Revitalised cities across the world – Manchester (US), Bilbao (Spain), HafenCity (Germany) and Melbourne – offer significant inspiration for reviving our own dysfunctional inner city. If war-ravaged Luanda can become “the revitalised jewel of African glory”, then so can Johannesburg.
Why should we bother revitalising our inner city and other nodes that I have identified, why don’t we just move on to other suburbs? People’s eyes glaze over when you talk about the inner city. They’re fatigued. “Hillbrow’s been a dump for decades,” they say. “Randburg’s going to the dogs.” “Why don’t you just move on?” Because I’m not the walking away type, and I don’t see inner city revitalisation as a plan to make the city pretty. My vision of a renewed inner city isn’t constrained to flower boxes, a lick of paint and quaint houses for high earners.
The Johannesburg inner city, Randburg CBD, and Roodepoort CBD are the gritty, unglamorous, distressed suburbs where buildings have been abandoned or hijacked, where marginalised communities are plagued with social problems, and live in cramped or unsanitary conditions. Trying to convince tourists, or even the city’s residents, to visit the historical buildings in the inner city, or take their families to the Mai Mai traditional market, is a hard sell. Who wants to run the risk of being mugged? Who wants to confront grime? How then can I convince people that unless we start implementing redevelopment programmes in the inner city, we cannot hope to be a caring city that recognises its responsibilities to all of its residents?
I refuse to give up on the inner city, because I know that in spite of its regression, the people living there need us.
The CBDs are filled with children who have few safe havens and they are often subjected to substance abuse. It terrifies me that a study, such as that of the University of Baltimore’s Centre for Families, Children and Court, has found that children who live in inner cities have few opportunities for emotional development and no intellectual stimulation.
In turn, their aspirations are equally limited, with few positive role models to follow. My experience of too many of our youth is that they seek to emulate the lifestyle of high rollers such as the Kenny Kunenes of the world, with little appreciation for other forms of success.
We will have no young Mark Shuttleworths dreaming of unexplored planets, no Niq Mhlongos finding their way into our African stories, or Sibongile Khumalos to wow our home-grown audiences.
Transforming this mindset first requires that we transform our children’s environment.
Decrepit inner city blocks of flats house impoverished families who have to share a single apartment with other families, and low-wage earners who have to pay exorbitant rentals to criminal landlords who have hijacked empty buildings. There is no dignity to be found in passageways that are rivers of sewage or dumping grounds for drug users.
Ordinary people, just like you and me, live in these extraordinary, marginalised zones. These people are worn down by the detritus of decaying environments and inaccessibility to services, by not being able to get on to the employment ladder, and they feel invisible to the authorities or any city initiatives that might help them.
These inhabitants include the young people known as the missing middle – these are our youth who have been educated, but who are unable to access tertiary education or gainful employment. At our peril we ignore the people who have been forgotten in post-apartheid South Africa.
I guess what I’m asking my fellow Johannesburgers to do is to stop looking at a revitalisation of the inner city as a plan to wallpaper over the physical decay, and that instead we start viewing it as a people-empowering priority.
An investment in our people will have rewards for generations to come, and its benefits will seep into every thread of our social fabric. One author, Elise Bright, writes that we can consider revitalisation a success if the changes undertaken to improve the quality of life result in “overall improvement in some of the measures of residents’ safety, services, shelter, or social capital”. That’s what I’m envisaging: a new generation of recognised people, included citizens, empowered Johannesburgers.
If our people-empowering initiative in the inner city is to succeed, it simply must involve the city’s residents and business owners in its planning and development, so that projects address the residents’ concerns. We will develop partnerships between the City of Johannesburg, residents, business owners, and corporations and organisations to generate ideas and resources that are sustainable and life-enhancing.
The City will provide basic services.
It will re-establish an environment in which the rule of law is upheld. There will be visible policing, municipal courts will be re-established, the JMPD will enforce by-laws and prosecute infringements, and the City’s Group Forensic Unit will continue to seek out and prosecute fraud and corruption that takes money away from the City’s social programmes.
The City will consolidate strategies to seize and repurpose its captured assets and encourage absent owners to do the same. In this way, we will address the massive housing backlog that exists in the city and provide homes for people so that they can rebuild their lives. I undertook to turn the inner city into a building site, and my resolve has not faltered. We will partner with the men and women who share the City’s faith in our vision and together we will rebuild and restore dignity to our people.
A working city is the only workable situation, and to this end the City of Johannesburg has implemented ease-of-business interventions to kick-start economic activity so that business owners are drawn to set up shop in the city. Where the City is the developer, it will only employ local artisans at the construction sites, buy from local manufacturers, and support in-situ related services, because that is how you empower the City’s people.
Rebuilding our inner city’s people is not a quick fix, it’s a medium- to long-term strategic initiative. But we have place-specific strategies to turn around the lives of the inner city’s inhabitants: a commitment to providing low-income housing, an operational transport system, entrepreneurs and businesses, and a young population desirous of improving and stabilising their lives.
These factors will aid us in reversing the social decay and developing a generation of inner city dwellers who embrace their changed circumstances.
It’s their vision. It’s my vision. I know it’s yours too. Let’s make it happen. DM