I like to think of Fox Street as the centre of town – the very middle of a massive and pulsating city that never actually stops to think about such things as where its core might be, but rather just keeps expanding and shifting and rushing around to envelop new and exciting areas. But the CBD, when you look closely enough, can take you back to a time when Joburg was a lot more single-minded, when it was a mining town centred around the bars and factories that had popped up around the dusty horse and carriage tracks dug into the ground by gold-hungry prospectors and adventurers come to the City of Gold to make their fortunes.
Something about the CBD still exudes this spirit of slight recklessness, of adventure, and of history. It’s most likely the architecture that tells this tale: crumbling, golden colonnades and Victorian lace balconies standing alongside shiny glass skyscrapers and blocks of modern cement. The CBD has a long and complicated history that saw it go from bustling mining town, to abandoned industrial wasteland, which is now gritting its teeth and pulling itself back into the realm of great urban centres of the world.
I’m lucky enough to work right on Fox Street, in the heart of it all. Fox runs from the Eastern border of town right to the Western one, passing through the famous Maboneng District, past the former Johannesburg Stock Exchange building and Ghandi Square, all the way to the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Building on the western edge. There is so much history in the buildings and on the corners of this street, painful secrets the city still holds and tales of both success and oppression painted on its walls.
Take the old JSE building at 70 Fox for example. At one point it represented the opulence and accomplishment of not just the city of Johannesburg, but of the South African state as a whole. It was the epicentre of econoic activity on the continent, and it was built on a firm belief in the system of apartheid, which systematically disenfranchised non-whites from all opportunity in society and built a façade of national strength and superiority for all the world to see. The JSE represented economic success founded on white privilege, and both the government and the private sector’s belief in their ability to create a state and a world that existed as their minds dreamed it to be. But this façade came crumbling down in the 1980s when the universal oppression of this falsified system became too much for the fantasies that had created it. The city rose up in protest, starting with student protests in Soweto in 1976 and spreading like wildfire throughout the country. Apartheid received its death knoll, and Johannesburg awoke to the possibility of fundamental change.
The JSE, symbol of apartheid’s financial power, followed the trend of white Joburgers and moved to Sandton, the new financial district of the country. As all the other businesses, warehouses and factories followed suite, the Johannesburg CBD fell into disrepair. Abandoned buildings were either left to rot, or invaded by squatters. Historic sites were forgotten in the chaos, and public services seemed to be suspended. For many years, the CBD was known for nothing more than danger. Danger of crime for visitors, danger of failure for businesses, danger that came from a fear of something much larger: transition to majority-rule and transformation of the country into a free, fair and equal society.
Gradually, as the rest of the country has adapted and taken on the identity of the new South Africa, so has the Joburg city-centre. Artists began to move in in the 2000s. Developers began to take note of the central location and low prices, and the city’s residents began to remember the stories and memories hidden in the narrow streets and tall buildings of the area. Now, there is a massive renovation and rediscovery movement going on. Maboneng was perhaps one of the first big development projects to draw attention in the CBD. But there’ve been many others too: Newtown Junction, the renowned Market Theatre, Braamfontein, the FNB Head Office on Simmonds Street. The old JSE building still shows a plaque to remember its former life, along with the price board from the last day it operated on the 7th of December 1978 and massive bank safes now used for storage of miscellaneous office goods. But instead of what it used to represent, it now houses an NGO that works to connect young, unemployed and previously disadvantaged youth with formal job opportunities, the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. It’s a poignant, and hopeful, symbol of the city’s transformation in the last few decades.
Many other buildings tell similar stories. Beautiful colonial gems can be found on almost every corner, such as the old neo-Baroque Standard Bank building built in 1908, and the Consolidated Building from 1906, formerly the home of the Jewish Social Club and the Johannesburg Water Works. Classical columns, decorative domes and ornamental carvings dug out of the sandstone walls are made even more beautiful by the sleek, modern steel and glass skyscrapers popping up next to them. Some have been given Heritage Status and restored, more are being bought up by private developers to be given a new lease of life. And as this happens, businesses have returned from the protected northern suburbs and are giving the CBD a shot again. Banks, factories, retailers and small businesses are taking up shop again in Marshalltown. Locals are following, buying new apartments in Maboneng and starting street markets like the new Joziburg Lane Market opening on Eloff Street at the end of May. Slowly but surely, even tourists are starting to visit the CBD again.
I frequently get asked if I’m scared working in town every day, or whether it’s safe to visit. I say what I say to everyone else who visits Joburg: take reasonable precautions, remember that you’re in a country where stark inequalities drive people to irrational behaviour, and never be afraid to explore a city that’s packed with interesting stories if you just make the effort to look for them.