Candice Holdsworth
Candice Holdsworth

Johannesburg: The city that once was

About a year ago at a party, I met a well-known South African artist (he shall remain nameless) who described the Johannesburg Art Gallery as “Miss Havisham in her wedding dress”. He wasn’t saying it spitefully, he seemed to really like JAG; it was just a very honest, pithy comment.

I believe the metaphor can be quite accurately extended beyond the art gallery in Joubert Park to many parts of Johannesburg’s city centre.

Walking around some of the neglected, desolate buildings in and around the CBD, one does get the distinct impression of disappointed hope, of great expectations thoroughly dashed. So many empty buildings in varying states of disrepair, complete with cavernous holes in the walls and smashed out windows, that it resembles a place that has been subjected to heavy, sustained artillery fire.

A few months ago, while I was walking around the city, a little girl waved to me from the top floor of one of these bombed-out wrecks, her tiny arm, eagerly stretched out through the space where a window was supposed to be. It was such a strange, poignant moment and so representative of the thwarted innocence of these architectural treasures.

About two weeks ago a good friend of mine who has just relocated from London to Cape Town came up to visit me in Johannesburg. He’d never really ventured much beyond the suburbs before, so we decided to go for a wander around the city. We started off in the artsy Maboneng Precinct and then took a long walk down Commissioner Street all the way to the newly refurbished public library on Market Street.

Unfortunately, inner city Johannesburg has a pretty scary reputation internationally, so he was, understandably, a bit nervous; but it was a clear-skied, sunny winter’s day and we breezily strode along without any issues at all and reached our destination intact.

Many of Joburg’s suburban residents wryly refer to Market Street and its surrounds as “murder mile” and generally regard it as a no-go area. Me amongst them — I can’t actually remember having ever been before. But on that particular day the only people to be found were teenage skateboarders, loudly clattering up and down and around the steps of the library.

Faced with the innocuous scene before us, we burst out laughing — all that fearful anticipation and then to be met with something so completely harmless.

There was no sense of danger at all, just an overwhelming feeling of abandonment. That people and businesses have long since deserted this space.

Of course, there may have been certain lurking menaces that we were unaware of and in our ignorance arrived at the erroneous conclusion that there simply were none. There are other segments of the city which are far more treacherous. That I must acknowledge. Indeed it would be foolish not to.

But in this particular instance I was reminded of a scene in Louis Theroux’s 2008 film Law and Disorder in Johannesburg where, one evening, he decides to go into one of the metropolis’s numerous derelict buildings, despite much protestation and discouragement from his South African companion he presses on anyway and finds … well … nothing.

That’s it. Nothing. Just empty rooms and one or two impoverished squatters.

Although Louis never says it explicitly, he seems to imply that some of our fears of the city centre are perhaps a little too exaggerated. That the reality is far paltrier.

How wonderful it would be if commerce and activity returned to these forgotten places. In an interview, some time ago, with fellow Thought Leader blogger and public art practitioner Lesley Perkes, I wrote:

The quality of the material world is a product of our regard for it. And the relationship becomes mutually reinforcing: the more we neglect public space, the less pleasant it becomes, and the less we want to interact with it. We shut ourselves off more and more in private spaces, our expectations inevitably lower and we stop seeing not only what is, but also what could be. Laying our imaginations to rest.

But how and where do we begin?

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    • michael

      Candice, what a sad state of affairs, Joburg has become a third class world city.It is the only place i have seen where buildings are literally consumed but it is understandable because it is taking place on a continent where the concept of a productive asset does not exist in the minds of the people.

    • Heinrich

      Thank you, Candice. I read this with a sense of sadness. As a young man I was very much in love with Johannesburg – it made one feel so alive. The crisp winter air, the summer afternoon thunderstorms, the beautiful architecture of buildings seemingly built to last for ever.. The night life.

      Toward the late 80’s I sensed her spirit was leaving us, No longer could one linger and admire some building, some scenery. No longer people looking each other in the eye with a friendly greeting. No longer gaze up at the sculpted ledges where pigeons perch. Faces focused on the pavement, warily eyeing another, oblivious to anything above.

      So I moved to the coast. To me Johannesburg was like a visitor to Africa. To those of us who were fortunate enough to meet up with her and to engage her wily ways while she was here, there will always be fond memories. But that is the only place where Johannesburg still exists. The visitor has gone, and we are left to tidy the room. But it will never be the same again. We are left wondering : what did we say, what did we do, that was so wrong? Were we just too disrespectful?


    • Frans Verloop

      I remember in the late eighties, living in Fourways, that whenever I came to the city centre I always experienced a feeling of expectation or excitement. There was a vitality about the place that was difficult to describe but which I found exhilerating. I assume most of the businesses who created that atmosphere have moved to the suburbs. What a pity that such a place has become delapidated.

    • Eldi du Bluel

      Mindful of the expectations prior to the 1994 elections, the saddest thing to observe is the steady decline of state assets, commercial activities and general standards in this country.
      Fortunately preparing for this, I alerted my immediate family to this thought: “Reality is frequently not the way you want it to be”. Things are going to decline and be prepared for it, I lectured them.
      Of course, this did not require any genius on my side, as the examples south of the Sahara are plentiful. To ignore these historic lessons would make one an ostrich with the head deep beneath the sand – so deep in fact that it cannot even hear.

      Having hearing and eyesight would however quickly wake up those wallowing couch potatoes. For then they could read about the hopeless bad governance, read how the Secrecy Bill has most recently turned tax paying citizens into toothless subservients, and then they could also hear the consistent untruths dribbling off the lips of our “leaders”.
      The biggest choker for this country is openly the reverse racism flaked open in BEE and its derivatives. Standards are sliding because black people are forced into jobs they are not suitably qualified to hold. Inability to complete employment tasks provides for slower output and more than one person to do the task expected from one suitably qualified person. The end result is inflationary and coupled with inability of the government to run the country, loss of potential skilled personnel to the global…

    • Lesley Perkes

      … we stop seeing not only what is … perhaps that’s where you could begin Candice?

    • Peter Merrington

      Well-expressed, lucid, sympathetic, interesting. What can be done is to visit Cape Town and experience the complete contrast, and then maybe begin to ask why there’s such a difference – and then start to address the specific reasons.

      They begin with an efficient and service-oriented municipal regulatory regime, and municipal vision and leadership.

      From there, it becomes outreach and joint ventures with the private sector, along with public consultation. It has to run to wise and creative, imaginative, progressive, people-oriented strategic decisions in which a central city is regarded as a living creation and not mere source of rents and rates, not mere sites for legal wrangling.

      To get there, you need a collective will and vision of the common good – not just utilitarian but delightful, with recognition of heritage and the present and the immediate future.

    • proactive

      …the how & where have been answered by business in choosing Sandton & Centurion as a replacement to yester-year’s Jhbg!

      Not all is doom & gloom, since some traditional mining houses, big Banks, Learning Institutions, Museums, Civic Centre & Theater remain. The still tallest skyscraper in Africa, the Carlton Center of 223m- not owned by Anglo anymore but Transnet, is on the market for brave investors! The adjoining Hotel is closed and so are the former “Tollman Towers” (ex Sun Hotel, than Holiday Inn, now KwaDukuza eGoli- also mothballed since 1998)

      The once famous 173m high, 54 floor, Hillbrow PONTE is partly occupied & is full of controversy! Reports say, the Mafia took over & rubbish was piled 5 floor high in its inner core once! How much of Jozi is mothballed today- would need a study!

      To be fair, one has to positively comment on the many road closures and creation of pedestrian areas in the inner city, the safer and easier parking, the removal of parking meters and replacing them with many friendly parking “Marshals”- who you pay directly as long you need to park and who also keep an eye on cars- instead of issuing tickets!

      No more skyscrapers were & are planned after the building boom ended in the 70ties. The latest skyscrapers are all going up in Sandton- it appears the tallest building in the southern hemisphere received the go ahead recently- the “Centurion Symbio City Tower” reaching 447m, to be completed in 2018!

      Some revival, yes- but not…

    • Nechama Brodie

      I have spent the past six years and more extensively documenting and writing about Johannesburg, and the cityscape painted in this blog is an alien place compared to the I know. I can only assume the author did her “terrifying” walk on a Sunday, when (typically) the offices and shops between Maboneng and Market Square are closed. During what we refer to as “working hours”, the city is buzzing and inhabited and friendly. There is commerce and activity to spare.
      The description of Market Square as part of something called “murder mile” is also unfamiliar to me.

    • Jerome

      I’d call that somewhat irresponsible.

      I also think that one has an obligation to inform those unfamiliar to South Africa that visiting the Johannesburg CBD involves a risk some orders of magnitude greater than New York’s Bronx.

    • Lesley Perkes

      For the record: the city that once was, was a city for white people. It was safe for them. Only. The city now is far more interesting and alive and it is not macabre. It certainly does not resemble a place shelled by artillery fire. I understand some buildings may look bad but they are definitey in the minority.
      Joburg is cooking with project after project to upgrade it for everyone. Which is much harder and, unfortunately it does not help that people who don’t take time to get to know the place properly, make up phrases like murder mile for Market Street. Where did you hear that? Also Market Street is now Albertina Sisulu Street. Yay. Yes you have to be careful in any densely populated place in the world. So be careful, get to know the place, dive in and write again once you have. I bet you your opinion will change dramatically.

    • The Critical Cynic

      I don’t see this as a fair or balanced reflection of Johannesburg at all. All large cities face a demise of the inner city at some point in their lifecycle, and inner city regeneration and investment are taking place in Johannesburg, but apparently not where you looked.

      A city that has been subjected to heavy, sustained artillery fire is typically levelled to the ground with few remaining skyscrapers. Your description of buildings as “bombed out” paints the same picture but again it doesn’t reflect the truth and instead displays a severe lack of objectivity. It paints a very negative picture compared to the positivity I have found all over the city. Someone reading this without any real understanding of the city could now easily see JHB as a contemporary of cities isuch as Beruit, yet I’d bet you’d be among the first to say such a comparison is too far from the truth to be considered fair. By all means use illustrative writing, but you could at least attempt to be more accurate.

      I have lived in Johannesburg since emigratig here in 1975 and have never heard any, let alone many, of Joburg’s suburban residents wryly refer to Market Street and its surrounds as “murder mile”, and have never been warned to regard it as a no-go area,

    • Candice Holdsworth

      @Nechama Brodie Thanks for your thoughts. Unfortunately, I come from the sort of background where people are very ungenerous about Joburg city centre. They really do think it’s totally unsafe.. See the comment above where someone refers to me as”irresponsible” for walking around there.

      I’ve lived overseas for many years and it’s only recently that I’ve become reacquainted with Joburg city centre. I’ve walked around there at all different times, on different days. That was just one particular day. The piece isn’t about how there are no businesses and no people there, clearly there are. It’s about all the people who reject the city, based on over exaggerated fears.

    • Candice Holdsworth

      @ Lesley Pekes I don’t think it’s Murder Mile. I like it a lot. I love Joburg city centre. It’s just a simile, describing some buildings, not all of them.

      Also, better tell Google maps, they still call it Market Street… :-)

      This piece has good intentions anyway. It’s not about talking down Joburg. It’s about talking it up.

    • Bruce G

      It seems to me the backlash against this piece is transparently defensive.
      I have a great fondness for Joburg but to deny deterioration that Candice describes is intellectually dishonest. I mean it is in plain view if you, as many of the critics claim, walk around the city on anything like a regular basis.

      I am optimistic about the work being done in Joburg but get real, if you just avert your gaze from the dilapidated buildings, claim everything is rosy and attack anyone who muses on its unfulfilled and stifled potential is not helping the city.

      As for simply lumping it in with “any large city”. Which large city? Toronto? Lagos? Again, get real

    • baz

      Very sad indeed that our Johannesburg is fast becoming a ghost town. In the Seventies, it was affectionately known as the big naartjie, in comparision to New York City, United States. Mind you, other cities throughout, our country are fast becoming third world status. What’s going to happen to financial hub of Jo’burg, if municipalities don’t deliver basic needs to the people of Jo’burg & surrounds. Major buildings & streets need a dramatic overall clean up. Come on people ,voice yourself in the next municipal meetings, and ROLL UP the sleeves and set the tone to REVIVE our once, beautiful JOZI aka Johannesburg. That goes for our, cities , Cape Town, Durban
      and Port Elizabeth.

    • Jack Sparrow

      Obviously you write from one perspective. No right or wrong. In Durban Metro Mike Sutcliffe promised to turn Durban into an “African” city. He did and the Manase report shows part of how well he did it. Jhb is similar.

    • thily

      yes indeed the municipal don’t deliver basic needs .There is an old building in end str and jeep in Doornfontein jhb I was nearly kidnaped and dragged in to the old building on my way to church.i reported the matter to the police then they said is beyond their control but the municipal problem.i tried calling the municipal offices in Braamfontein this morning,i was being transferred from one person to another and the last one just hangup on me..then voicemail……what do we call that?