Surprise renaissance in one of world’s most violent cities Comment on this post ↓
August 26th, 2013 by Warren Swil

BBC says Johannesburg

is undergoing a rebirth

This map shows the location of Johannesburg, South Africa. Click image to enlarge.

THE OUTSTANDING WEEKEND newsmagazine BBC Newsnight this week certainly caught my attention.
The first 10 minute segment (there are usually three 10 minute stories in each show) was about the surprising rebirth of a city in which I lived for six months in 1974: Johannesburg, South Africa.
The second 10 minute segment had me ROFLOL: it was about SWILL – yes, the way my name is often misspelt.
Except this story was not about me; it was about a new way in the U.K. to feed pigs!
It was the story about one of the most violent cities on earth, however, which truly was the surprise. A renaissance in Jo’burg?

IN THE STORY TITLED The rebirth of Johannesburg the online notes to the two minute video extract from the show say:
“Johannesburg is a city that is undergoing what could be called a rebirth.

The BBC report titled “Rebirth of Johannesburg” broadcast on BBC Newsnight this weekend. Click image to enlarge.

“After years of crime and violence, officials have made efforts to make the streets safer which has led to more people and businesses moving back.”
Johannesburg, which sits atop the Witwatersrand – the richest gold mining treasure trove in the world – is barely 120 years old, a spring chicken compared to most cities in the world.
It sprung up after the gold was discovered beneath it in the late 19th century, attracting droves of prospectors from around the world seeking to strike it rich. Some did!
I lived there when I was a cub reporter on the now-defunct Rand Daily Mail in 1974, and again for a few months in 1975 when I was a reporter on the Sunday Express.
(You can see some of the stories I wrote during this period in my archives at The Life and Times of Warren Swil (ignore the redirection notice).

IN HIS TERRIFIC 10-minute story, Andrew Harding discovers islands of renaissance in one of South Africa’s most famous cities.
Not included in the trailer on the web, but the most stunning quote of all, came from street poet “Afurakan,” who renamed the city “Jo-hassleburg.”
On my last visit in 2010, that was indeed the case.
I remember clearly driving around with my sister, who lives in the far suburbs, that half the traffic signal lights were not working.
Thieves had stolen the electrical wires – the copper inside was valuable, and resold on the black market.
What a hassle it was trying to get around town!
The opening of Harding’s report made me sit bolt upright on the couch.
“Salsa lessons in what was an industrial wasteland in the heart of Johannesburg,” he began.

The skyline of the bustling metropolis at the heat of South Africa’s Wiwatersrand. Click image to enlarge.

“Yes, this famously rough and ready city is enjoying something of a makeover.”
Next up were two young, upwardly mobile folks taking a stroll around the Maboneng Precinct in downtown Johannesburg.
“It’s absolutely safe and wonderful, and great,” the man says.
“It’s really cool. It’s like a multicultural vibe, people from all walks of life, walking around [not] needing to carry a gun in your pocket,” says the woman.
Now I was glued to the screen as the image cut to the “Neighbor Goods Market” – great play on words?
“Islands of affluence are springing up, luring South Africa’s middle classes back into a city they abandoned in the 1990s,” Harding reports.
“This place seems to be getting busier every week. It’s like a little slice of London, or New York in the heart of Johannesburg.”
I have visited the city more times than I can possibly remember: almost every visitor to the country does! The main entry point for foreign visitors to South Africa is O.R Tambo International Airport formerly known as Jan Smuts International Airport during the Apartheid era.

I WOULD NEVER HAVE dreamed there would come a time that Harding’s comparison with London or New York could be made with veracity.
But then we hear from Anise Mpungwe, a business owner in the Maboneng precinct:
“As soon as you come into a space which has been forgotten and you revive it again, natural things like job creation happen,” she says.
“There is a lot of history here and we just need to clean it up and make it look like it used to look.”

The 2010 BBC report titled “How Dangerous is South Africa.” Click image to enlarge.

What a dramatic difference three years can make.
In a May, 2010 report on the BBC titled How dangerous is South Africa? Finlo Rohrer reports:
“South Africa is a place where a lot of violent crime happens.
That much is hard to dispute.
Each day an average of nearly 50 people are murdered.”
This story was reported on the eve of the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, which turned out to be a resounding success for the country and its international image.
Rohrer then totals it up:
“In addition to these 18,000 murders each year, there are another 18,000 attempted murders.
“Murder is a staple of the news.”
But even then, there was a glimmer of the changes to come.
Quoted in that report, Johan Burger, senior researcher in the crime and justice program at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies, says:
“The first thing is that the South African murder rate is going down and not up.
“Contrary to what many people think, the murder rate, while still extremely high, is down by about 44 percent since 1995. That’s a huge decrease.”
According to the report this week, it has dropped even further – it is now down by 60 percent.
But, as Harding says: “There is still a long way to go. Criminal gangs still control some neighborhoods. But security has improved significantly.”
As he walks into a former commercial space being renovated into low-rent single unit apartments, he says:
“It is in places like this that you can really see the fabric of the city changing in front of you.
“….a landmark commercial building transformed into bed-sits aimed at black South Africans who were once barred from living here during the Apartheid era.”
“Today public and private money is pouring into new infrastructure trying to make Johannesburg more accommodating, more family friendly.”
Another voice wraps up the piece this way:
“Johannesburg is a place of hope,” says Lebo Mashego, Urban Genesis. “It is not the safest of spaces, I have to say that. But if you really, really try hard there is potential in Johannesburg to become something better.”
Harding adds: “Bad reputations can be hard to shake off, but this is a young dynamic city itching to surprise the skeptics.”
Well, this skeptic was indeed surprised.

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