By John Makoni
Pretoria - Lilian Ngoyi Square the in Pretoria city centre is poised for a make-over that will turn it into a place of bright neon colours and giant digital screens, Times Square-style, if the Tshwane Metro Council has its way. Although the completed project might fail to replicate New York’s popular rendezvous spot in its minutiae, that is what city authorities eager to enhance the capital’s image have in mind.
Pretoria has historically played second fiddle to Joburg when it comes to hosting great events, parties and entertainment.
“Tshwane does not have a nightlife to speak of; we want to re-establish Lilian Ngoyi Square into your nightlife, open-air space,” says Subesh Pillay, member of the mayoral committee responsible for economic development and planning.
The recreation square and the adjacent Sammy Marks Square shopping mall, join the State Theatre building nearby to form a triangular entertainment, recreation and shopping enclave, arguably the city centre’s busiest.
Harnessing Pretoria’s potential in this way is expected to result in a city of quality spaces that is capable of providing great entertainment and decent learning facilities and to meet the needs of the many government functionaries and diplomats as well as the swelling student population.
And when the mooted transformation is complete, the city’s huge government and diplomatic community will find no cause to travel to Joburg in search of entertain-ment and recreation, says Pillay.
That way Pretoria might gain the profile befitting its capital city status.
For anyone who has been to central Pretoria recently, such projections cannot be the stuff of pie-in-the-sky council regeneration initiatives. The groundwork has already been laid and massive revamp projects are taking off daily, transforming the face of Tshwane.
The initial beneficiaries of this incipient programme are students and young people in general, the biggest demographic by a mile in the area around the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).
The result is that within a space of months, the corner of Du Toit and Church street (now Helen Joseph) and its vicinity have undergone a remarkable facelift and been lent that bright-city splash.
Previously the area was not exactly where angels feared to tread, but it certainly was a part of the city not many were prepared to venture into. It was known for offering cheap thrills and grime. Then a miracle was wrought and the rubble of the torn-down ramshackle buildings of yesteryear was supplanted by chic apartment blocks, trendy clubs and three major tertiary colleges, giving this formerly drab district a respectability of sorts.
A gaudy and down-at-heel hotel previously anchored this corner, but now a students’ accommodation block for the nearby Denver Technical College takes its place. Denver advertises courses in electrical, mechanical and civil engineering, the kind of disciplines specialists cite as vital to reversing the woeful skills shortage in the country.
On the ground floor of the students’ hostel was a seedy tavern that dominated surroundings notorious for drugs, prostitution and racketeering.
That tavern is long gone and in its place is the neat Zoom Zoom Cocktail Bar, Restaurant and Club, which has sliding panoramic windows and is a hot ticket with young crowds. Walk past it and you see young people reclining on leather seats, sipping cocktails or drinking beer.
Zoom Zoom’s 20-something manager, Steve, tips me off that students can bring decent custom and that they love jazz. Zoom Zoom markets itself as a venue catering to all tastes and demographics.
Its vibrant entertainment roster, which has seen top entertainers such as DJ Cleo, Oskido and Mahoota perform here, however, speaks to a certain age bracket.
The young patrons are drawn by the many ongoing but sometimes ludicrous specials. On one Friday, there was a R1 special on beer that spawned a snaking queue round the block. Another special of R2 on ciders was similarly welcomed.
The most immediate outcome of the urban renovation enterprise, however, is that Denver College, Springfield Further Education and Training College and Tshwane College, have turned the zone into a higher educationdistrict as all three colleges coalesce around TUT, located diagonally opposite.
Across the street from TUT is Rio Tech café, where I meet Vuyelwa Soga and Victoria Kekana, IT students at Denver College who have just joined their friend Tseliso Matlakeng, a PR student from Rosebank College. They meet regularly at the café-cum-club for drinks and say they like patronising the corner because of its vibe.
“Monday to Thursday I study, but on Fridays I like coming here,” says Matlakeng, sounding merry.
Rio Tech apparently takes its name from the former Pretoria Technikon, the forerunner of TUT, which faces the café, also since spectacularly revamped and a vast improvement on the dank tavern it used to be. Incidentally, it is run by the same management as Zoom Zoom.
These improvements are in line with the city’s West Capital project, designed to link its centre with areas to its west and make Pretoria highly sustainable, says Pillay.
“One of the project’s components is called Student Village. It aims to build quality learning and living spaces (for students).”
The student learning precincts, of which this area is but one, eventually will turn Pretoria into a notable academic centre especially when it comes to higher learning.
Pillay says the city has a memorandum of understanding with Unisa, the University of Pretoria, TUT and Medunsa in terms of which it is mandated to provide student accommodation.
The goal is to turn Pretoria into an education hub that may well see the capital giving university towns such as Grahamstown a run for their money.
The stretch of Church Street between Nelson Mandela Drive to the east and Sammy Marks Square to the west hosts two other new colleges in PC Training & Business College and Sandton Technical College. A few metres up from Sandton Technical and facing the Reserve Bank are the loud red-and-yellow colours of new arrival Frydays food outlet.
Frydays is one of the many new eateries to set up recently in this fast-changing area, a worthy contender to the crown of Pretoria’s in-vogue food zone. Not too many metres down from it are the blue colours of SA Fish & Chips, which abuts the popular African traditional cuisine restaurant, Mzitho’s, now relocated and refashioned as a top-notch diner following demolition to make way for Springfield FET College.
Maybe Pretoria can at last stand up and deliver a clear and loud message that it is not your size but what you can do that counts the most. - Sunday Independent