The decline of the Joburg CBD: From City of Gold to shadow of despair

Johannesburg, once the glittering jewel in the crown of South African cities, has witnessed a heart-wrenching transformation over the past few decades. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee

Johannesburg, once the glittering jewel in the crown of South African cities, has witnessed a heart-wrenching transformation over the past few decades. Picture: Ihsaan Haffejee

Published Sep 1, 2023


Johannesburg, once the glittering jewel in the crown of South African cities, has witnessed a heart-wrenching transformation over the past few decades.

The tragic events that unfolded in Marshalltown where - at last count - 74 people died in a fire in a hijacked building in the CBD is a grim reminder of the city's decline.

This incident, coming on the heels of a gas explosion that claimed another life, underscores the urgent need to address the challenges facing the city centre.

Historically, Johannesburg was not dubbed the 'City of Gold' without reason.

Built atop vast gold reserves, it was a beacon of prosperity and opportunity.

Countless people from provinces across the country have sought the opportunities Joburg or ‘Jozi’ and ‘eGoli’ as it has been affectionately called - had offered.

Like Frank Sinatra sang about New York, Joburg, for many, was the place where “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere”.

The Johannesburg CBD was a bustling hub of commerce, culture, and innovation.

However, the golden sheen has been tarnished over the years, and the reasons are manifold.

The Exodus to Sandton

One of the most evident signs of the CBD's decline is the migration of businesses to Sandton.

This mostly due to the high level of street crimes in the city centre that has made it unsafe, especially when the sun goes down.

This migration from the Joburg city centre has transformed Sandton from a sleepy suburb into Africa's richest square mile, attracting corporations and high-end retailers alike.

This shift has left the Joburg CBD bereft of the economic activity that once defined it.

The Hijacking of Buildings

Perhaps the most alarming trend has been the hijacking of buildings by criminal elements.

These syndicates, operating with seeming impunity, have taken over properties, subdividing flats and units to the point where up to 10 people might be crammed into a single one-bedroom flat.

The living conditions in these hijacked buildings are deplorable, often lacking basic amenities and safety measures. The fire tragedy is a testament to the dangers these residents face daily.

Successive ANC governments have faced criticism for their perceived inaction against these criminal elements.

While there have been attempts to address the issue, the sheer scale of the problem and the intricate web of corruption and crime have made solutions elusive.

This has in more recent times been exacerbated by the rapid changes in local government. In less than two years, Joburg has had no less than six mayors that ruled on tenuous coalition agreements that have included a DA/ActionSA-led coalition and now an ANC/EFF/PA-led coalition.

Joburg’s current mayor, Kabelo Gwamanda of the minority Al Jama-ah party seems out of his depth at press conferences, cannot answer basic questions from the media and is often rescued by other officials on issues of basic governance.

Failed Rejuvenation Attempts

Over the years, city officials have launched various initiatives to rejuvenate the CBD. From urban renewal projects to stricter law enforcement campaigns, there have been concerted efforts to reclaim the city's lost glory.

However, these attempts have often been stymied by a lack of sustained commitment, inadequate resources, and sometimes, political infighting.

One notable effort was the introduction of the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) in the early 2000s.

Tasked with revitalising the inner city, the JDA embarked on several projects, from infrastructure upgrades to the establishment of business hubs. While there were initial successes, the momentum waned, and the CBD's decline continued.

A Way Forward?

The challenges facing Johannesburg's CBD are undeniably vast. However, the city's rich history and inherent potential mean that all hope is not lost. What's required is a multi-pronged approach that addresses the root causes of the decline.

Firstly, there's a need for a zero-tolerance policy against building hijackers.

This would require a concerted effort from law enforcement agencies, backed by political will.

Secondly, incentivising businesses to return to the CBD could help restore economic vitality.

This could be achieved through tax breaks, grants, and other financial incentives.

Furthermore, community engagement is crucial. Residents and business owners need to be active stakeholders in the rejuvenation process, offering insights and solutions based on their lived experiences.

While the decline of Johannesburg's CBD is a tragic tale of lost potential, it's also a story of resilience. The city has weathered numerous storms in its history, and with the right strategies and commitment, it can rise once more.

This week’s tragedy should, as President Cyril Ramaphosa said at the ruins of the gutted building, serves as a wake-up call, that should galvanise action to ensure that the 'City of Gold' regains its shine.