Joburg has become a shadow of what it once was

Emergency personnel and members of the law enforcement attend to damages caused by the gas explosion that took place along Bree street in the Johannesburg CBD. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

Emergency personnel and members of the law enforcement attend to damages caused by the gas explosion that took place along Bree street in the Johannesburg CBD. Picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Jan 21, 2024


JOHANNESBURG, the City of Gold once known as Africa's richest city now casts a shadow of itself, with an infestation of derelict buildings haunted by crime.

At one point the economically thriving city was the pride of South Africa, but now it is a burden to the country, with the ever-changing government of the metropolis having no idea what to do with it.

The city is also plunged into darkness constantly, with the residents of the area, who are largely undocumented foreign nationals, complaining of shortages of water.

It has more than 600 hijacked/illegal buildings that populate the CBD, and workers and the arrival of thousands of migrants each month do not help the situation.

The buildings range from abandoned to derelict office buildings and factories.

Two children (aged 7 and 5 years old) died in a fire that gutted their apartment in the Johannesburg CBD. Picture: Timothy Bernard/African News Agency (ANA)

The residents live in slum-like conditions and pay rent and protection fees to gangs who collect the money monthly and sometimes on a weekly basis.

The unpleasant living conditions were propelled into the spotlight when a fire broke out in one of the buildings at 80 Albert street, Marshalltown, in August last year. More than 70 people died in the blaze.

Vannin Court in Hillbrow was set for renovation but the contractor died and the building was later occupied by desperate shelter seekers. Picture: Timothy Bernard / African News Agency(ANA)

Incidents like these are rife in the CBD as three more buildings around Johannesburg caught fire after that. These buildings are rented to families who cannot afford proper housing.

The Carlton Centre, a 50-storey skyscraper, the fifth tallest building in Africa and shopping centre on Commissioner and Small streets in the central business district, has become dilapidated and allegedly mostly occupied by illegal immigrants who had come to make a living for themselves in the City of Gold.

If you ask anyone from the 1960s, ’70s and the ’80s, Carlton Centre was the place to go whether for shopping, taking loved ones out, or merely visiting Johannesburg for the first time.

The iconic building was put under the hammer last year for about R900 million.

Historically, job seekers from across South Africa would travel for hours by train to reach Johannesburg Park Station where they would launch their lives by easily finding work and would send money home on a monthly basis.

It was sometimes effortless to find a job in Johannesburg because it was surrounded by gold mines, when gold was in demand in other countries.

At a building at 44 Nugget Street, some 500 people are living in squalor, with some of the windows of the living quarters broken.

When you enter the building you are greeted by low hanging laundry, and the damp walls are cracked.

The 500 people who live there have to find alternative ways of visiting the toilet because there is no running water or toilets as it was once an office building with only two toilets per floor. Now, even those toilets have been destroyed because they were not maintained.

The roughly 500 people who live here have learnt to go without running water and flushing toilets.

“I have been here for five years and I have nowhere else to go because you can't afford anywhere else. The rent is ridiculous and I have children who have to go to school, so I need to be able to afford it.

“It’s five of us who live here and we need to have at least R10 per night for each one of us to go to the toilet across the street to relieve ourselves because there are no toilets in this building … even that is not safe at night because we have to get out of the building,” said Comfort Tshigwera who hails from Zimbabwe.

The unemployed mother of three said she made a living on the streets of the city by selling fruit and vegetables.

“I make around R80 to R100 a day selling fruit and vegetables. I at least am able to buy food to eat for the children while my husband is away at work ... he comes back home every weekend,” she said.

Tshigwera’s living quarters inside the building are constructed with zinc sheets and plastic, and are subdivided, so one can see the other’s living quarters if they made an effort.

Her room has a makeshift door constructed from a cardboard box. To have electricity, the building is illegally connected to the next building which is also connected to another building linked to another.

Last year on Lilian Ngoyi Street (formerly Bree) a gas explosion took place, killing one person. The explosion caused the road to cave in and it left a huge ditch in the middle of the road.

The City’s hands are tied, and while they frequently raid the buildings they cannot effectively evict the residents without getting them alternative accommodation.

The housing department has estimated it would need to provide 10 000 additional rooms or rental units.

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