Inner-city Joburg and Maboneng: a tale of two cities

History, black resistance and the working class oppose property developers perpetuating the myth of empty buildings just waiting for gentrification in the CBD.

Back in the early 2010s, Blk Jks guitarist Mpumelelo Mcata was drinking coffee at a pavement cafe in the newly gentrifying inner-city area of Maboneng when two Zulu-speaking workers walked past. One hadn’t seen the new development and its hipster denizens before and was disturbed. But his friend reassured him: “Don’t worry, mfana, it’s just a movie set. They’ll take it all down again soon.”

“Being black,” says Mcata, “I could understand him – but how many people around Maboneng have stayed oblivious to how the place is seen?”

In April 2019, after a year of business rescue efforts, Propertuity – the pioneer property developer in Maboneng – liquidated and sold off its 18 buildings, including the art galleries, cafes and performance spaces of the Arts on Main complex. By that time, those holdings amounted to just over 10% of buildings and land under redevelopment in and around the area, stretching almost from Jeppe Hostel, through New Doornfontein to the edge of Hillbrow, under multiple developers. Residents, though, call it all “Maboneng”, irrespective of official designations. The area pioneered a process whose ripples are increasingly seen in dispossession and clearances across the inner city.

Mcata’s tale illuminates the unreality of the changes in east-central Johannesburg for the poor and working people who struggle to survive around them. Two different Johannesburgs, with different histories, legal perspectives, economies and aspirations simultaneously inhabit the same space. The contradictions between them are sharpening as the City of Johannesburg (in its own euphemism) “releases more properties to the private sector”. In this and subsequent articles, New Frame will look at those contradictions as they are lived around what UK Vogue magazine dubbed in 2017 “the coolest place in Joburg”.

14 August 2012: Mpumelelo Mcata of the Blk Jks. The portrait was taken in a Maboneng building when his other band, Motel Mari, recorded there. (Photograph by Madelene Cronjé)

Same timeline, different histories 

A 2013 article by business journalist Juliet Pitman sums up the founding myth of Maboneng: “[Before,] respectable people didn’t want to drive through there; the suggestion that they live there would have been at once horrifying and laughable [… Now, the area has been] transformed from a no-go area into a hip, vibrant urban community… you’ll pass trendy restaurants and coffee bars. Look up and you’ll see modern urban apartments and rooftop hangouts where young professionals, creatives and entrepreneurs take in the sunset over the city skyline.”

Pitman was profiling Propertuity founder Jonathan Liebmann, a key author of the myth that an established Johannesburg inner city community was “nonexistent”, with an “oversupply” of inner-city residential spaces. But both his evocation of emptiness, and Pitman’s racist labelling of “respectability” reflect only one history of the inner city: the white history. Despite residence restrictions, pass laws, forced removals and more, black poor and working people have always lived in Johannesburg. 

Even before the Blk Jks’ sojourn in New York made a Maboneng apartment affordable, Mcata reflects, “I used to walk around those streets … In the townships, it’s always been an aspiration to ‘live in the city’ because of everything you can find there … [I read an article saying] Maboneng was an island. But an island for who? For somebody else? I’ve always felt a kinship with the city.”

26 July 2019: Everyday life looks markedly different outside the gentrified cocoon of Maboneng Island. (Photograph by James Oatway)

History is on Mcata’s side. The inner city, and especially the eastern areas that became Liebmann’s “Place of Light”, was actually a historic site of black resistance: a place where the solidarity of Johannesburg’s black working class was forged. Maboneng is the third wave of “decline” and “rise” there. Doornfontein in the late 19th century was “Millionaires Row”, inhabited by the likes of mining magnate Barney Barnato. But close by, in “locations”, factory compounds, servants’ quarters and some freehold housing, black workers lived. Those workers were always predominantly migrants, from across South and southern Africa, actively recruited by capital or drawn from underdeveloped rural areas by access to city opportunities: men and women; job-seekers; factory and service workers; clerks, teachers and more.

By the teens of the 20th century, city officials noted a rise in “mixed” residence and a need for more permits, as industry expanded. After the Boer War, the 1922 Rand Rebellion and the crashing property values of the worldwide 1929 Great Depression, the millionaires moved north, and speculators bought up their great houses and gardens to subdivide into tiny workers’ rooms for formal and informal letting: what became known as the “slumyards” of Doornfontein. Workers preferred the freedom these offered to the regimented regime of equally squalid compounds; employers found the costs lower. But Joburg’s black residents were already asserting their right to the city: demanding decent, municipally funded homes close to their work. That assertion flowered in mass, well-organised and politically explicit informal settler movements in the years following World War II: “Sofasonke – we all die together” was their slogan.

Many of the black workers active in this movement had come to Johannesburg when the war increased demand for industrial products. Doornfontein became a place crowded with light industry. Linatex House – now a city rehousing facility – began its life then, as head office for a mining supplies manufacturer. Some black residents hung on, but the more systematic clearances of apartheid after 1948 removed them brutally to peripheral townships. Yet black people still worked in the city – they made its functioning possible – and made determined efforts to evade restrictions and live closer to work. With the fall of apartheid, white disinvestment stripped the CBD of many businesses and richer residents. The end of residence restrictions and the desperate state to which apartheid had reduced the former “homelands” led to large numbers of work-seekers and petty traders returning. They settled formally where they could afford to, and informally where they could not or where, as often, residential space was scarce.

26 July 2019: Two worlds meet on a pavement in affluent Maboneng. (Photograph by James Oatway)

Removals by another name

It was into this crowded context that Liebmann, with his model of block-by-block redevelopment, came in 2009/2010, at a time when the city was seeking to create, through City Improvement District provisions, a “ripple effect” from developed to undeveloped inner city sites. Maboneng has been described as an exercise in gentrification, but, “I’m not sure that is the best term,” says architect Mpho Matsipa. “It makes the forced removals of predominantly poor black people seem ‘new’ when in fact this practice is at least 100 years old, albeit using different mechanisms.”

Those contextual differences matter. However, as Joburg advances its rulers’ aspiration for a “global” city, “gentrification” shows the similarities with what’s happening in London, New York or Berlin. Bigger local and global finance has replaced pioneer property developers, and parts of the city have effectively been privatised. Their borders are demarcated by design style, security guards who control entry, CCTV cameras and biometric building access. What should be public spaces are bought and sold. Foot traffic can transit Maboneng Island; only those who can afford to consume get residence rights. “Anyone can hang around here,” Liebmann explained. “Obviously, they can’t sleep on the pavements.”

Liebmann strenuously denied his original Maboneng development displaced anybody, insisting Propertuity only repurposed “empty” buildings. He never discussed the harsh city mechanisms rendering them empty. But his narrative of a deserted city where “the community is nonexistent” and “you’ve got to build spaces that attract people back” does more than displace: it diminishes the whole history of black Johannesburg.

“One must be very careful,” Liebmann once mused, “about developing a downtown … that caters only for the poor … maybe some people should be in the inner city and others should be on the outskirts of town.” 

One resident who organises resistance, Freda Motshwane, rejects this. “Let us stay here! If the city moves us, they’ll move us to containers outside town, where you must fetch water as if you were still in the rural areas.”

26 July 2019: Loyiso Sigaji and Freda Motshwane, a Maboneng resident who  organises resistance to the developer’s mantra that “the community is nonexistent”. (Photograph by James Oatway)

Discussing removals, University of Cape Town sociologist Owen Crankshaw told the Guardian a vision of only the privileged few as inner city residents replicates the divisions of apartheid: “The apartheid social order was characterised by the suburbanisation of black townships far from centres of employment. This spatial order has persisted because new, low-cost housing developments were also built on the suburban edge of the cities.”

Displacement speeded up, becoming more harsh, open and shameless as other developers entered the Maboneng space. The Inner City Federation, of which Motshwane is a member, was set up by a public interest law centre, the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri), to provide an organisational base for resistance to evictions and clearances. Siyabonga Mahlangu is the federation’s secretary. He says they know of more than 40 buildings where evictions loom. 

Another federation member, Thobile Zondo, who lives in an unofficial rental on Janie Street, close to Maboneng’s “Common Ground” Park, puts it more starkly: “I see that place, and I feel bad,” she says. “Everywhere I look, I see Maboneng coming in to squeeze us.”

26 July 2019: Thobile Zondo and her daughter Nombula, who live in an unofficial rental on Janie Street, close to Maboneng. (Photograph by James Oatway)

This is the first in a four-part series examining the impact of privatised redevelopment on the lives of low-income residents of Johannesburg’s inner city.

Part two:

Part three:

Part four:

Update, 13 March 2020: Mpumelelo Mcata was previously referred to as Mpumi Mcata.

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