ambition of the hotel were a sign that Joburg was hitting “the big time”.

It was indeed, Chipkin quotes again, “the largest and most ambitious commercial building project ever undertaken in SA”. Hot-shot American architects were brought in from New York. That’s the league the developers — Anglo American and SA Breweries, the country’s two biggest companies at the time — thought the city was playing in.

But the Carlton is but one of many such buildings in Johannesburg. Braamfontein is a maze of old architecture, design and exploration. Braamfontein, Joburg’s student heartland and unofficial capital of cool, is one of the city’s brightest examples of inner-city regeneration. Alongside the neighborhood’s hipsters, students and street fashion rebels, a burgeoning art scene characterized by edgy, contemporary art galleries and vibrant public art and graffiti has emerged, as well as a lively cafe culture, helping propel the neighborhood forward in its journey to becoming one of South Africa’s most happening downtown districts. But one cant get over the “tiredness”of the downtown area. Its a place full of old commercial businesses and clubs. For an old place, Braamfontein still has quite the punch.

Nelson Mandela Bridge

Beyond the gloss images and narratives, Johannesburg can also be daunting depending on which part of the city you are in. Tens of thousands more people, by some estimates as many as 100,000, are living in hundreds of abandoned buildings across downtown Johannesburg, one of Africa’s wealthiest cities but also one of the world’s most unequal, according to the World Bank. “The city of Johannesburg confirm 432 buildings as hijacked as of March 2019” . Only African countries can create cool terms like “hijacked buildings” though in reality that means a huge nightmare for the building owners. Movies like gangsters Paradise, TSOTSI and Jerusalem epitomize such Joburg life. The life of BMW Matchbox “Gusheshes”, “Dolphins”, spinning cars, gun violence and hijacking buildings..

After getting over the fact that everything is named after Nelson Mandela to date in Johannesburg, you have to wonder about the slums in Johannesburg or better parts of South Africa. To get a better glimpse into life in slum conditions, there is Slum tourism which is defined as the practice of travelers visiting poor urban areas of the global South to view its impoverished conditions and understand more of the lifestyles of local inhabitants. Organized slum tourism tours exist around the world in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Cairo, and Mumbai. Slum tourism is a controversial issue at the moment and some critics see it as “glorified poverty”. Slums have formed part of Johannesburg architecture way before someone in the USA invented Kelloggs to combat masturbation and sexual desires. Blog is about Johannesburg old buildings hence i will not discuss slum conditions. Just wanted to recognize the fact that Johannesburg as a city has a specific DNA and slums are part of that DNA.

Typical conditions in Johannesburg slums

Johannesburg promised to be the “the African city of modernity par excellence” especially in the 80s and early 90s. In terms of the city’s development, there has been consistent efforts trashing Johannesburg’s central urban economy”, disrupting the delicate balance that the central CBD prosperous social and economic energy depended on, and precipitating the decentralization that has eventually followed leading to the sudden fame of Sandton, Kempton Park, East Gate etc. The Johannesburg that promised to be the “the African city of modernity par excellence” especially in the 80s and early 90s is now but gone forever. But Johannesburg is also stubborn, there is this myth of Joburg’s internationalism which still persists to date. Maybe the OR Tambo International airport has a lot to do with that myth but to reduce such an imposing city would literal be marginalizing the city.

Johannesburg is a city so anxious to shake off the memories of its early origins”. The weakness of the city is its failure to discuss or explain the motivation and economics of the cycle of demolition and redevelopment. Johannesburg has gone and went into decline with inner city decay taking over with promises of urban renewal and a renewal of faith in Johannesburg, despite the city moving north to Sandton, or east to Eastgate. The old city is now preserved through decay and neglect. Economics, both of the macro and micro varieties, determined what remains and what is demolished. Private enterprise and the hand of government and NGO’s shaped the new patterns of use. As we have seen with the recent fire at the old Manchester Hotel shell, neglect can end in collapse. Each year more buildings join the list of candidates for heritage protection with the city promising to take action. Those promises still remain promises with Johannesburg taking a new form and shape loosing its original identity. But is the identity worth keeping, one wonders?

But dont dismiss Johannesburg just yet, she just might fight back!

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