Gimme hope, Jo’anna: My walk through the Johannesburg CBD

View of the Central Business District from the roof of the Anstey's building

I step out warily from the black Mercedes onto the pavement. My white host and companion, Sue Van Niekerk, is equally cautious. We are in the central business district (CBD) of Johannesburg. All around us are the derelict hulks of once grand buildings, now standing silently in their neglect. Office buildings are plastered with “to let” signs, and plate-glass doors are chained shut. It all feels like a scene from Blade Runner. Being a Sunday, there are few people around, but one can’t help noticing that they are all black. It seems that in the heart of the Rainbow Nation, only one colour now prevails. A sense of hope betrayed, of great expectations thoroughly dashed, seems to pervade the entire CBD, and this gloom infects our own spirits.

Symbols of Johannesburg - the old and the new

It wasn’t always like this, however. Johannesburg was built on the riches of a gold-mining empire and in its heyday rivalled New York in wealth, power, and grandeur. Then came the dismantling of the apartheid regime in the late 1980s. The Abolition of Racially Based Land Measures Act, 1991 repealed many of the apartheid laws that imposed race-based restrictions on landownership and land use, including keeping the blacks out of the CBD. The subsequent influx of blacks in search of economic opportunity and rising crime rates led to an equally rapid exodus of white business and home owners to the suburbs of Sandton and Midrand. Many white investors simply abandoned their properties, leaving them to be “hijacked” by black squatters and gangs. The newly elected African National Congress (ANC) government, overwhelmed by enormous transitional problems, did little to prevent the decline of the city, a precipitous fall marked by weak administration, ineffective management, and lack of political will. And so within a decade, the CBD, once the heart of one of the world’s greatest cities, was simply hollowed out as though by a neutron bomb, leaving it entirely in the hands of its new black denizens.

The only white people I saw in the black city!

Sue and I walk silently, not looking anyone in the eye, not asking for directions. It’s not that anyone is overtly threatening or intimidating. People go about their business as in any big city. I wonder about our reaction—is this fear real and is it justified? Or it just the fear of the Other, of the unknown and the unfamiliar? Sue would probably insist that the fear is real. Her home in the gated community of Twin River Estates in Centurion was invaded by blacks, a terrifying experience that still haunts her. Many other whites in post-apartheid South Africa have similar stories to tell. But what about me? It’s an uncomfortable feeling because I’m not from here, have no stories to tell, and don’t consider myself racist in any way.

Soon we reach the old Anstey’s department store, one of the city’s landmark buildings from the Art Deco period. We take the lift to the home of Sue’s college friend and our guide, Ted Botha. Ted is an incredibly interesting guy, having lived all over the world, most recently in Manhattan for several years, before returning to his homeland to write a novel about an American real estate developer and film producer who made the old Johannesburg his home. Ted explains that he felt the need to return to Johannesburg and walk its streets to reconnect with the city and to gain an authentic feel for it. It’s a brave, maybe even foolhardy decision that not many would have made, and I respect him for it. He adds that he wants to make a difference and be part of the regeneration of the inner city that he sees coming and that is, in many ways, already taking place.

Johannesburg has many grand buildings, now sadly derelict

We take in the view from Ted’s terrace. The city is certainly big, much bigger than I expected, and the deserted office blocks stretch away in every direction. Down at street level, we step out into the sunlight, but not before Ted takes Sue’s handbag and tucks it away safely in his backpack. At the street corner is a colourful open-air fresh-produce market, and I stop to take a few photos. My companions stand a few feet away, apprehensive and watchful. Again, I don’t feel any imminent threat, but I suppose it pays to be careful. I’m reminded of my days in West Philadelphia when I would cross the street when I saw a group of black men approaching. How deeply ingrained are these fears and prejudices, and how difficult it is to rid ourselves of them!

As we walk towards Main Street, which bisects the CBD, Ted points out several iconic old buildings—the Town Hall (1914), the Post Office (1897), the Rand Club (1904), and the High Court (1910) One can imagine how impressive these edifices must have been in their prime, but now, fallen into disuse and disrepair, they are sad reminders of a lost age. Not far is the forlorn Carlton Centre, once the tallest building in Africa, abandoned since 1997 when the Carlton Hotel, which was housed in the complex, finally shut its doors.

I found the statue of Gandhi as a young lawyer to be quite unusual

We reach Gandhi Square, formerly Van Der Bijl Square and Government Square. It is a long rectangular space, fringed with the ubiquitous McDonald’s, Nando’s, and other fast-food joints and now the main central bus terminus for the city’s Metrobus network. In the late 1990s, the bus terminus was revamped as part of the city’s inner-city renewal project, and a 2.5-metre bronze statue of Gandhi was installed at the centre of the square. It portrays Gandhi as a gangly young lawyer, with a full mane of hair, and with his legal robes flowing behind him, one that few Indians would recognize. And yet South Africa is the crucible where his identity as a political activist was first forged.

I am amused when a black security guard walks up to us and politely inquires if we are lost. I suppose it is a natural question considering that we stick out like a sore thumb because of our different colour. Ted is less amused and gets even more irritated when I ask if he is the only white apartment owner in the Anstey’s building. He accuses me of being overly focused on race, but I point out, quite reasonably I think, that being brown myself excuses me from having to defend myself on these grounds. I suppose one can get defensive when people implicitly question your radical lifestyle choices.

The Maboneng precinct is a symbol of urban renewal in the new Jo'burg

We end our visit to the CBD with lunch in the Maboneng Precinct, in the eastern portion, a symbol of urban renewal in the new Johannesburg. Maboneng (a Sotho word meaning “place of light”) is home to an ambitious project spearheaded by a developer, Jonathan Liebmann, which has successfully converted several derelict warehouses and disused factories into unique retail, housing, and office buildings. It is anchored by Arts on Main, one of the two main building complexes in Maboneng Precinct, and home to many artists’ workshops, galleries, and other creative spaces. I feel my spirits lifting as I observe the colourful street life and the joyful mixed throngs of residents and tourists alike, all out to have a good time on a Sunday afternoon. The vibe is very reminiscent of Greenwich Village in Manhattan. The weekend Market on Main offers a wonderful selection of regional food and locally designed products, and we stuff ourselves with shrimp, samosas, and baklava.

There is hope for Jo’anna after all. Urban regeneration is taking hold, and even flourishing in some places, and the dreams of true believers who moved back home like Ted are being realized. This once great city may never recapture its former glory, but a brighter future beckons. As we return to the safety of the white suburbs, I reflect that so much of this is also about overcoming the demonization of inner-city Johannesburg in the minds of suburban white residents. I look over at Sue and she smiles wryly as though reading my mind.

Ranjan Pal

Ranjan Pal is a Gurgaon-based travel writer, photographer, and a world traveler. His travel stories and photographs have appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New York Times, Condé Nast Traveller, National Geographic Traveller, Travel + Leisure and Outlook Traveller.

16 thoughts on “Gimme hope, Jo’anna: My walk through the Johannesburg CBD

  • February 6, 2019 at 12:47 AM

    Ranjan – I remember visiting downtown Joburg in 2003 or 2004 when the exodus had already begun. I worked on Health and Education at IFC back then, and we were visiting a large and well laid-out hospital, trauma centre and rehab facility that was essentially mothballed. It was the private hospital of a mining company set up to deal with employee accidents and rehabilitation. I remember feeling really sad that such fantastic infrastructure was basically going to rot and degrade.

    • February 27, 2019 at 3:02 PM

      Yes. But I see some hope for the future now. There are winds of change afoot 🙂 It would be great to have Jo’burg restored to some of its former greatness

  • February 17, 2019 at 8:14 AM

    Why are you ever writing about this over rated extremely poor dodgy place. People offer to sell you weed when you walk in the street. It used to be great as I have heard of but now it is heading in the wrong direction. Avoid at all costs with younger children.

    • February 27, 2019 at 3:12 PM

      I think that is an overly pessimistic assessment. Certainly Jo’burg has been on a long slide to nowhere but it is turning around gradually. I did not feel inherently unsafe during the few hours I spent in walking the CBD and nobody approached me or hassled me.

  • February 19, 2019 at 9:12 AM

    Let me tell you Maboneng Precinct “the ambitious project” as you mentioned is not sustainable in the long run. It is a high risk area with safety concerns. Everyone high and drug deals going in openly. Horrific!

    • February 27, 2019 at 3:14 PM

      That was certainly not the experience that I had during my brief visit there. It seemed quite safe and there was a large crowd of tourists. Everyone was friendly and having a good time !

  • February 22, 2019 at 9:27 PM

    My tour guide informed me that Gandhi resided in Johannesburg as a young lawyer so I picked up some knowledge that I was not aware of.

    • February 27, 2019 at 3:17 PM

      Yes. I found that to be particularly interesting. The statue of Gandhi as a young man in the heart of the CBD was fascinating 🙂

  • February 27, 2019 at 6:42 PM

    Our hotel is across the street from Mandela Square. There is a restaurant overlooking the square that I’d like to try. We won’t be able to walk there until after 1900 (7:00PM). Is it safe to walk around there at that hour and to probably walk back to the hotel 2 hours later?

    • February 28, 2019 at 9:38 AM

      I am actually not an expert on South Africa. Just happened to be visiting there. But I asked a close SA friend of mine who knows Joburg well and this was her reply. “I would do it. To be frank, we get such queries constantly and yet more tourists are robbed in Spain than SA. Be careful – as you would be in Madrid and it should be fine!” Hope it helps

  • February 28, 2019 at 1:50 PM

    Yes, really. All above told the truth. Can we communicate on this theme – Here or in PM.

    • February 28, 2019 at 3:58 PM

      Sure. What specifically would you like to talk about ?

  • March 1, 2019 at 5:35 PM

    Hello Ranjan. Arrived here from nat geo article which I think published by you only. Please tell me what is the perfect time to visit South Africa? I wanna do some quad biking and wine tasting. Any personal recommendation….

  • March 1, 2019 at 5:56 PM

    Can we get rented cars for this area? Are they safe?

    • March 2, 2019 at 12:43 AM

      I am sure you can and that they are but I don’t have the details. Please check on any local SA travel website.

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