Johannesburg’s Rebirth

The period following the release of political prisoners and the un-banning of political organizations in 1990 and the advent of democracy in 1994 brought unprecedented changes to the country in general and the heart of the city of Johannesburg in particular.

The inner-city of Johannesburg was designed by and for the exclusive use of white South Africans. Blacks were to visit by day from their far-flung townships to labour for the white owned and run economy.

Foreign visitors to Johannesburg were amazed to see the first world city skyline as they drove in from the airport. There was not a township, not least a slum or shack in sight. It was for-all-intents and purposes a white city. And the white custodians of the land were proud to announce that they were of first world standard, and indeed in the seventies, had the highest standard of living in the world) and knew their natives, and could proclaim that these natives where happy.

Indeed when one gazed upon these ‘natives’ from a distance, they seemed not too unhappy with their lot, and seemingly went about their work with zeal and zest.

So, the events that transpired after 1994 seemed to take most by surprise. And, with hindsight, as is always the case, we see that what happened was perfectly understandable.

All the legislative restrictions that had inhibited the majority of South Africans from the city of gold and all other previously white neighbourhoods were lifted, and quite naturally, people flooded into the cities, and Johannesburg attracted the most, with its fabled wealth. Gold was literally to be picked up from the pavements.

Now, faced with this unprecedented and totally foreign occurrence, the good citizens of the city were struck with terror, and to make matters worse, the security apparatus that had been created for their exclusive benefit, was no longer at their exclusive beck and call. Chaos reigned supreme.

So began the phenomenon of ‘white fright’, in which the white inhabitants of the city, by whom and for whom it was built, fled. Overnight, the city turned from white to black, with the ownership of the city remaining overwhelmingly in white hands with a small but steadily growing number of blacks acquiring property in the inner-city limits. And on the outskirts of the city, a new mega-city appeared, as if by magic. Overnight, in every conceivable space, appeared the shacks of those desperate to get a slice of the cake that is the city of gold.

In the transitional period, criminal gangs had a field day, exploiting with acumen the disarray of the security forces change of guard. White’s were an obvious target, but undoubtedly the prime victims of the crime wave remained the poorest of the poor, who were and still are, overwhelmingly black.

But throughout all this chaos, the new city of Johannesburg was painfully and beautifully born, coming alive from a city that was curiously empty by night to one bustling and bursting with life (and sudden death).

The City Fathers, and they were mostly men in the early days, came to the party, and plans were put in place to manage the rebirth. Culture was identified as one of the main drivers of this process, and slowly we are beginning to see the fruits of their labour. We are at the point were it can be said with a fair degree of confidence, that Johannesburg is on its way to becoming an African city, and a dynamic and exciting one at that.

Cedric Nunn




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