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Jo'Burg Days: New And Old Johannesburg

Barbara Durlacher tells something of the history of Johannesburg - and the effects of modern transport and the ever-increasing demand for space on the city, and on its new version of itself, Sandton.

Johannesburg was established as a tented mining camp in 1890 when the ‘Main Reef’ was discovered by an itinerant Australian gold-miner named George Harrison. With little prospect that the reef would prove extensive and lasting, the town was not expected to become a permanent settlement, so a hasty grid pattern of the streets were laid down.

Through some quirk of town planning, the town was laid out with short blocks, apparently because the taxes were higher for a corner plot than for the stands in the centre, and very little thought was given to future development or the requirements of a permanent population.

The streets are narrow, and although the style of the buildings followed fashions of the time, including, in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, some lovely examples of Art Deco and a few touches of Art Nouveau, most are solid European and British colonial structures, occupied in the between-wars period by British-owned banks and the huge mining corporations.

As a child I remember the city as being a dignified collection of buildings, with a flavour of the important trading cities of Britain and Europe. The skyline was fairly uniform and seldom rose above six or seven stories. Decorated with granite facings, coloured marble and stained glass windows, the buildings were dignified and gracious. Period furnishings gave interest and individuality to the décor, and the city was a bastion of wealth and stability.

But gradually as time passed and soldiers returning from the Second World War looked for comfortable up-to-date office accommodation complete with facilities for large numbers of staff, the deficiencies of the city became more and more apparent.

One rather unexpected consequence of WWII was that public transport had become degraded, shabby and subject to frequent breakdowns. As the motor and coach building industries in South Africa had never been developed, all public transport, including trams, ‘trolley’ buses and later, diesel-powered buses were imported from Britain or Sweden (Volvo). Various mining and public lobbies had blocked the building of an underground railway, and the articulated trams so familiar on the streets of European cities were never introduced to South Africa.

Due to the demands of war, it was impossible to import replacement vehicles as they wore out, and as a schoolgirl I remember seeing large signs in the buses “Look after this bus, it has to last until 1948!” Trams went out of fashion, disappearing from the streets, followed by a ripping up of the rails; then the large fleet of trolley buses began to thin out, and finally all that was left were the slower and noisier diesel buses plying the inner city routes.

The consequence was that as public transport declined and the influx of ex-servicemen and their new families extended the boundaries of the city into the new suburbs, it became necessary for private families to buy their own cars, and within 10 to 15 years ‘two-car’ families were common. This led to enormous pressure on the road system as well as for all-day parking, and here it was that the system of ‘old’ Johannesburg, the gridiron city with short blocks and no provision for parking garages, became critical.

Trade was being choked by the lack of parking in the city, businessmen were increasingly frustrated by the impossibility of parking close to important business contacts; the traffic department was having a field day penalising thousands of drivers, and it became imperative that big business take action.

The gradual encroachment of black street traders onto the inner city streets was also a factor, as many office workers found it irritating and dangerous to walk along the pavements with the possibility of tripping over vegetables and fruit, piled high by vendors hoping to make a sale. This street selling also led to many bag-snatching incidents with ladies’ gold chains and other valuables being snatched from naïve strollers. Standing orders in most inner city offices were “ladies must not wear valuable jewellery to work” as the crowded pavements offered too many opportunities for light fingered thieves.

Political pressure was also working behind the scenes, and former bureaucratic red tape forbidding expansion upwards and outwards were being questioned, as well as the gradual realisation that it would not be possible to keep blacks out of the city for ever. This statement must sound strange when it is widely known that there was a large labour force of messengers, drivers, delivery men, ‘tea-ladies’, and cleaners in the city, all of whom were black, but none of whom were allowed to own or run their own businesses. But gradually, as the strict apartheid restrictions were relaxed, a small number of black professionals started to appear, and slowly it was realised that the inadequacies of the city made sweeping change impossible.

Then suddenly, 15 miles on the outskirts of Johannesburg, in what was known as a ‘mink and manure’ suburb after the proliferation of properties owned by wealthy, horse owning residents, in a lush and leafy suburb to the north, a new town was born. This was “Sandton” and now the opportunity presented itself to start again with a clean slate; to build a new city, a new Johannesburg, with wide streets, plenty of secure underground parking, beautiful new offices, hotels, shopping malls, and every convenience the modern businessman’s heart could desire.

And that is what has happened; Sandton has taken the place of old Johannesburg, and is growing beyond all expectation, it is the centre of all economic activity, including the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, a state-of-the art centre large enough to host international conferences, enormous and powerful financial houses, five-star world-class hotels, and Sandton City the luxurious and exclusive shopping centre, as well as many other delights.

Meanwhile Johannesburg, whose offices and public buildings stood empty for nearly ten years, has assumed a new existence, as one of the largest and most successful ‘black’ business cities on the continent, offering office and living accommodation to black businessmen from all over Africa. Nigerians, Congolese, Ethiopians, Kenyans and others have taken over offices formerly considered to be too ‘old fashioned’ for the modern businessman and his demanding staff, but ideal as entry-level accommodation for these emerging businessmen, and the city is enjoying a rejuvenation and the start of a new existence.

And Sandton? Gradually as expansion continues apace, it too, is bursting at the seams, and it will not be long before it will also outgrow its boundaries. More properties will be expropriated, or be sold to the highest bidder by eager owners, and further pressure will be put on services. Already there are reports of overflowing drains and raw sewage running down the gutters; transport is stretched to the limit, electricity blackouts are becoming common, especially with electronic equipment of all kinds increasing the load; parking is at a premium (still no public bus service) and there are rumours that the much vaunted “Gautrain” from the airport, to Johannesburg city and thence to Sandton, will not be built for another 10 – 15 years.

It seems there’s just no way of solving the problem!


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