Joburg: A tale of two cities

2010-06-10 08:39
Johannesburg - The showpiece venue for the first ever World Cup on African soil, is the ultimate tale of two cities.

A one-time gold rush city which is still a magnet for fortune-seekers, it is also synonymous with crime and poverty for residents and visitors alike.

Home to the continent's biggest stock exchange and swankiest shops, it abuts the sprawling Soweto township where the Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu both lived as apartheid authorities kept whites and blacks apart.

Known either as Jozi or Joburg, South Africa's biggest city should attract the right kind of headlines as it hosts 16 of the 64 matches in football's premier tournament – including Friday's opener and the final on July 11.

Eight of the games, including the two blue ribbon matches, will be held at Soccer City, a stone's throw from Soweto. The other seven take place at Ellis Park, round the corner from the notorious inner-city neighbourhood of Hilbrow.

But while Hilbrow remains home to thousands of Nigerian, Congolese and Zimbabwean immigrants trying to scrap a living in derelict tower blocks, other parts of the city centre are enjoying something of a renaissance.

Visitors to 44 Stanley Avenue, a former warren of workshops and garages which has been transformed into a cluster of trendy shops and bars, could be forgiven for thinking they were in Europe.

Could be mistaken for Paris

"You'd think you were on a terrace outside a cafe in Paris," said one customer called Thembi as he sipped a glass of wine.

Seated on the next table, another client called Lionel recalled how the area used to be teeming with drug dealers.

"There was an abandoned factory and dodgy characters. It was horrible before," he said.

At one stage, the crime rate became so acute that the stock exchange relocated to the suburbs.

But at least some pockets of the Central Business District (or CBD) are coming back to life, such as Market Theatre, a network of restaurants and bars which also includes a theatre and a nightclub.

Lying around many corners are architectural gems such as the newly-renovated Barbican skyscraper or the Guildhall Pub, one of the city's most popular bars.

Eric Itzkin, the city's deputy director of immovable heritage, said that the downtown area was once a haven for wealthy white shoppers before crime took an ever stronger grip, but it was never a place where everyone was made welcome.

Apartheid city

"The CBD flourished up to the 70s. There was luxurious shopping but also a dark side: this was an apartheid city, it was city that excluded many people," Itzkin told AFP.

In the countdown to the tournament, the police presence in downtown Johannesburg has noticeably increased but the continued reluctance of residents to venture out after dark is understandable.

Police in Gauteng, the province which includes both Johannesburg and neighbouring Pretoria, say nearly 4 000 murders and 90 000 burglaries were committed between April 2008 and March 2009.

"After eight o'clock, there is too much crime here. With the World Cup, policemen are out arresting them and it's more safe now," said 31-year-old Janet Nel, who rents a small flat in Astor Mansions, an art deco apartment block dating back to the 1930s when the city was known as "Little Manhattan".

Barely five minutes' drive from the CBD lie some of the most city's exclusive neighbourhoods where mainly white families enjoy lives of luxury with swimming pools and perfectly manicured lawns – albeit from behind walls trimmed with electric fences or jagged glass.

The best known, Sandton, is now home to the towering Johannesburg Stock Exchange building and a luxury shopping mall crammed with the kind of bling likely to spin heads among the players' wives and girlfriends (WAGs).

Nestled under its shadow is the Alexandra township where thousands of impoverished blacks still live in rickety shacks, with communal taps and toilets.
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