“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” We all have a shared value in a functioning economic city, and these words by architect and activist Jane Jacobs, whose writings championed a fresh, community-based approach to city building, are instructive in the case of Johannesburg.
The very centre of the South African economy is Johannesburg. The city has a vibrant and rich history, one filled with hard workers, creative thinkers and steadfast leaders. But crime and decay have eaten away at this golden city, especially the central business district. One could not help but feel the recent gas explosion on Lilian Ngoyi (Bree Street) in Johannesburg underscored the dire threat the city is facing.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Methane gas caused Joburg CBD blast, say city officials
Partnership between the public and the private sectors holds a lot of promise. One positive outcome of the tragic Covid-19 pandemic was that it forced government and business to work together in more productive ways. During those dark days, entirely new channels of cooperation were forged. We need to utilise some of these channels now to rejuvenate our economy, and there is a new urgency deeply felt across business that something must be done, with or without government support.
In many ways, the Johannesburg CBD is of symbolic importance. It has always been a melting pot, a crossroads of many cultures, an energetic and storied space representative of the beating heart of South Africa. This is just one reason why it is imperative that people from every walk of life are enabled to take hands in a purposeful and directed mission.
Symbolism is not the only reason to do this, of course. The reimagining and recreation of the Johannesburg CBD is an investment in people, in jobs, in the city, the province of Gauteng, and ultimately in the hopes we all have for our country.
Creating a safe and fully functioning CBD that is confidently leading the continent in the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be an act of economic rejuvenation that will ripple outwards and drive broader change and inclusive growth.
Fight to save Joburg CBD
It is in this spirit that Jozi My Jozi was started. Jozi My Jozi is a non-profit organisation founded by a coalition of the willing to rescue the Johannesburg CBD. The concept was initiated when Anglo American approached Wits University as it considered options for preserving the heritage of its ancestral home in Marshalltown, vacated by the relocation of its offices to Rosebank and London.
In an unlikely combination of Nando’s co-founder, Robbie Brozin, with a Business Unity South Africa (Busa) organisation that was established together with IQbusiness, called SAtion, advice on the opportunity for Wits Business School created a spark for the “phoenix” moment. SAtion had the mission of uniting business and government in the digitalisation of South Africa.
From those beginnings, an even greater movement has emerged, as the concept caught the imagination of many supporters from across business and civil society. Today, Jozi My Jozi enjoys the independent support and backing of some of the biggest local and international names in corporate South Africa, including Anglo American, Nando’s, FNB, Standard Bank, Investec, Absa and Microsoft.
It’s benefitting from the brilliance of a new branding agency “We-are-bizarre”, founded by creative expert Melusi Mhlungu who, having returned from six years in the US, crafted the Jozi My Jozi brand with inspiration from the rescue of New York city from 1977, “I Love NY”.
All these role-players are coming together to ignite hope and instil pride in Johannesburg. And on 4 August 2023, Duncan Wanblad, CEO of Anglo American, handed over the keys to the 42,000m² of their Marshalltown precinct — 45 Main Street — to Taddy Blecher, an educational entrepreneur and co-founder of the Maharishi Invincibility Institute. This marks the most symbolic phase of the Jozi My Jozi initiative with the creation of an education hub, where plans are under development for Wits Business School to join Maharishi in the Marshalltown precinct.
It might take the heft of big corporate names to make a project like this noteworthy, but what it really takes to make it a success is the “invisible people”, as Robbie Brozin advocates, within and surrounding it.
Not just the people working in these companies and driving the necessary daily decisions, but the people of Johannesburg — those walking on its inner-city sidewalks, those who want to safely sit in its parks again at dusk, those who look at its majestic skyline and feel a sense of belonging. All these people can work together. They need to recognise that they can contribute. They need to be shown how they can contribute. And they need to feel part of a movement of determined people.
Jozi My Jozi is a vehicle through which this is achieved. As Melusi Mhlungu says, it is a “super-connector” with its stated goal to connect every person who wants to make a difference, from corporates to the everyday people living and working in Johannesburg, to inspire sustainable and creative solutions for the inner city and beyond.
Mark Heywood recently wrote in Maverick Citizen about the various efforts to resuscitate Johannesburg and commented: “The citizenry are not combining their power or their solutions into a movement that is more than the sum of its parts.” And “the fixes people are working for locally are not tied to a larger people’s plan for the city, a blueprint and set of values that will allow us to reclaim our city from below”.
This has been our experience at Jozi My Jozi as well and we envisage being an enabling partner in the integrated physical and digital rebuilding of the CBD. The residents of Johannesburg are not an apathetic group, but we are an overwhelmed, exhausted and bewildered group. Our love for the city runs deep and with this love comes a sense of responsibility and ownership. It is there already, in the heart of every resident, but it needs to be purposefully channelled into action — and Jozi My Jozi will do just that.
Any true improvement of the CBD recognises that what we do now, we do for our children and future generations. As he received the keys to 45 Main Street, Taddy Blecher said “we don’t need permission from government to love a child. We the people of South Africa can take control of our cities”.
Fundamentally, future citizens should be able to rely on a safe city with basic and technological services that allow their hopes and dreams to thrive beyond our current imaginations. The time is now to reclaim the essence of Jozi’s former glory and help it become a place where every person has every prospect to prosper in the future.
We have the imagination, the willpower and the resources to make concrete and sustainable changes. Jozi’s heart is just the beginning of this catalytic renewal. DM