Two Sides of the Same Coin?

Gentrification has not only upgraded derelict buildings in the inner city of Johannesburg, but has also displaced and dispossessed the poor leaving them homeless.

By Doreen Chilumbu, Ralph Chikambi, Tiisetso Tlelima, Vivid Gwede and Vusumuzi Dube

In 2013, the South African movie "Gangsters Paradise: Jerusalema" hit cinemas around the globe. The Ralph Ziman directed piece depicted Johannesburg’s inner city as dissolving into a life of crime and poverty, where drug lords and gangsters highjacked unoccupied buildings, renting them out and turning them into their crime havens. 

The movie became the unofficial description of life in Yeoville, Hillbrow and Berea, which once were the city’s affluent suburbs. It set a pace for urbanism and gentrification as promoted by the state to lure society’s high class and chase away the poor to the outskirts of the city.

One such famous residential building, Ponte Tower, which is located in the heart of Berea was a target. The 54-storey skyscraper was turned into a slum, the state had abandoned it. Basic services like running, clean water and electricity were not provided frustrating the largely poor black community that lived there.

Owing to its deplorable state, Ponte was referred to as a vertical slum or suicide city because of the number of people who would jump from flats – and by that ending their lives.  In 2009, things began to change. Ponte, built in the 1970s was being renovated.   A number of people who occupied the flats were pushed out and rents increased. 

One occupant, Tyrese Mhlakaza, now pays ZAR 9000 (around $640) for a three bedroom flat. He justifies the high rents saying this helps to get rid of the “riff-raffs”.

For a peaceful management of the building, plenty of house rules for residents of Ponte Tower have been set.  Frank Leya, who occasionally shows tourists around Ponte Tower, Berea and Hillbrow, speaks highly of the gentrification project, and claims that implementing rules was the only way to give back life to the building.  Frank says it was only private developers who changed Ponte to what it is today.

“One thing that has happened is that we have managed to drive crime out of the streets of Berea and Hillbrow just by those regeneration projects. We now have refurbished flats, cameras on our streets and Bad Boys, a security firm, is constantly patrolling our streets because we have seen that we cannot rely on the South African Police Services,” he says.

Leya is renting a one bedroom flat in Ponte Towers on the 54th floor.

However, a tour of Johannesburg and interaction with various of its inhabitants give a totally different picture to this issue of gentrification.  With more foreigners and South Africans moving into Johannesburg in search of greener pastures, more people are now in need of accommodation. Unfortunately, the government seems unable to come up with lasting solutions.

The situation has not been compounded by the number of buildings located in the inner city that were abandoned by their owners at the end of Apartheid and left unoccupied or unmanned to date. Instead of suggesting solutions such as expropriating land and buildings or even subsidizing accommodation, the state has neglected its responsibility to provide housing while ironically encouraging the regeneration of Johannesburg. Civil society organizations such as Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) have used the constitution which stipulates that no one can be evicted without alternative housing to make it difficult for owners to kick out the so-called illegal occupants. 

On the one side, this has created tension in the city between occupants of abandoned buildings; and on the other side the few who support the regeneration project are mainly led by a capitalist agenda. 

Listening to Inner City Dwellers foundation member Nonthuthubeko Mbangela makes clear which reality the poor people face.  Nonthuthubeko was first evicted from a building called Fattis Mansions which she was occupying together with her three children. She revealed that not only was she left with nowhere to stay, but that she lost all her property, with bouncers and a security firm throwing hers and other occupants’ properties onto the street in broad daylight.

Ironically, the security firm employed by the owners of the buildings to forcibly remove occupants is Bad Boys, the very firm that is now employed to guard the streets of Hillbrow and Berea, which was highly praised by Leya.

Another member of the foundation, Lizwelethu Ndlovu, a Zimbabwean national, said he had been evicted from the same flat three times by various owners, who all claimed to be the owners. He said they were now in and out of court fighting these alleged owners so as to avoid their eviction.

“We are now paying monthly legal fees per occupant as our issue is still in court. All we are saying is that we also have rights and the state, especially the City of Johannesburg should at least ensure that we get some form of accommodation,” said Ndlovu.

Stuart Wilson, executive director of SERI, whose organization specializes in representing these occupants of abandoned buildings, said one of the solutions to the accommodation crisis in the inner city of Johannesburg was for the state to have a housing provision for the poor. 

For Wilson, the state has been unable to ensure that people who are coming into the city get places to stay legally.   The state hasn’t constructed suitable housing and released sufficient land, as a result, substantial informal settlements have appeared.

”What we have right now is a lot of concentration on the market and no concentration on state subsidies or the provision of public housing,” said Wilson.

SERI statistics show that in Gauteng alone there are over 500 informal settlements, with thousands of people occupying buildings that were abandoned by white owners at the end of Apartheid in the city center. 

There are many solutions to this problem, but SERI argues that there should be a mix of stimulating market demand, a market provision of housing and state’s investment in public housing and subsidization of public housing and land.

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