Thursday, 25 May 2017


By Blanca Calvo 
Edited by Io Makandal and Brendon Bosworth

 “The idea of “urban pioneers” is as insulting applied to contemporary cities as the original idea of “pioneers” in the US West” Neil Smith in “Is Gentrification a Dirty Word”, 1996 

Mzitho is not feeding the Nation anymore1 . At least, not that part of the Nation that hangs out in Braamfontein, a section of downtown Johannesburg located in a small triangular piece of land in the North West edge of the inner city. The informal traders, that used to ply the streets, are also nowhere to be seen in the streets of Braamfontein since the City of Johannesburg declared the area “hawker-free” in 2005. However, those who still want to feel the street vibe can buy clothes and fashion accessories at the pop-up street market that takes place every Saturday in the so called Braamfontein’s ¨creative corner¨ where the first trendy shops popped up in the area. Around that corner, trendy designer coffee shops and restaurants, art galleries and fancy bars and night clubs are springing up. The alleyways that used to be dark and dirty now have street art on their walls. The streets that used to be deserted after 6p.m. are now packed with cars on Friday and Saturday evenings. In Braamfontein it is commonplace to see people walking around the streets at night, in a city where mostly everyone is scared to be on the street after dark. 

Something is changing in Braamfontein. Many of the symptoms of what is called gentrification, in academia, are there: the students, the street art, the urban renewal, the espresso bars, the recently active nightlife, and the higher market value of property. 

Ruth Glass coined the term gentrification in the 60’s. It comes from the French word gentry (high-born, noble) and explains a process that Glass observed in London, where “many of the working class quarters… have been invaded by the middle classes – upper and lower.” 

As 1 “Mzhito Kitchen, Feeding the Nation” is a family-owned food establishment in the inner city of Johannesburg that offers affordable South African food (pap, samp, etc). Mzitho’s Kitchen remained unchanged and untouched amidst all the upgrades and refurbishments in the area, maintaining its original unpretentious character: yellowish walls, brown tiles and minimal furniture. “Mzhito´s Kitchen” main establishment closed in the end of 2014 after having been in Braamfontein for the last decades. 

Glass noted, “once this process of ‘gentrification’ starts in a district, it goes rapidly until all or most of the original working class occupiers are displaced, and the whole social character of the district is changed.” (Glass in Brown-Saracino, 1964). 

Let’s not start at the end of the tale, though. Let’s start at the beginning. If Johannesburg’s history is a fascinating treasure in itself, the story of Braamfontein is a small gem. Like many other areas in the city, Braamfontein has undergone waves of regeneration and decay. 

Home to upmarket houses in its early years, it transformed in the 1950s to a low-income white area when the previous residents moved out in pursuit of sunnier locations. Development came in the mid-1950s when the zoning was changed from residential to commercial rights and the seat of the City of Johannesburg moved from the CBD to Braamfontein. Companies followed, moving from the CBD to Braamfontein and generating an increase of office space from 5 000 sqm in 1950 to 163 000 sqm by 1965 (Beavon, 2004). 

The neighbourhood bloomed with theatres, upmarket restaurants and other entertainment for students and the new businesspeople while housing demand peaked. But the good times did not last long. Poor town planning decisions from the 1970s and 1980s, such as the removal of the tramways, parking restrictions in the inner city and a new first-time-housing-owner subsidy that incentivised young white families to buy property in the suburbs, made companies and residents fly away from the inner city. Landlords of inner city buildings lost the former tenants for their properties and they found their new clientele within the growing demand for homes close to job opportunities for the black population. Black residents moved in and the inner city was “greyed” as a matter of fact. However. urban regulations remained unchanged leaving the new black tenants in an illegal position to reside in the inner city, which was zoned as a white area. This tension allowed for landlords to become slumlords, exploiting their tenants who had no legal protection. 

According to the Inner City Report 2006-2011landlords “contracted head lessors who, in turn, collected rent without any obligation to the management or maintenance of buildings.” In light of this situation, many of those office workers and companies that had not already moved to Braamfontein or the suburbs packed their stuff and joined the exodus. Formal retailers followed, opening new supermarkets in the suburban areas where their clientele had moved to. Informal business, street traders and squatters quickly took over those spaces that used to be occupied by white residents and business. Many buildings where hijacked, crime increased, infrastructure decayed and the city and landlords lost control of the situation. New issues were added to the already long list of problems by the late 1990s when a wave of immigrants from other African countries, who in many cases were targeted as criminals because of racial hostility, arrived in downtown Johannesburg. The inner city turned into a second Babylon2 , at least in the mind of most Jo’burgers. 

All this chaos was taking place only some hundred meters away from Braamfontein. The train trucks that separate Braamfontein to the larger section of the CBD worked as a physical barrier and gave some more time for the neighbourhood before surrendering to the decline. In the 1980s, the virus of decline finally managed to jump across the train trucks and spoil the dream in Braamfontein. The neighbourhood was considered "too far south for comfort, "by most of the white population and began to see the same trends of the CBD, going into decline. The University of Witwatersrand3 , which is located at the west edge of Braamfontein, joined the panic and closed its perimeters, fencing off the perimeters and creating retail services on campus. This took the clientele away from the retail in the precinct that it had traditionally supported. The alleyways in Braamfontein added to the feeling of an unmanaged environment: dirty, dark and perceived as magnets to criminals. 

Fortunately, the damage was not so severe. Even in the worse of these times the seat of the City of Joburg and some important corporations maintained their headquarters in the district, keeping vacancy rates some of the lowest in the inner city (Burocco, 2013). Perhaps because of the presence of those companies, or perhaps because Braamfontein is a contained area, which makes it easier to manage and control, vacant buildings were not hijacked like they had been in the CBD. The value in the market dropped, investments in the area stopped, but the structural damage in the buildings was much lower than in other area. 

2 Babylonwas the capital of Babylonia, a briefly great empire in Mesopotamia region in the XVII CentrutybC. The fall of Babylon is announced in the Bible as “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cada of even uncleanand hateful bird” 

3 The University of Witswatersrandwas funded in 1896 and it is one of the main academic institutions in South Africa. “Wits” university campus, as it is commonly known, is located at the West edge of Braamfontein. 

An area ripe for gentrification Two decades of capital disinvestment in Braamfontein set the perfect ground for visionaries, or rather opportunists, who had envisioned many examples of inner city “renaissance” to revive the neighbourhood. The City of Johannesburg was cornered in a position where it needed to “fix” the situation in central Johannesburg but had no financial and technical resources to do it on its own. The opportunity was there and as early as 1992 the Central Johannesburg Partnership (CJP) established a partnership between the private sector and the local authority. The change was then pushed by three decisive factors: firstly, administrative arrangements to locate the inner city in only one metropolitan substructure, not four like it used to be; secondly, the establishment of the Johannesburg Development Agency in 2001 “with the mandate to implement capital projects that would achieve urban regeneration in declining areas of the city”; and, last, the launch of the Braamfontein Regeneration Project in 2003 as public-private partnership between the City of Johannesburg, its JDA and property owners. 

Changes happened quickly. The City of Johannesburg, through the JDA, made provision for the main infrastructure work: The construction in 2003 of the superb Nelson Mandela Bridge connecting Braamfontein and New Town, its neighbour area across the train trucks, and the implementation of the Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit system. The Provincial Government cofinanced with private company Bombela Concession Company the construction of the Gautrain, a railway mass rapid transportation system that connected the neighbourhood with the northern suburbs, Pretoria and the airport. A tax incentive for the whole Johannesburg downtown was established through the Urban Development Zone (UDZ) which incentivised property refurbishments and development within the inner city4 . The UZ was established in October 2004 with approved urban plans such as the “Cultural Arc” development proposal to integrate culturally important institutions and sites located in New Town and Braamfontein and the Gautrain Park City Plan. The private sector quickly set up and made legal a City Improvement District5 (CID) under the name Braamfontein Management District (BMD) in 2004, a non-profit company initiated by the large companies and cultural institutions in the 

4 “Under the scheme, any tax-paying individual or entity owing commercial, industrial and/or residential property within the UDZ may claim a tax allowance covering 100% of the total cost of property refurbishments over a period of five years. New property developments may claim the tax allowance over 17 years” (SA Property News, 2011 5A City Improvement Districts(CID) also known as a Special Ratings Area (SRA) is a non-profit organisation operating within a defined geographic are within which property owners agree to pay a levy for supplementary and complementary services set to enhance the physical and social environment of the area. ( 

neighbourhood to which all ratepayers in the area contribute to upgrade the urban environment. 

All the ingredients for gentrification were there: Disinvestment for the last decades, well located land, low market value but high quality buildings, new transport infrastructure, the cultural element, an increasing demand for student accommodation in the area, the political will and, most importantly, a neighbourhood that needed to be “recycled”, “revitalised”, “upgraded” or, simply, “taken back”. Globalisation did the rest. Images of a fancy new urban vibe in New York’s Brooklyn and other “re-generated” inner city neighbourhoods in TV shows and the possibility for the new middle-class to travel and discover those neighbourhoods by themselves created an appetite from those who used to have no interest in the urban life and preferred to stay in their gardens in the suburbs. The cake was ready to be eaten and a new “creative” middle-class was hungry for it. 

The turnaround of the precinct spurred through a private public partnership with the BMD: The “scary alleyways” were soon cleaned, lit up and decorated with street art; pavements were fixed; street lights were installed; and, consequently, land values increased. The first adventurous investors, whose bravery must be admired, soon saw their reward. Not everyone would have taken the risk of investing in such a desolated and feared environment, especially after the constant failures of trying to revive New Town, just across the bridge. Their happy ending seems to be confirmed by several institutions. According to the JDA, Braamfontein is marketed today as the fourth largest node for office space in the city of Johannesburg. According to the 2006-2011 Inner City Report, in 2009 office rentals were on par with other prime office nodes such as Sandton6 . Real estate websites such as Property24 also confirm that demand for apartments is one of the highest in the city. 

The property market confirms what was obvious to the naked eye. In the years 2006 and 2007 a radical drop in vacancy rates could be observed in comparison to the ones in the early 2000s. Parallel to the decrease in vacancy rates, rental prices and market capital of value escalated almost doubling the values for the early 2000s as illustrated in the table below. This data, appears to be a clear indicator of gentrification, however contrasting with similar data for Johannesburg CBD, where nobody speaks of gentrification yet, seems to 

6 Sandton is the most affluent area in Johannesburg and, consequently, in the African continent. It was established in the 1960s when corporations started moving out Johannesburg CBD and it became the new financial and business district in the city. 

could be taken as other clear indicators of gentrification, however similar figures can be observed in Johannesburg CBD and nobody would talk about gentrification there. 

From the point of view of somebody who walks regularly around Johannesburg CBD, the previous statistics are quite hard to believe. The amount of vacant buildings in Johannesburg CBD now appears much higher than what vacancy rates show for 2007. Two reasons could explain this: firstly, it is possible that buildings that have been recently bought by developers counted in 2007 as non-vacant while they are actually not occupied yet. Secondly, the area considered as “Johannesburg CBD” might include a much bigger area than what the CBD is popularly understood to be, incorporating areas like New Town and others into it. The increase in prices and reduction in vacancy rates can also be explained by a residential property market that boomed in the mid-2000s, both on numbers of transactions and price band. (City of Johannesburg 1). Having said this, statistics are there and show that Braamfontein and Johannesburg CBD went, at least, through a similar process of market value increase and decrease of vacancy rates. 

The investment of the private sector through the BMD was essential for regeneration to happen. According to the Johannesburg Inner City Report of 2006-2011, it covered R 4 billion of the total costs invested in Braamfontein Precinct in from 2001 to 2008, while public investment was only R55,7 million in that same period. As a consequence of this unbalanced investment, the private sector was allowed to prioritise its agenda. Urban upgrades were uneven in their geographical distribution. There is still an obvious difference between the areas next to big companies and big private developers and the Eastern area where low-cost housing is located or others (BUROCCO). And more importantly, the voices of those holding major (economic) power were heard, while low income tenants (students and the working class living in affordable housing) remained silent. 

This dynamic quickly translated to a mismatch between the newly opened attractions in the area and most of its residents, who cannot afford the new amenities and thus have lost any sense of ownership of the neighbourhood. However, can we talk about gentrification here? 

But is it gentrification? 

There is a controversial debate about what gentrification is. Most definitions of gentrification agree on displacement of local working classes as one of the main characteristics of the process. Has Braamfontein then been gentrified if those new developments took place in buildings that used to be vacant, not moving the popular classes away (at least, not yet)? 

If we are exact with the term “gentrification” (taking it from its etymological origin, “gentry”) there is an obvious class character in the process. The amount of middle- to upperclass visitors that “invade” the Neighbourhood’s Market on a Saturday and, by its extension, the surrounding areas that soon saw the opportunity and opened fancy cafe bars and restaurants, seem to confirm a class reversal in Braamfontein. 

The “whitification” of the weekend and night scene also make apparent the increasing middle- to upper-class influx. The constant opening of entertainment establishments and shops targeted at a higher income bracket have changed the consumer pattern. In addition to this there is an increasing number of art galleries and establishments that attract their intellectual following. All this confirms that there is an obvious class component in the change of Braamfontein. 

A yuppification is prevalent in Braamfontein, which without requiring a visible displacement of people, brings a subtle form of selection, based on economic and aesthetical parameters, that “contributes to the creation of a selected environment” (BUROCCO). Most residents have not been displaced (yet) but as Laura Burocco identified through surveys, they do not have a sense of ownership of their neighbourhood. Most of the students living in the area, who make up a large portion of Braamfontein’s new residents, limit their movements from campus to their buildings, not enjoying the new amenities of “their neighbourhood.” The local working class population who have resided in the area since before the “improvements” happened have to hear comments about “the “urban pioneers,” which imply that no one lived in the areas being pioneered – no one worthy of notice, at least,” as Smith (1996) puts it. 

Something has definitely changed in Braamfontein. We can call it “gentrification”, “yupification” or “revival”, as the main developers of the area like to call it, but we must acknowledge the change. A new middle-upper class hungry for urban life has infiltrated the “creative corner” and competition has started. Possibly, many others will follow Mzitho and will leave Braamfontein to make room for the demands of the “creative class” like it has already happened in many other places around the world. Or maybe not. Maybe Johannesburg will surprise us again with another unexpected turn in the story. 

We can expect more to happen in Braamfontein and possibly in the entire Johannesburg inner city. Changes will possibly come at a quicker rate than they already have. The battle lines have been drawn. The question is, will the working-class fight alone in this or will the city take their side with a push from academia? We will see what the future holds for Braamfontein, Johannesburg inner city, its residents, investors and the money they have already put on the ground and this demanding and hunger for fancy but safe urban life new upper-middle-creative class. It will be a story for another time. 


Books and articles: 

Beavon, K., 2004. Johannesburg the Making and Shaping of the City, published by Unisa Press, University of South Africa 
Brown-Saracino, J., 2010. The Gentrification Debates, published by Routledge, New York. 

Burocco, L., 2013. People´s Place in the World Class City: The Case of Braamfontein’s Inner-City Regeneration Project, master thesis for Witswatersrand University. 

Huse, T., 2014. Everyday Life in the Gentrifying City. On Displacement, Ethnic Orivileging and the Right to Stay Put, published by Ashgate Publishing Company, Farnham (England) 

Peyroux, E., City Improvement Districts in Johannesburg: An examination of the local variations of the BID model 

Smith N., 1996. The New Urban Frontier, Gentrification and the Revanchist City, published by Routledge, London. 

Other publications: 

Inner City BRT Station Precinct Analysis Market Research, published by Demacon and Jaksa Babir, April, 2009 

Growth Management Strategy: Growth Trends and Development Indicators Report 2010/2011, published by City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality (1) 

Johannesburg CBD, Braamfontein, New Town nodes office market report shows significant evidence of inner city renewal published by SA Commercial property News, 2011 

Johannesburg Inner City. Common Vision, shared Success. End of Term Report 2006-2011 published by City of Johannesburg Metropolitan Municipality (2) 

Johannesburg Inner City Performance Indicators 2006, published by the Johannesburg Development Agency

For more information of this organisation and project click on these links below: 

(Urbanists for Equity)

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