The property boom in a small spot of Johannesburg’s inner city has led to tension between residents and developers.
The Zebra Inn, the scene of a recent double murder, was billed by local media as part of the inner city rejuvenation project centered on the Maboneng precinct on Johannesburg’s east side. Technically, it was an oversight.
The Zebra Inn’s only connection to the private sector driven city renewal is the eclectic black and white stripes adorning its exterior. Otherwise it is the antithesis of the Maboneng vision. Entering the Zebra Inn was always a laborious affair, involving a series of intercoms to choreograph navigation through two separate heavy duty security gates while under the constant gaze of CCTV cameras.
The decor on the top-floor bar is a clutter of dead African wildlife mounted on its walls. However, the most glaring example separating the Zebra Inn from the Maboneng philosophy of embracing the city is its claustrophobic interior. The city’s vistas are shuttered from view in nothing more than an act of heresy to the architects converting light industrial buildings and office blocks into loft apartments, rooftop bars and street cafes in the area.
The hallmark of Maboneng, and the other developers colonizing the area, is the openness and intimacy with the street and its celebration of the city’s skyline. Its more subtle aesthetic is making obsolete the architecture of fear, such as security gates, razor wire and burglar bars, in favor of a 24/7 legion of well-equipped private security guards. The police keep a low profile and are usually only spotted lunching at a local shisha nyama – a restaurant that specializes in barbequed meat.
The killing of journalist Johann Botha and the Zebra Inn’s owner, Werner ‘Swazi’ Peherchtold, 76, was said by the police to be a botched robbery. Local news, however, suggests Botha may have been the target of assassination because of his investigations into land claim fraud. The neighborhood conspiracists thought otherwise, speculating it was a professional hit on Peherchtold through his steadfast refusal to sell his building to the many suitors drawn to take advantage of the localized property boom.
Austrian by birth, and a former professional hunter by trade, Peherchtold bought the Zebra Inn after many years in Swaziland – hence his moniker – and a few years before property developer Jonathan Liebmann began his rebranding of the inner city suburb of Jeppestown to Maboneng. It began with the 2008 acquisition of a 1911 warehouse and repackaged as the multi-use Arts on Main. Since then, Liebmann’s property empire Propertuity has acquired a catalogue of 70 buildings, including regeneration projects in Durban, with an estimated value of R1 billion (around $75 million). In 2016, RMB Holdings acquired a 30% stake in Propertuity.
The Zebra Inn, diagonally opposite the Jeppe Police Station, was reputedly a brothel before Peherchtold bought the building that also housed his prolific book collection and taxidermy business. The Zebra Inn provides a lesson why eccentricity can never have a definitive style and it became a magnet for foreign travelers staying in Maboneng, who relished describing a night’s drinking at the bar as “going on safari”.
The Zebra Inn did, however, find a niche within the ambitions of Liebmann “to build neighborhoods”. Its relative isolation made it ideal for late night drinking, providing the last refuge for the bitter-enders migrating from Maboneng’s conservative operating hours.
Although there is no curfew for Maboneng’s various bars and restaurants, one business owner, who declined to be identified, said even though he has a 2AM alcohol license, the bar is seldom open beyond 9PM. “It’s not worth it. People have bought apartments for millions of rands and you don’t want to get caught up in costly court actions about noise.”
The residential populations in the refurbished Propertuity buildings – and separate from the host of other property developers drawn to the area with a similar ethos – are predicted to reach about 20,000 people within a square kilometer by 2020.
The most precarious balancing act is the rapid influx of the middle class on the coat tails of hundreds of millions of rands, and rising, of property investment into the urban poverty.
“Poor people are feeling threatened that they are going to be evicted and part of the reason is the poor communication with them by developers,” says the business owner.
Maboneng, the Sesotho word for “Place of Light”, is on the doorstep of overcrowded apartheid-era single-sex hostels organized under a Zulu induna system. An anti-gentrification protest march through the area a few years ago was sparked by rumors of the hostels being upgraded. Any improvements to the hostels would inevitably lead to evictions, and violence, where the hostel numbers are estimated at around 10,000.
Propertuity marketing manager Nyiko Chauke dismisses out-of-hand gentrification comparisons.
“Gentrification is developing the space and chasing away the people to make room for the middle income. And there is a misunderstanding of what we are doing. We are building the neighborhood without chasing away people. And secondly we cater for the middle class and also blue collar workers.”
The company says its rental stock targets people earning between R12,000 ($900) and R30,000 ($2,250) monthly.
The concentration of non-residential light industrial buildings is a dream template for developers looking to interpret the urban lifestyle associated with the likes of New York’s Meatpacking District. The pace of development is snowballing with Propertuity’s recent acquisition of another couple of city blocks that extends along the Fox Street axis of the precinct into more urban decay.
The mantra of “building neighborhoods”, however, does not guarantee property speculators will not look to flip existing residential buildings using evictions for a quick profit, and in doing so rapidly push tensions between poor communities and developers into the red zone. Propertuity has actively side-stepped evictions, as have other developers so far, in growing their property portfolio. That does not discount other developers from employing eviction tactics.
“There are all these things happening around us outside of our control,” says Chauke.
Mfaniseni Sihlongonyane, an associate professor lecturing town planning at the University of the Witwatersrand, acknowledges that Propertuity “are attempting to be as inclusive as possible” but South Africa’s inequalities are too wide to incorporate all. While acknowledging developers’ efforts of providing a variety of rentals, he says urban accommodation cannot be left to market forces alone and there needs to be a genuine “social compact”.
Government social housing, which is one attempt to rewire the spatial apartheid legacy that condemned people to the perimeters of the metropolis on the basis of race, is not necessarily the panacea in its present form. Low social housing monthly rentals of R600 ($45), or even less, can be unaffordable and give way to “downward raiding,” says Sihlongonyane. The term describes the practice of social housing tenants sub-letting their accommodation for an income and then moving to alternate accommodation, usually informal settlements, and thereby defeating the aim of catering for the city’s poor.
There are “greenfield” constructions emerging, but none so innovative as New York-based architect Giuseppe Lignano’s six-storey luxury shipping container block of flats, at 30% of the structural costs of a mortar and brick equivalent.
Containers are an abundant resource given the world’s trade imbalances. Most containers make a one-way journey from China and about 80% of the world’s estimated 25 million containers lie idle at their destinations. Ligano says the structures, which can be quickly assembled, present an opportunity for low-cost housing initiatives.
Ligano and Liebmann professionally courted each other since 2013 and realized the two companies shared the same “sensibilities” towards Maboneng. They shy away from “glitzy buildings”, says Ligano, in favor of respecting “the grain of the neighborhood… more learning from the places themselves and holding dear the character that they have.”
Saad Hamid, 31, and his partner – both in private life and business – Brooke Dickens, 27, are formally employed and opened the Maboneng Mexican-themed bar restaurant, The Gringo Cafe, as a sideline. Dickens works in the medical insurance industry, while Hamid has a job in the telecommunications sector.
Their ambition is to leave salaried employment and The Gringo is the first step towards that. They first toyed with the idea of a food truck, but the math of starting a business in Maboneng proved more cost effective and attractive.
The Main Street restaurant opened in November 2016 on the precinct’s periphery and in that short time has witnessed the area’s rapid growth with more apartments and businesses opening. The couple transferred their passion for food, from cooking for friends, into a business.
“So we decided to try the Mexican thing, with the cocktails and food,” says Hamid.
He studied fashion design and delights in the street culture being cultivated in the inner city.
“Maboneng is so influential art wise. The people who come here are very open-minded. It’s a different lifestyle and people feel like they are on holiday, hopping from place to place, creating a vibe that you just don’t get in other parts of Joburg.” – Written by Guy Oliver