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South African promising developments

Lesley Lokko

South Africa’s new developments offer promising ‘places of light’ and aim to transform Johannesburg into a true melting-pot city

Earlier this year, I gave up my (dream) job as a full-time novelist and returned to teaching. Two days in I asked my architecture students at the University of Johannesburg to ‘name’ their city − the ‘Disconnected’ City; the ‘Migrant’ City; and so on. It seemed a nifty short-cut to understanding how the younger citizens of Africa’s arguably most ‘modern’ city view it − and themselves, of course.

The adjectives that came back were surprising. Instead of ‘disconnected’, ‘fearful’ or ‘broken’ (descriptions in vogue when I last lived here) they chose ‘connected’, ‘natural’ and ‘transforming’, prompting me to think about how, in the space of five years, a city that teetered on a hysterical knife-edge (real and perceived) around crime and corruption had managed to turn things around. Students were picking up on the optimism that developers everywhere pray for. It’s early days, of course, not just for me and my students, but for the inner-city residential developments that have raised their heads above the parapet of suburban sprawl, gated communities and neo-Classical clusters that cling to Johannesburg like fog.

The chattering, dinner-party classes (another barometer, albeit of a different kind) oscillate between bafflement, envy and guarded admiration at the rising fortunes of three main areas of development/redevelopment/rehabilitation (depending on your perspective): Maboneng Precinct, Braamfontein and Newtown Junction. ‘Maboneng’ is a Sotho name that means ‘place of light.’ It’s the oldest of the three developments, begun five years ago, and its glitzy marketing bears all the hallmarks of the rebranding of New York’s Meatpacking District or London’s Shoreditch, controversial in their own way and victims, one might argue, of their own success.

It’s doubtful − yet − if this trio will ever witness the spike in property values that drives Londoners and New Yorkers out of their old neighbourhoods, but the displacements that these developments have brought about reveal the continued insecurity that many South Africans feel about ‘race’. The city, particularly the inner city, is now almost exclusively ‘black’. ‘White flight’ has brought about a whole new mistrust and mythology of fear about the inner city, which makes these three developments even more unusual in the South African context, and somehow less likely to succeed.

There are still huge and gaping inequalities of the sort that few Europeans would recognise, let alone experience, and three − or a dozen − ‘places of light’ will do little for the millions of ‘ordinary’ South Africans who just hope for clean water and reliable electricity, never mind a trendy café or vintage clothing store.

Yet, in the context of this wonderful, complex (and, yes, traumatised) nation, I can’t help but walk around these new quartiers with a tiny smile. In the 20 years since the country’s first free and fair elections, South African cities have come a long, long way. Back then, as a ‘person of colour’, I’d often be the lone diner in a restaurant, one of a handful at an art gallery, and we were conspicuous not only by our absence, but by our ‘apartness’, the desire − and tendency − to cluster together rather than mingle. Over that same time span, I’ve seen restaurants, cafés, galleries and public spaces open up, quite literally; and certainly in Jo’burg, it’s rare to find any social gathering that doesn’t represent the wider South African public at large. But it’s still not quite commonplace to see a group that’s genuinely mixed, where every shade, every culture, every origin, break bread together.

Except in Maboneng. Or Braamfontein. (Newtown Junction hasn’t been properly finished yet, so it’s too early to say). I’ve spent the past two weeks looking and listening, and I’m struck by how like Shoreditch these ‘new’ places are. Yes, these ‘kids’ are united by class, rather than divided by race. But in the context of this country and its history − particularly its history of spatial urban segregation − it’s a huge, significant, first step.

Part of London’s appeal to the IOC was its image as a multicultural metropolis. Johannesburg’s truth is that it is genuinely multi-racial and multicultural, despite history’s best efforts to re-shape and erase that truth. On a recent lunch at Arts-on-Main, one of Maboneng’s flagship spots, the ‘mixed’ quotient was high: 13 out of 15 tables. Young, clearly hip, possibly affluent, and certainly at ease with one another. One small step for Shoreditch; a giant step for Maboneng. The city-to-come? I certainly hope so.

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