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A dirge for our decaying suburbs

The experience of being shoved roughly against a stationary truck and relieved at knife-point of my wallet and watch should have marked the end of my long-standing affection for Johannesburg’s inner-city streets. It did not, even though I have never forgiven those two bastards and occasionally still fantasise about their receiving a painful come-uppance. Maybe they already have, by now.

Central and downtown Jo’burg has always felt like home, far more than does my real home turf of the Sandton City area, that plague of thrusting great monoliths of glass and concrete telling their own story of arrogance and greed. The demise of old Sandton, with its wooded lanes, open velds and dignified old houses, some of them even thatched, is hard enough to accept. I wistfully remember taking long, lazy walks home from school along its back roads, daydreaming in the afternoon sun (and trying to make those little bars of Pink Panther chocolate last right until the end).

To see it all bulldozed away without leaving a trace and replaced by the present monuments to tasteless opulence is hard to stomach. Johannesburg’s city centre is a ruin, weighed down by the sense of its own ugliness, but its inner life continues to pulsate beneath the surface. The “nightmare life in death” of Sandton, heartless, smug and brazen, chills one’s very soul.

Only rarely do I now have occasion to walk through the Johannesburg CBD, yet when I do the sense of belonging remains. It is as if the city is one gigantic living being that I have somehow plugged into, becoming part of its energy and vitality. Paradoxically, while instinctively distrusting just about everyone I pass, I also feel less lonely for their being there. And loneliness is increasingly the lot of modern man, for whom the SMS and internet culture is rapidly replacing traditional face-to-face human interaction and who lives behind high suburban walls, amassing still more wealth with which to increase his isolation.

But why has the inner city been allowed to degenerate into a no-go area? For that matter, why have such once vibrant centres of culture and diversity such as Yeoville and Doornfontein disintegrated into filthy slums rife with criminality, poverty and vice? I remember how much I relished being part of Yeoville’s religious Jewish community, when on Sabbath evenings I would often take a lengthy detour into the heart of neighbouring Berea when walking back to my flat. Today, I avoid even driving through the area in broad daylight, both because of the heightened sense of danger and because of the depressing sense of decay one finds wherever one looks.

The legacy of apartheid, as always, is largely to blame for the deterioration of so many of Johannesburg’s historic suburbs. Penning the majority of the population inside overcrowded townships inevitably resulted in an uncontrollable migratory deluge once the hated Group Areas Act and other influx-control laws fell away. But one cannot forever go on blaming the past without doing anything constructive to ameliorate the present and secure the future.

Any attempt at urban renewal cannot succeed through an exclusively top-down approach. It has to take place with the consent and meaningful participation of those actually living in the areas in question. Yet how does one go about inculcating a sense of civic pride and communal responsibility in areas beset by poverty and overcrowding, and all the related social ills? It is one thing to feel angry about the past, but unless that anger is channelled into constructive channels, it will result only in paralysis and inevitable further decline. That might well be the epitaph for post-colonial Africa in general.


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.