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Culture

Thandiswa Mazwai’s wisdom

The music that Thandiswa Mazwai is making right now, invoking the spirits of Miriam Makeba & Busi Mhlongo & Abbey Lincoln is some of the most important new music anywhere. She chooses to sing songs that say something of the world we live in, songs whose lyrics are charged with urgency, be they about love, about social justice or simply about the fragile humans. When she sings her love songs, there’s a range of emotion that is sorely missing in so many of the sentimental songs about love we hear these days.

Mazwai is unafraid to speak her mind, and whether through the lyrics of her songs, or on stage, or on social networks, she speaks openly and strongly about the things she cares for. Social justice is code to her heart, and she speaks frequently against gender violence. When she sings Nina Simone, you get the same sense of a real and not ‘performed rage’ that Nina Simone used to capture in songs such as Mississippi Goddam.

The joy of Thandiswa Mazwai
The joy of Thandiswa Mazwai

On songs like Nizalwa Ngobani she is the griot of her generation, invoking the names of the political and personal forebears of the young generation and letting them know that they’re heirs of a powerful struggle. On Ingoma, she is the love poet, singing with such a erotic force the stage almost sizzle with the heat of sexuality. Zabalaza is her anthem of rebellion, those who talk of a lost generation as Mazwai connected through this song her generation of youth with the most urgent issues of the day. On these songs she’s never an ideologue, but a consummate artist, wielding her magic on spellbound music lovers.

Thandiswa Mazwai at the Soweto Theatre
Thandiswa Mazwai at the Soweto Theatre

She was a young star and even in her Bongo Maffin days, her lyrics were already haunting, older than her years in their depth of wisdom. On songs like Kura Uone, she captures the longing for home that so many who migrate know only too well.

In a recent performance at the Market Theatre, Mazwai played one of Busi Mhlongo’s most moving songs, Wahazulwa, conveying its delicate beauty and capturing the spirit of Busi Mhlongo’s powerful stage presence. It was a rare moment in South African music when an artist covers a song and makes it theirs but the spirit of the original seems ever present in the new interpretation. In between the notes and her singing, you could catch moments when Mazwai’s pain was real, palpable, though too brief to ruin the song.

The artist Moonchild
The artist Moonchild

At a theatre where so much music has been made and where so many plays have been performed, there are those nights when the emotions seem new again, not hackneyed. Mazwai was able to channel something deeply spiritual as she took on the songs of her heroes and made them her own. There was a hush over the Market Theatre stage as she sang Busi Mhlongo’s songs and you could tell even without Mazwai saying it that Busi Mhlongo is the musician who most affected her.

This explains why after Busi Mhlongo, Mazwai took time off from music and could not find the heart to perform her own music. The hiatus from the music business may have seemed overdone at the time, but Mazwai used her time in the UK to mourn Busi Mhlongo and find her voice again. Today she is clearly able to sing new music and sing the musicians that she loves, like Miriam Makeba, Nina Simone, the melancholic Abbey Lincoln and of course her beloved Busi Mhlongo.

It would be a lie to suggest that Mazwai is only influenced by the women whose musical spirit she channels with such artistic integrity. In the past two years she has performed with Hugh Masekela both in South Africa and abroad. She was also invited by Paul Simon to join him on the Graceland Anniversary Tour, and she is clearly picking some fine lessons from these giants of music. Her collaborations with Hugh Masekela are deeply beautiful and they suggest that the elder statesman of SA music admires the huge talent that Mazwai possesses. He is not alone in recognizing Mazwai as a musician who is set to make a significant mark in music.

Those who mourn the passing of a golden age in SA music with the departure of the likes of Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe and Busi Mhlongo need to listen to Thandiswa Mazwai. Perhaps then they will know that our music is in safe hands still and we need not mourn.

When she performed at Bassline, on the occasion of her 40th birthday, it was as if she wanted to underline just how much music she has given us in the 20 years that she’s been in the industry. There she was on stage, her friends dropping by to join her as she sang for us. There was Ringo with whom she sang from the Donny Hathaway songbook. And there was Moonchild. And Mazwai’s own sister, Nomsa Mazwai who knows how to command the stage.

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Culture

Africa’s Songbird

In Jazz there are those singers who are unafraid to do something truly different. They will sing against the grain, or play in a new way that often shocks the establishment at first. Where so many others can’t resist the temptation to imitate the latest style, to sound like some already famous singer, these singers bravely trust their own voice. Sathima Bea Benjamin was one of these singers, her voice pared down to the last timbre. Like Billie Holiday, she turned her limited range into her greatest strength.

Like all the most outstanding jazz singers her art was as beautiful as it was political. She traced her roots to St Helena, and believed that Jazz was the cry of a woman. You hear this pain, and the beauty in her haunting tribute Winnie Mandela, Beloved Heroine. If ever a song could be at once poignantly beautiful but also palpably defiant, Winnie Mandela, Beloved Heroine does so. On this song Sathima is accompanied by Larry Willis, Ricky Ford, Buster Williams and Billy Higgins.

This piece was initially supposed to be a celebration of the reissue of Sathima Bea Benjamin’s African Songbird on vinyl. When word got out that African Songbird would be reissued on vinyl, I knew that I had to get my hands on a copy. Jazz is full of albums that quickly become fabled, and African Songbird had become one of these albums.

For those who may wonder why she goes under the name Bea Benjamin on the album, the name Sathima was given to her by the South African bassist Johnny Dyani. But over a course of six weeks of following the musician and her music, the piece also became a note of her death. Thankfully the truly great artists do not die, they live on through their music.

Sathima

The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin whose minimalism remained a hallmark of her  singing
The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin whose minimalism remained a hallmark of her singing

Amongst lovers of high jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin belongs in that very small circle of singers who sing with little adornment. Nat King Cole with his clean lines and perfect pitch was an influence. But it was Billie Holiday with her limited range who gave her the confidence to tell her story through song. In her records, Sathima Bea Benjamin chose only the best accompanists. Miriam Makeba was known as Mama Africa, but it is easy to see why Sathima Bea Benjamin can lay claim to the title of African Songbird.

In July of 2013 a limited edition of this famed 1976 recording that has become a truly rare collector’s piece was reissued. In the UK, copies of the original vinyl fetch as much as £600. On the record Sathima Bea Benjamin is accompanied by South African jazz royalty, Abdullah Ibrahim, Basil Mannenberg Coetzee and Monty Weber with an impressive list of American sidemen.

After years of hunting for a copy of this record, I walked into a record store in Soho, London and as I was browsing the vinyl section, I stumbled onto African Songbird, in mint condition. When I went to pay for it, the storeowner Wayne told me of the story of the album’s reissue. Little did he realise that I had been on a quest to find this album.

Sathima Bea Benjamin’s story should be told widely, for she is unique in the world of jazz in that her debut album, A Morning In Paris, had not only Duke Ellington at the piano, but also Billy Strayhorn and her husband, Abdullah Ibrahim, then still known as Dollar Brand. She enchanted the great Ellington with her interpretation of his compositions. It was with Duke Ellington’s help that she relocated to New York together with her husband.

For those who hear platitudes from our arts officials that South African artists need to conquer the global market, it is worth reminding them that in the 60’s Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Chris McGregor, Caiphus Semenya, Abdullah Ibrahim, Letta Mbulu and of course Sathima Bea Benjamin had already won the world over.

One of the most distinctive voices in Jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin
One of the most distinctive voices in Jazz, Sathima Bea Benjamin

When you put the album on the vinyl, side one has only the one song, Africa, a deeply moving tribute to the continent that Sathima Bea Benjamin credits with the birth of jazz. It begins with a lush, even orchestral interplay between the percussions and the basses, the drummer eliciting a richly polyphonic sound out of his instrument. About 9 minutes into the track, Abdullah Ibrahim is incredibly inventive on the Fender Rhodes. Basil Mannenberg Coetzee’s tenor sax is truly irresistible. This is quite possibly the most elegant musical tribute to the continent.

But it is on African Songbird in which Sathima Bea Benjamin sings without accompaniment that you grasp the depth of her musical power. Little wonder those who know this album treasure it as one of Jazz music’s greatest moments. Perhaps it is also the reason why she was not known to the bigger market as her style was devoid of the vocal theatrics that delight pleasure seekers.

In the second week of August 2013, Sathima Bea Benjamin was honoured by the Joy of Jazz for her contribution to the music. On a beautifully lit stage at The SABC, she sang an impromptu song from the Duke Ellington Songbook. As it turned out, it was to be her last performance. It was fitting that she should honour Duke Ellington, the man who had set her musical trajectory on the path towards mastery. A week after receiving this rare honour in the country of her birth, Sathima Bea Benjamin died in Cape Town.

The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin
The singer Sathima Bea Benjamin

Perhaps in death Sathima Bea Benjamin will gain the kind of following that her music deserved. On each of her albums, she poured her heart out, singing with the warmth of a storyteller and at the grace of a minimalist. Luckily for us African Songbird, her masterpiece, has been reissued on CD and the music sounds as if it was produced just yesterday.

 

Categories
Culture

Madonna cannot tell me what to do

 

In the year Design Indaba celebrates 21 years, perhaps it is time to reflect on how Ravi Naidoo has turned the platform into the most significant annual gathering in global design. Perhaps one of the most striking things about Design Indaba is that it has managed to belong to creatives, rather than the suits who fund the creative industries. Crucially, it has not become simply a showcase of success, but has consistently featured speakers who critique both design and society. At a time when global corporations are both more powerful and everywhere, it is important that forums like Design Indaba remain not just independent, but substantively critical of corporate shortcomings.

 

In a country that spends vast fortunes on spectacular launches of initiatives that soon fizzle out, what’s remarkable about Design Indaba is how quietly and patiently Ravi built it. You only need glance at the Design Indaba alumni to see that it has attracted the very best names from across the creative industries since its founding.

 

The 2015 edition of Design Indaba will have the likes of Dan Wieden, co-founder of the agency Widen-Kennedy which created Nike’s “Just Do It” tagline. Shubhankar Ray, the brand pioneer will also be at the conference. Previous speakers have included Joy McKinney, DJ Stout, Marcello Serpa, Ije Nwokorie, William Kentridge, David Goldblatt, David Adjaye, Porky Hefer, Koto Bolofo, Brian Eno, and Lindsay Kinkade. The roster of MCs includes the likes of Designer Michael Bierut, who is both incredibly funny and deeply knowledgeable.

“It’s our job to get out there and fight for great ideas; it’s creative people that will make the change,” says Sir John Hegarty, one of the major voices that have insisted on challenging the status quo during memorable presentations at Design Indaba. In other words, Koto Bolofo’s  “Madonna cannot tell me what to do” is more than a statement of defiance, but a reminder that creatives should stand their ground.  It is fitting that Koto Bolofo’s words at Design Indaba should help us reimagine the role of the creative at a time when it is clients who call the shots. It also reinforces thae role that creativity is playing in changing the world.

Naidoo Ravi

There’s a reason why it’s worth celebrating Design Indaba’s philosophy of highlighting the significant socio-economic problems the world faces. Design does not occur in a vaccum, and Design Indaba alumni Alfredo Brillembourg reminds us that great design begins with solving social problems. “If you want to solve housing problems, don’t build housing, build services” says Brillembourg, the founder of Urban Think Tank.

 

In his book There’s A Tsotsi In The Board Room, Muzi Kuzwayo writes, “Obsession with success has led many organisations into trouble. This is because it encourages people to only talk about the good news. The bad news will not be known until it is too late” Design Indaba’s mission, “A better world through creativity” reflects a grasp of the problems our world faces, and the potential for creativity to fix what’s broken. Muzi has spoken at Design Indaba, and like Ravi, he trained as a scientist before finding his calling in the creative industry. In a world of catchy slogans, Design Indaba has been careful to use its tagline as a call to action. Throughout its literature and pages, both online and offline, Design Indaba insists on linking its mission to tangible action. “We can all use creativity to make the world a better place” sounds all the more credible because Design Indaba is involved in concrete action to improve housing, energy, the environment, recycling and other sustainable campaigns that go beyond the cliches of Corporate Social Responsibility.

 

If Design Indaba was simply about showcasing what’s pretty, sexy and even popular, it would long ago have lost its power to consistently pull in the hottest minds in design and creativity from across the globe. Global competition is fierce, what with events such as TED and others luring the best speakers to their platforms. Ravi and his core team have managed to keep Design Indaba fresh each year by knowing exactly what is pushing design and creative boundaries at any one moment. But perhaps the key success of Design Indaba lies in its ability to draw creative leaders from across the globe and use them to ignite deep conversations that influence the trajectory of global creative work.

 

It has been a real joy to watch Design Indaba grow from a small event in South Africa to become one of the key events on the global creative calender. It is thanks to Ravi’s vision that each year Cape Town receives thousands of visitors who know that they will connect with sharp thinkers in the world of design, film, music, architecture, and the other creative industries. The Design Indaba has contributed a staggering amount to the economy, and through projects like the Design Indaba Expo has created jobs and launched some of the hottest talent in global design. Both the film festival and the musical performances during Design Indaba add to the layers of authenticity associated with Design Indaba.

 

I have always marveled at Ravi’s insistence to travel across the world to invite personally each of the speakers that come to Cape Town to take part in Design Indaba. Now that the debacle of Cape Town’s designation as World Design Capital is behind us, it’s time to consider the parasite nature of so many bureaucrats. Cape Town’s stint as World Design Capital shows how carpetbaggers will always ride on the infrastructure that’s been built by the likes of Ravi through Design Indaba.

 

Design Indaba has clearly found the elusive formula for success. But it is its sense of itself as more than just a conference, but a multifaceted platform intent on using creativity to improve the world that lifts it above the event category. It is this broader mission that has turned Design indaba into a veritable institution within the global creative landscape. From the Africa is Now exhibition, to the Design Indaba Do Tank platform, as well as the online Designindaba.com the platforms available to the creative community remain fresh, relevant and compelling each year.

 

One of the noticeable trends is the number of designers that insist on having fun even as they solve the most serious social problems. As the designer John Bielenberg notes “If changing the world isn’t fun then nobody is going to do it”

Ravi

Ours has become a world of deep orthodoxy and that is why it is worth repeating Canadian designer Rahim Bhimani’s quote of his professor “Question everything generally thought to be obvious.”

 

Ravi Naidoo says it best when he says ” Since 1995 Design Indaba has bet the farm on SA’s creative future. All of our projects since 1994 have been about re-imagining Africa, about giving Africa new stretch. We are optimists, we aren’t apologetic about our circumstances or South Africa. We’re not part of the crew that sits about having a whinge over a cappuccino. We have an outstanding opportunity here with the means and the ideas to make a difference.”

Ayanda

 

It’s time that South Africa took serious notice of this great ambassador of our country and his catalytic role in placing both design and the creative industries at the centre of making a better world. Ravi Naidoo would surely repeat with the great photographer Koto Bolofo in saying that “Madonna cannot tell me what to do” and with good reason

A View of Nelson Mandela Bridge

 

 

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Culture

Let The Bass Mourn

It is always a joy to hear an old and familiar instrument given new wings. This is how I felt when I first heard Victor Ntoni play the double bass in the mid eighties. The sound was warm, insistent, perhaps even disturbingly elegant. Over the years I’ve listened to Ntoni play in small ensemble as well as big bands. In later years I heard more and more of his beautiful singing. So when news of his death struck with the usual cruelty, I called up a few of the people who I know care deeply for the man and his music. I wanted to hear their sense of his role as an arranger,  teacher, composer and double bass player and singer.

First I spoke to Lex Futshane, the double bass player and teacher and this is what he told me about Ntoni.
” When I was at the University of Natal, Victor used to visit Durban to play in the city. At that time he was playing in the band Afro Cool Concept with Darius Brubeck. During his visits Victor would offer us workshops on harmony and improvisation.”

 

Victor Ntoni, Double Bass player, composer, arranger and teacher

“For me I used to look forward to his visits because I used to get masterclass bass lessons from him” At this point Futshane is caught between his sense of loss and his powerful memories of Ntoni. He continues:

“Sometimes Victor would arrive without his bass, and would use my bass. For  me this was an incredible honor. On top of that I would drive him around and it was wonderful to be chauffeur to such a great musician” Futshane then turns his attention to the music.

“At that time, in the late 80’s and early 90’s there weren’t many double bass players in the country and he was one of those that mastered the balance between jazz and what we call traditional or folk music. He reinforced my belief that jazz is African music” Futshane says with obvious warmth.

“Man,  for me these lessons were an eye opener, he answered a lot of questions I had as far as bass playing is concerned. Some of these include the role of the bass in ensemble playing and his ideas gave me fuller appreciation of my role as a bassist” enthuses Futshane.

“His place in music was unique because I considered him a musician who happened to pay the bass. When he taught music he taught holistically and didn’t just think bass. I think this is exemplified in His album, Heritage. Which crystallized his entire philosophy and practice of music and there is nothing in the album that limits it to the sound of the bass” Futshane continues

Jazz must always swing, we are told, and Futshane reminds us that Ntoni was a master of swing. “One of the most distinctive features of the album is how he swings in his playing. His playing is in line with his peers including Tete Mbambisa, Duke Makasi, Big T and others who all came from the vocal tradition. Before they were instrument players they were vocalists. This explains why Victor could do elaborate and beautiful musical arrangements for musical plays such as Meropa”

 

Bassist Lex Futshane
Double Bass player, Lex Futshane


Next I spoke to the trumpeter and composer Feya Faku who received news of the death of Ntoni on the day he returned from the funeral of the double bass player Big T Ntsele in Port Elizabeth. And so it turns out that we have not one but two gifted double bassists to mourn in the space of one week.  Big T and Ntoni knew each other and had worked together in the Radio Xhosa big band to arrangements by  Ntoni.

It turns out that Faku’s memory of Ntoni is very personal and deeply moving

“For me Victor Ntoni is one of the people who inspired me to study music at university. I was at Dudley’s of the Soul Jazzmen’s place in PE and there was a jam session. Duke Makasi liked my playing and he then introduced me to Ntoni. At that time Ntoni had a big band project with the SABC called Izandi zasekhaya. Through Duke’s recommendation I was invited to join this project and that’s when I decided to further my studies because I was so inspired by Ntoni’s genius”

Faku continues in his quiet, measured way.

“After my encounter with Ntoni, watching him work, improvise, I decided to read as much as possible, take private lessons and I eventually took up studies at the university of Natal. Ntoni’s  understanding of harmony is unparalleled and he could write his arrangements without going to the piano. It was as if he had transcended the instrument and had reached the stage where he could hear all the notes in his head”

Trumpeter Feya Faku
Trumpeter and composer, Feya Faku

 

Faku revels in what he picked up from Ntoni  “It was through Victor Ntoni and Duke Makasi that I discovered the concept of silent practice in which you practice in your head and heart and afterwards go to the instrument to play what you’ve been practicing”

As a musician Faku is known for his warm, deeply lyrical sound and his dedication to the art of composition. His assessment of Ntoni’s sound is not just some glib remark, but something deeply considered.


“His sound was very personal, he sounded like no one else and he had something to play for, as Abdullah Ibrahim always reminds us. You have to play for something. He played with a purpose, the music has a message and meaning and went beyond playing for money”

Having spoken to these two musicians, I picked up the phone and dialed Bongani Madondo, the critic and music aficionado who brings a refreshing candor to his assessment of artists. My first call went unanswered. A few hours later I called again, and this time Madondo sent a text telling me that he couldn’t take calls as he was in a meeting. But I wasn’t going to be deterred soI replied via text that I wanted to hear his reflections on Victor Ntoni the musician and the man. Unsurprisingly for the scribe that he is,  Madondo interrupted his meeting to write something for me . An hour later here is what I received from the author of Hot Type:

“Victor Ntoni’s departure from this world, once again puts microscopic attention on the state of South African music and its cultural capital worth to both country and the universe. You are bound to hear all the correct and even, lyrical, elegiacal platitudes even,
from those claiming to have been touched by the man’s music or his personality, and whatnot, when how.

And that’s all right by me: nobody does mourning and the rituals of public performances of mourning than Africans. It’s in us, in our veins, topography, landscape, joy and pain. We mourn like no other. We are the Blues People. Be it contrite or heartfelt,
we cry rivers of tears and rivers of shame, shame inversely pointed to ourselves for not doing enough when the object recipient of our pain needed us most.

Bra Vic was a talented, visionary and certainly subversive composer, alright. Specific instances are to be located in his work ‘pon his return from the USA, where, after experiencing the deeper depths of his beloved jazz first hand, and music composition overall, he returned a changed and elevated spirit.

His Xhosa roots of choral music, Aftro-Jazz, amahubo secular spirituals and so on were now enjoined by the rigorous of jazz’s classicisms, and the rigorous challenges bass instrument demands of anyone foolish enough to want to own its unbending beauty.

Victor Ntoni created a new music language, as both a teacher (he was one of the greatest music teachers), performer and composer. Unfortunately, like many others Ntoni was a victim of capitalism and greed’s slash-up and slash-down of organic music, and the belittling of  jazz as outmoded museum music.

He was also, at some point, a huge victim of his own attitude: no one will tell you this but Bra Victor was, for long, and understandably so, an ANGRY man. And with anger came  years of non-productivity. Alas, by the time of his departure, his soul and jovial nature had revisited him and as he was getting gigs and getting recognized again, such as the
recognition given to him in Cape Town (Baxter Theatre). The man’s bass started singing and riffing up on its own, virtually conducted, through osmosis–a love between man and his machine, by its master: the conductor.

But he was also a funny man, reserving his best put downs for clowns usually celebrated by the media.

Writer and critic, Bongani Madondo
Portrait of a critic, Bongani Madondo

 

Other than Johny Dyani, I can’t recall any South African bassist with the same wide expanse of texture, colour and groove than Bra Vic’s. May he kick-up a storm in heaven. Of course pass our love to The Underdog…Mingus,  Parker, Dyani and ’em”

I would like to thank Lex Futshane, Feya Faku and Bongani Madondo for their deeply thoughtful reflections on the great Victor Ntoni. I love the intimacy of their memories and the intelligence of their observations.

As we mourn Ntoni, we should be comforted by the knowledge that he lives on through his incredible music, and though his bass may now be silenced forever, his compositions, arrangements will remind us that amongst us once lived a gentle giant of this great art form we love so much. His music has inspired generations of musicians and his recent work with Black Coffee is proof of his wide appeal.

As I ponder the impossibly beautiful sounds that my namesake used to coax out of his double bass, the  words that come to mind are from Breyten Breytenbach’s A Veil Of Footsteps: “This is the part I like best. Traveling alone. Anonymous in a crowd of strangers” for they are a perfect reminder that some journeys we have to take on our own.

Categories
City blog News

Joburg’s Inner City Blues

Urban renewal, gentrification, inner city rejuvenation, call it what you will, awaits every ageing city. When done well, it is more than plastic surgery for the city, but almost a reinvention.
The decline of Johannesburg’s inner city coincided neatly with the arrival of democracy in South Africa. The reasons for the flight from the inner city were many, but some were just rumor and others no more than urban legend. Safety was cited as a major reason, but it is also likely that developers saw an opportunity to make a killing and they knocked on the doors of corporate bosses at a time when change was in the air. In any case instead of a trickle from the inner city, it became a flood.

Since its decline in the 90’s Joburg’s inner city has flirted with any number of ambitious plans to give it a face lift and attract hip urban dwellers. But these plans have all ended in despair as its once bustling streets are virtually deserted by the end of the Joburg rush hour. As they say, ‘kukhala ibhungange’ in the evenings when very little stirs in this iconic city

The iconic Mandela Bridge, named for Nelson Mandela

.

No one will ever know for sure what precipitated this exodus from this once hallowed city, but overnight, once prestigious office blocks and gleaming restaurants were left vacant, haunted by their quick fall from glory. Parking spaces that had once been reserved for shiny chauffeur driven Rolls Royces were left to rot and decay as the offices were abandoned. The rush to flee the city led to a plethora of suburban office and residential developments in places like Sandton & Fourways.

The departure of the city’s business for the suburbs had a devastating effect on the inner city as rents collapsed and restaurants, fine shops and nightlife spots closed in quick succession. The departure of the Johannesburg Stock Exchange from its imposing building on Diagonal Street was probably the symbolic moment when the inner city became a ghost town. The city’s financial heart had been transplanted to the then largely residential hub of Sandton, something that would have been impossible to imagine even five years earlier. When the money men from the JSE left for Sandton, the really big money soon followed suit and the Sandton CBD was born.

But even as the business elite were departing for the barren safety of the suburbs, a few die-hard inner city loving businesses put up a regal fight against this hasty retreat from the once mighty city. The mining houses like Anglo, JCI, Amplats and some of the Banks like Standard created the first of what came to be known as the Inner City Business Improvement Districts, initially focusing on safety and cleanliness. Their first recruits, with distinctive yellow caps and green uniform, were to be found armed with a shiny baton, gleaming handcuffs and a broom. They certainly kept the designated precinct clean, startlingly at odds with the rest of the inner city that was yielding to dirt and decay almost without resistance.

Condemned building in Joubert Park
Condemned building in Joubert Park

But it was not enough and the sale of the Carlton Centre for the ridiculous bargain price of just over R30 million signaled the nadir to which Joburg’s inner city’s fortunes had sunk. By then whole office blocks stood deserted, once prestigious restaurants shuttered and hijacked buildings were a sign of the times. The captains of industry had made way for informal dwellers who moved in to make a new life for themselves in cheap but unsafe digs inside neglected buildings that had been condemned by the city officials. Building hijackers made a fortune as they packed desperate tenants in this twilight zone of abandoned buildings. But it wasn’t long before the madness of this hasty exit from the inner city became obvious. Then a a second wave of inner city rejuvenation was tabled.

But this time it was driven entirely by a bunch of dreamers who sold implausible tales of turning the Joburg inner city into the next Manhattan, complete with loft apartments and sexy bistros on crowded streets. Armed with computer generated impressions and killer smooth talking salesmen, they made a killing as greedy investors bought into the tantalizing possibility of buying penthouses on the heap and off-loading then for lottery scale profits. But it turned out that many of these developers overestimated their ability to act as a catalyst for the rejuvenation of Joburg’s CBD. In their wake they left many of their flagship projects half finished, and what had once been impressive show units now serve to highlight the improbability of the pitch that had been sold to gullible investors.

Developers like Urban Ocean once hosted the hippest parties in the inner city and even provided the 900 square metre penthouse for the production of the first Apprentice show in South Africa. But beneath the shiny brochures and aggressive sales pitches of a rejuvenated Joburg inner city to rival Upper West Side, the numbers did not add up and soon these projects were abandoned. Even some of the first flagship projects remain unfinished, but those investors who threw money at these extravagant dreams have had to brave it and live in half completed developments.

One of the biggest problems that faced the renewal of Joburg’s inner city were the completely unrealistic expectations of the developers. It is as if they expected to make their profits overnight, and they sold the same irrational exuberance to their investors. The idea of buying an empty shell on the cheap and ‘flipping’ it for a massive profit was part of the DNA of the rejuvenation. But the prices they were asking for were truly outlandish and so these developments foundered as economic reality dictated what rents owners could charge once resales dried up. In many instances all that remains of these lofty dreams are the tattered outsize posters that once promised an urban paradise, complete with names such as Shakespeare and other names that tapped into fantasy.

But all may not be lost as the renewal of the Braamfontein seems to have hit on a formula that may work. Gone are the drams of outlandishly priced penthouse, but instead a more modest approach that develops accommodation for students and young professionals at prices they can afford. On the other side are developments like Randlords and the refurbished Alex Theatre that cater to Joburg’s need for spectacle. But neither Randlords nor the Alex Theatre expect their patrons to hang around the inner city at the end of the lavish events they host. In this sense then it looks as if Braamfontein may be about to give the city of Gold its first rrejuvenation success story.

There is no doubt that a new lease of life courses through the streets of Braamfontein. The streets are full of people well into the night, the theatres, clubs, salons, art galleries and restaurants are popping up all over the place. It is a remarkable achievement given that it has happened without the usual hype that surrounds urban regeneration as publicity hungry developers and city officials punt its potential to create new real estate millionaires.

It is well known that Joburg has always had its fair share of dreamers, visionaries and conmen, and from the first day it was mooted, urban renewal was presented as the new ‘gold rush’ it attracted all three in equal measure. Since the mid 90’s tidal wave of white flight to the surburbs left the downtown Joburg desolate, city officials have launched many ill-fated programs to rejuvenate the city. They each promised a return of the city to its golden age, but all that remained after the hype were dilapidated billboards and posters advertising this false dawn.

In each instance of a renewal project, the speeches were long, the fanfare sizeable and the hope tangible, but no amount of hyperbole could hide the fact that the renewal of Joburg remained an elusive dream. This fate befell the much hyped Newtown renewal which did revive the theatre arts complex around the Market Theatre and even brought new residents like Kaya FM into the precinct, but the buzz that accompanied the initial renewal has been replaced by a palpable indifference. Bars that had sprung up have closed, and the swanky lofts that sprung up near Newtown are exchanging hands for much less than their initial asking prices. Still there are remarkable success stories, like the low income housing not far from the Mandela Bridge. This was not fancy accommodation, but it was decent, solid and affordable and it was sold out immediately. Crucially people live in the development, unlike many of the developments that were bought by ‘investors’ with no intention of spending a night in the inner city.

Detail on a once beautiful inner city building
Detail on a once beautiful inner city building in Joubert Park

But the opening of 70 Juta Street in 2010 was different in that there were almost no officials but the ordinary people that can this precinct aims to attract. Since its opening this short street has retained most of the buzz that was evident during it’s Sunday opening, attracting visitors to the boutique shops, galleries and design shops that line it.

The problem with many of the previous attempts at renewing Joburg is that they wanted to import wholesale what had worked elsewhere. A lot of time and money was spent trying to turn downtown Joburg into the new Manhattan, but this was doomed from the start. They should have known that each city has its own unique history and that it is impossible to just import wholesale solutions that worked elsewhere. If you look at the first brochures that promised the renewal of the city, you would have believed that they had Wall Street salary earners in mind when you look at the inflated prices of the apartments and penthouses.

In the aftermath of these giddy launches, many front page stories in glossy magazines were written touting the inevitable rise of the hip urban dweller. Interestingly enough these stories mostly portrayed the sellers of this lifestyle, not the buyers, and even then the hype should have been evident.  But it was a tantalizing story and it created new heroes in a city that is always inventing them even as it discards its old ones.

Who can forget the hype that was first generated when the first swashbuckling renewal starlets captured the public imagination with their endless stories of ‘Manhattan style lofts’. We should have smelt trouble at the first mention of Manhattan because that model is not what Joburg needs.

Joburg’s renewal has to be home grown, but it also has to face head on the terrible legacy of the Apartheid city on the patterns of urban living and commuting. The terrible truth is that unlike in other cities in the world Apartheid banished the poorest workers to live furthest from their place of work. As a result they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on travelling to work and their homes. In many other cities such a cost, in effect a penalty, is passed on to those who choose to flee to distant middle class suburban enclaves, not those forced by history and circumstance to commute such long distances.

Thus any inner city renewal that is aimed at shutting out the ordinary workers and create yet another haven for the already well off is bound to fail. Braamfontein already had a head start in that it is a nucleus for student accommodation, but now it has extended its offering to include the young and the not so young but hip at heart. It has also created a multiple offering that includes the very rich but also the ordinary hair salon and supermarket worker.

In many ways it has been the absence of hype that has given Braamfontein’s renewal the opportunity to get right what earlier attempts to revive downtown Joburg had missed by a wide margin. The new precinct on 70 Juta Street is a small but significant step in the right direction. Perhaps now the officials can learn what actually works and implement it in other parts of the city minus the noisy hype they like to accompany their projects. It is also telling that many new corporate offices are being built in the Joburg CBD by the likes ABSA and the number of empty buildings has declined. Heavy morning traffic into the inner city is the clearest indication that Joburg’s inner city has once become a hub for business. This is what will provide the backbone for a credible rejuvenation programme, not the empty hype of publicity seeking mavericks.

You will know that these schemes to rejuvenate Joburg’s inner city have worked when the city has cafes, bars, libraries and music clubs that stay open in the evening which is when most cities come to life. Of course much has changed and the city may not rediscover the glory of its heyday, but it will once again become a city that does not become a ghost town in the evening.

View from Biccard Street
A view from Biccard Street, one of Braamfontein's busiest streets