Gentrification in Johannesburg isn’t good news for everyone

by @kenichiserino March 4, 2015 5:00AM ET

In South Africa the inner city is going upscale, and those in the slums pay the price

South Africa
Income Inequality
Imran Square, center, is one of nine men sharing this crowded room at the Hercules building in Johannesburg.
Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images Reportage for Al Jazeera America
James Khumalo, right, with his wife, Zibuse, and daughter, Gugulethu, in their room at the Hercules.
Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images Reportage for Al Jazeera America

JOHANNESBURG — Stacy has to shout to be heard over the sound of pounding house music and the cheering crowd here at this rooftop bar in South Africa’s latest hip neighborhood: Maboneng. The crowd is young and racially mixed and is buying liquor by the $100 bottle.

Stacy, who didn’t give her last name, is a management consultant for an international firm and says this downtown area has been built up quite nicely. But, she warned, “you walk a little too far and you’re in the slums.”

Half a mile away, James Khumalo lives in a 7-by-7-foot room with his wife, Zibuse, and 8-year-old daughter, Gugulethu. Calling it a room may give it too much credit; it’s a shack, built of a patchwork of wooden scraps. Most of the room is filled with a mattress, balanced on buckets that once held fry oil for a fish and chip shop. Labels from milk cartons cover the cracks and openings in the walls, to afford his wife and daughter some privacy and to make a futile attempt to ward off bedbugs and cockroaches.

“This is where we stay. Hard conditions,” he says.

Johannesburg’s inner city has seen dramatic change in the past 20 years. As apartheid began to collapse, laws that kept the black majority out of cities were first disregarded and then repealed. But as black people moved in, whites fled to suburbs. The inner city dramatically degraded, with neglected buildings, fewer services and rampant crime.

In the up-and-coming neighborhood of Maboneng in Johannesburg, it’s just a short walk between former factories that now house thousands of people and a Sunday market where patrons buy food and hang out.
Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images Reportage for Al Jazeera America

But now this image of downtown Johannesburg is beginning to shift, with the arrival of property developers who are creating affluent enclaves, such as Maboneng and Braamfontein. The developments have been hailed by the international press.

While the explosion of craft beer and organic vegetables has been welcomed by many, the human cost of these hipster enclaves has been less examined: increasing gentrification puts real pressure on the cost of living for Johannesburg’s poorest.

The Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa advocates for tenants who are facing eviction in Johannesburg, usually because of new owners who want higher rents. The new landlords are buying buildings at auctions, and while they may not be charging exorbitant rents, it’s still too much for the poor, according to Kate Tissington, a senior researcher for the institute.

“For our clients, that’s a big problem,” she says.

Many of the buildings are former factories or office spaces, never intended to be residences. One report estimates there are 1,300 slum buildings housing 250,000 people in Johannesburg.

The Hercules, where Khumalo, his family and about 150 others live is one of these buildings where the people are fighting eviction.

Slideshow: Life in the squatters' residences

Meanwhile, the hip and well-heeled drive into Maboneng from their comfortable suburbs for a day of shopping, maybe picking up a pair of wooden eyeglasses or a vintage leather jacket. They’ll take breaks for Spanish chorizo rolls with organic rocket and designer water that claims it is “enhanced with the energies of plants.”

Local radio DJ Ngwako Malakalaka thinks it’s a “misconception” that Maboneng is only for the well-to-do.

“If they think it’s just a playground for wealthy people, then they’re judging us from the outside,” he says.

“This,” he says, gesturing around him, “is us saying we love our city and we’re trying to make something of our city. It’s changing the mindset of our peer group of what our city is about.”

Slideshow: Partying in Maboneng

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At the Hercules, Gugulethu is getting water from a broken tap in the building’s inner courtyard. She’ll take it back to her mother, walking through dark, narrow corridors until she gets to her room. Her name in Zulu means “our pride.”

The rooms are not original to the Hercules. The place consists of two floors, with windows only in the front and back of the building. It appears to have been originally a small factory space that was taken over by residents.

Inside, they built small rooms for themselves, using particleboard, plywood, corrugated iron and whatever other detritus they found on the Johannesburg streets and marking off small corners for themselves that they could call home.

The residents electrified the rooms themselves, enough for lights and appliances, with a jumble of electrical wires running against the wooden walls. Walking through the narrow halls, sometimes leaning forward as though the rooms are about to burst, one feels like a rat in a maze.

The fact that the building wasn’t intended as residential space means the occupants share only a single tap and two toilets. There isn’t much of a bath; instead residents have a corner, mostly out of sight, where they lather and rinse themselves clean from a bucket. Last week the tap broke. Residents fixed it as best they could with a black plastic bag.

Men near the washing area at the Hercules. With only one tap and two toilets to serve the entire building, residents don’t get leisurely soaks. They lather themselves with soap and then rinse with water from the white bucket.
Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images Reportage for Al Jazeera America

Sometime soon, a building committee made up of elected residents will meet and start a collection for repairs, as they’ve often done in the past.

Since fighting their eviction in 2011, the residents have paid no rent to the owner, and likewise, the owner has done no repairs or maintenance on the building. Left on their own, the residents manage it themselves.

Meetings are conducted in Zulu, Ndebele and English, and many of the residents, who hail from across Africa, don’t understand the proceedings.

“We have to use simple English, simple English only,” says building committee member Siyabonga Dludla. His leadership role doesn’t get him any perks, such as a stipend. He makes his living as an informal trader selling skopo, sheep’s head, to commuters at a public transit hub. The room he shares with his girlfriend is small, even compared with the others in the Hercules, with just enough space for a single mattress and a fridge. On the wall is written a prayer in Zulu, left over from a previous occupant.

“My Lord, please help me not to be like a chameleon. To have a single heart that is faithful. Not to have a bad heart that’s filled with anger, so I can be a truthful person before you, Holy Spirit,” it reads.

Imran Square, left, with three of his roommates at the Hercules. Not all of them can find work, so they share what they have.
Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images Reportage for Al Jazeera America

Language is a problem for Imran Square, who stays in a room on the second floor of the Hercules. The room is one of the bigger ones, but he shares it with eight fellow Zambians. One mattress sits on top of empty drums of hydraulic oil; another lies on the floor, matted with dirt and oil. Not all of them are working, but the ones who are share what little they have.

“Some people is working, some people is not. So we help each other,” Square says.

They cook together, sharing their meals, and at night all nine men find space on the two mattresses.

The youngest is 16-year-old Hassan, who has found work touting outside a shop owned by Pakistanis in downtown Johannesburg. He makes about $35 a week. He doesn’t really speak English and needs the help of Square and another Zambian to communicate.

There’s little quiet in the rooms. As the Zambians talk, loud music with Zimbabwean rhythms and Congolese guitar licks can be heard. Banging comes from outside, where a large Tanzanian man in a San Diego State football jersey is breaking apart wood pallets with a wrench.

“Privacy is difficult,” says Khumalo. On the wall is a collage of pictures, including one of him wearing a shirt and tie, taken in Zimbabwe in 2001 before he went to South Africa. “It was Zimbabwe that time, when things were all right,” he says. He hasn’t worked regularly for several years, and the building committee gives him a small stipend to keep the common areas clean.

He knows what Maboneng is, though he has never been there. “I don’t know if I’m allowed there,” he says. “It’s a nice place. There are nice things, but how to get in, I don’t know.”

A rainbow appears over the partiers at a rooftop bar in Johannesburg’s Maboneng neighborhood.
Jonathan Torgovnik / Getty Images Reportage for Al Jazeera America

The party at the rooftop bar at Maboneng was in danger of being rained out, with Johannesburg’s distinctively violent thunderstorms rolling off the veld that morning. But by the afternoon, the sky had cleared. As the storms moved off, revelers moved in, some driving Toyotas, others dropped off in chauffeured Mercedes.

The house music has been turned up, and young people dance while young women in black cocktail dresses sell Camel cigarettes. The entrance fee is about $20 — steep but, as most of the attendees will tell you, reasonable, considering some of the DJs have been brought in from Germany and Austria.

A blond, blue-eyed young man in a tank top that shows off his sculpted torso teaches another man his special method for taking shots of gin. It involves a lot of gargling and leaves the two of them grimacing as their eyes redden and water.

In the sky over the party, just as the sun is setting, a rainbow emerges. A rainbow for the progeny of the new South Africa, the Rainbow nation — as long as they have $20.