By Tom Leenders
When visiting a city, the first impression and different characters of neighbourhoods tell me a lot about the history and possible future of these neighbourhoods and the city. For Joburg it was more than a tale of two cities.
Joburg shows the importance of downtown social gentrification for cities in South Africa. Instead of letting urban sprawl take over, downtown is especially important because of the quality of the already present, but now neglected, urban grid and existing architecture. Lack of urban planning and absence of professional architecture in townships and the fringe of the city makes cities unattractive and stimulates chaotic sprawl. South African downtown gentrification should focus more on the important social component, because the redevelopment of neglected urban cores is of so much more importance than just rising real estate value and ditto prices. An already successful example can be seen in Braamfontein, which has a bustling student life and a growing diversity in inhabitants with apartments for a diverse audience. Top down geographical segregation is something South Africa’s history is familiar with remembering for instance the population removals by the apartheid regime in the 1960’s. The geography and demography of cities was roughly reshaped which is still visible today. The same trend of economic and thus geographical segregation in South Africa’s urban cores is looming today, although with a very different root cause: capital driven only real estate markets.
In order to take the opportunity to create interesting and diverse urban cores, the social side of gentrification in South Africa’s cities will be essential in order to stimulate geographical and economic integration.
For three weeks in August I visited South Africa, saw a lot of friends and met new ones. After two weeks of game driving and spending time in more rural areas, I was dying to be in a city and experience urban life. Especially when visiting my dear friends Marrit and Casper in Joburg. Joburg: an intriguing city with lots of recent history, beautiful architecture and energy but also a city with big problems: No go areas, urban sprawl, bad maintained real estate and public spaces and last but not least economic segregation and poverty. From Melville, were we stayed, as a former bohemian part of town, to Downtown (CBD) less safe Joburg. From gentrificating Maboneng to Soweto property prices are rising with double-digit percentages in some parts. Joburg is more than two cities.
The global trend of migration to the cities, which is getting stronger in numbers, also counts for South Africa. Two-thirds of the country’s population lives in cities, according to a 2013 survey of the country released by the South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR). And this development is here to stay. People will always search for employment in areas with higher economic growth and concentrated economic activity. With an outlook to this continuing process, negative consequences of migration are just around the corner. Rapid and uncontrolled urbanisation can fuel crime, social tensions and greater health and environmental risks.
With all the new people in, for example, Joburg hoping and working on a better future, they will have their share in more urban sprawl. But this movement of population is more than a growing unplanned city with all its side effects. It was and is a social change, challenging the political and economic order. As Hernando de Soto a Peruvian Liberal Economist formulates it: “The informal economy in the shantytowns is a capitalist insurgency, and that is a good thing!” In order to let cities like Joburg benefit from this social change, the focus should be on revitalizing it’s downtown by providing opportunities to climb the socioeconomic ladder. So not just high end condo’s and exclusive coffee shops but also social housing and start-up opportunities. Altogether carefully woven in the existing urban fabric.
Another argument for paying serious attention to the opportunities of downtown social gentrification, is the fact that population movement to the cities always challenges the existing political order. The migration of people from the countryside to the city creates a movement to asserting political rights. This is a good thing, especially when power seems for granted and policy is not addressing the needs of its citizens and the city as a whole. With municipal elections coming up in 2016, I suspect a serious challenge to the ANC power base in the cities, as people will look to the Capetonian success of Democratic Alliance (DA), were Downtown Capetown is far more . Of course Joburg’s CBD and downtown Capetown are very different in history and urban plan but the current and future attention should be the same: social gentrification!
Taking power for granted also seems to be the case in South Africa. The public opinion on Zuma has been better and I don’t see that changing. Some examples: failing to deal with the Marikana issue, 783 outstanding fraud charges, shady motivations and a possible Russian deal on nuclear energy, the possible flee of the international wanted Sudanese president al-Bashir etcetera. Besides that, the public as well as the professional opinion on badly run state enterprises fires back on the ANC also. So for the ANC it would be wise to, besides giving more attention to the issues mentioned above, address the interest of the new urbanists and develop some effective policy on redeveloping its city centres with attention for social gentrification. The ingredients needed are within reach: from the most beautiful Art Deco architecture in Joburg, to a young and rising middle class with lots of energy and an entrepreneurial spirit. South Africa’s downtowns are ready for their important role.
Written on personal behalf
 The Economist, August 22nd 2015: Middle East and Africa, South African Property – Trendy townships
 The Wall Street Journal, Friday-Sunday, August 21-23, 2015: The Betrayal of Mandela’s Promise; F.W. de Klerk