What secrets does a city hold within its bosom? In Johannesburg, one of them is an intriguing
labyrinth of tunnels that once served as a postal delivery system. Could such relics of the past be the subterranean realms of the future? Urban planning points to what is now called ‘hypogeal cities’.
Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD) holds a secret within its deep, dark belly.
On the surface are the citadels of power housing some of Africa’s oldest and biggest corporate institutions.
Beneath this morass of steel and concrete, is a labyrinth of tunnels few know of.
We search for them, walking miles in the sun, scouring the grimy innards and alleys of a business district that was once seen and filmed by Hollywood producers as a Manhattan ‘lookalike’.
These streets have been witness to searing political upheaval and mass unrest, and bear the scars of a brutal apartheid past.
But every city needs daily witnesses in its account of the here and now, and you find them on the streets – the shopkeepers, traders, commuters and the security guards who watch the CBD change color and character from morning to night.
And sometimes, the best leads come from these purveyors of change, the ordinary people who witness the city up close every day.
And luckily, we find ours – the security guard who will indirectly lead us to the tunnels.
“Yes, I have been inside these underground tunnels,” he says, reluctant to reveal his name or tell us more. He relents, however, and gives us a number we can call, that of the site manager of what he calls “the Post Office tunnels”.
With his help, on a sultry October morning, we arrive at the Old Johannesburg Post Office on Jeppe Street, a street lined with shops and informal traders selling everything from cell phones to socks.
Business here has a life and rhythm of its own, oblivious to what lies beneath.
“I have been living and working here for 30 years and I have never heard of what you are talking about,” shrugs Givemore Sithole, a worker in the area, when we ask if he knows about them.
But history and fact co-exist.
According to an 80-year-old report simply known as “the heritage report”, the tunnels were built in October 1935, at the height of apartheid, for the effective delivery of mail between the Post Office and Park Station, about 2km apart.
The tunnels also connect to Gandhi Square at its other end, and in total, are 3kms-long.
“This tunnel was built at a time when more and more people were coming to Johannesburg to look for work in the City of Gold. There was a lot of congestion on the roads and they created this big ‘machine’, which I hear even connects to Gandhi Square, which is about another 1.2 kilometers away,” says Johan Visser, a site manager at the
Africa Housing Company, which is redeveloping the Old Johannesburg Post Office.
Before we meet him, we run into a real estate agent, who is currently leasing space at the site of the old post office. We ask if she knows about the history of the building – how was she pitching the property to prospective clients? Did she know about the tunnels?
“I can’t believe there are tunnels here. I have never even heard of them but I think people would appreciate this place more if they did,” she tells us, not wanting to be named.
Even the construction laborers working on the post office site are unaware.
Visser takes us to the tunnels. We find the entrance, with the help of his colleagues, and it’s wide enough to fit a small car.
It has a large red metal door, with access temporarily blocked by bulky construction material.
The workers manage to clear the entry and open the door. Inside the tunnel, it’s like a big black hole – it’s pitch-black but holding within its bowels an old secret.
“Beware of rodents and snakes in there,” warns Visser, as we gingerly step in.
Through this tunnel, according to the heritage report, estimates are that 900 bags of mail were conveyed on wheelbarrows and sifted per hour at each end. They also had rudimentary versions of the conveyor belts of today.
The tunnels were shut down in 1956 for reasons not known, abandoned and forgotten, until about two years ago when they were rediscovered by Ray Harli, an architect and Director at UrbanSoup Architects and Urban Designers.
We meet him at the post office end of the tunnel, but he recounts how he stumbled upon the Park Station side of it – and the intriguing network he discovered under the surface.
“We are constructing a very large transport hub in Newtown [part of Johannesburg’s inner city]. While we were excavating, we came across an opening. We weren’t sure what it was and when we went inside, we discovered the tunnel, and realized it goes deep. Finding the tunnels felt like a treasure hunt. It was also partially scary because it was very dark inside. We didn’t go in deep that day and went back a few weeks later with a full team. We walked inside for over a kilometer. There was water inside and we had to turn back when the water was too high,” says Harli.
About 6,000 kilometers away in Egypt, almost a century ago, one can almost imagine the euphoria that must have accompanied Howard Carter’s discovery of the chambers that led to King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
But Harli was pragmatic; soon after the discovery, he went straight to his office and contacted the Department of Heritage to learn more about the subterranean discovery.
While the tunnels were operated by the post office, they were constructed by the workers who built the railroads of the time. It’s a fact revealed by Anne Benson, whose grandfather, William Pryce-Rosser, she says, designed the tunnels.
“We have a whole album of photos of the tunnels being built. My grandfather used to tell us the tunnels were there and he had worked on them. He was involved in a lot of work at the time and he was very proud of them,” says Benson. The pictures she has of the tunnel being constructed are indeed rare.
She also shares with us the typed-out ‘thank you letter’ her grandfather received in 1934 from the ‘Town Clerk’s Department’.
The tunnels cost a fortune in their day. For example, according to the yellowing heritage report referred to earlier, it cost a whopping £170,000 at the time and used 15,750 tons of concrete. There was also a section of the tunnel called ‘parcels and baggage’, which was 914 metres long and cost £71,000 to build; and then a section called ‘signals’, which was 640 meters long.
“The city didn’t know about the tunnels, but the Department of Heritage did,” says Harli.
Since learning about them, Harli has been looking into how these tunnels can be best put to use.
“Now, people call me ‘Mr Tunnels’,” he laughs.
“A year before we found these tunnels, I was in New York and they have an underground tunnel that they have converted into what they call the world’s first underground park. They cut holes on the pavement up above to let light inside. They even have trees underground,” says Harli.
Inspired, he hopes the Johannesburg tunnels could be commercialized too.
“The world is moving in very interesting directions and we can use places like this that already exist for underground developments. For example, the idea is to link Park Station with our transport facility in Newtown so that there is a direct pedestrian link underground. Having this direct link will bring connectivity between different transport hubs. A more ambitious plan would be to build a commercial retail space with coffee shops and art exhibitions,” Harli says of his plans.
According to him, with the right type of management, this could become a destination space. He offers the example of the city’s stylish Maboneng Precinct, which had been abandoned but was revamped and turned into a key tourist destination featuring food markets and art galleries.
“People desperately want [options]. Changing this up can be a very good opportunity which will also preserve the heritage,” says Harli, calling the potential development “a sub city”.
Harli adds that the problem with the Johannesburg tunnels is that there is no agreement on who owns them.
He says he would need about R30 million ($2 million) to turn them into “a heritage shrine” where people can enjoy them as green, public spaces.
“It is also hard to convince government to spend on this type of development because there are some major problems in the inner city. Some people could argue a space like this is a ‘nice to have’ but our argument is that it is something that could be commercialized,” says Harli, who is considering a few rounds of crowdfunding to kick-start the project.
“I have told the city about what we would like to do but we need to find out who definitively owns the tunnels.”
The ownership is unclear, and this is a fact reiterated by a contact we meet at the Johannesburg Development Agency, which is the city’s real estate developer.
Harli wants to get down to business at the tunnels, but Africa Housing Company, which owns the Old Johannesburg Post Office, has plans to fix the building and turn it into apartments and commercial shops.
“There is a lot of history here. We are turning the place into shops and apartments while keeping its history. We restore and repair, but most of the things are still here. The only problem is that when the building was abandoned, there were dwellers living here who took some of the things, like all the brass and copper wires,” says Visser, showing us the granite table at the reception that is still in the same spot as it was at the old post office.
Africa Housing Company has retained the windows, murals, the clock, telegram booths, doors, ceilings and stairs, adhering to the old look and feel.
“This is a historic building, so we have to keep as much as we can as is,” says Visser, showing us some of the over 200 apartments now built where the old post office was.
At Gandhi Square, which is said to have yet another entrance into the tunnels, there is already some commercial activity underground.
An entrepreneur, Gerald Garner, owns Zwipi, an underground bar here, which was once an old bank vault with safety boxes. He also owns JoburgPlaces, which offers walking tours. Garner has been offering inner-city walking tours since 2011.
“Since it is such a historic building, it made sense to open a restaurant-bar in the old bank vault. We also do most of our walking tours through this space and host safaris and secret underground dinners here.”
It just points to the fact that such areas can be re-conceptualized and commissioned back to life.
WILL UNDERGROUND RESIDENCES WORK?
According to Namibia-based architect Gerald Mandevhana, many countries like Finland and China have even gone further, with concepts like underground homes.
According to Mandevhana, Mexico City even proposed an ‘earthscraper concept’, a 75-storey pyramid going 300 meters into the ground to accommodate about 100,000 people, and Singapore built a subterranean oil storage facility that goes down 100 meters.
Mandevhana says the idea of underground living is not as far-fetched as we may think.
African people have lived underground for centuries, he says.
“Two hundred thousand years back, some of the homosapiens led troglodyte lives in caves in South Africa.”
However, Mandevhana acknowledges a lot has changed in the last 200 millennia and today, the prospect of underground living has to come with readjustments to suit modern lives.
“On an infrastructure level, I believe we can actually implement the move. The architecture, engineering and construction industry in Africa is quite advanced now and several avant-garde practices and technologies are already being implemented,” he says.
However, at a systems level, he says the world has a long way to go because cities are complex organisms.
“Many concepts have been pushed up to define and idealize cities; central place theory, garden city movement, radiant city, city beautiful movement, broadacre city, right up to today’s smart cities with artificial intelligence and deep learning systems at the heart of things. As complex socio-technical organisms, all systems will need to be reviewed to ensure they optimize interactions between people, technology and the new hypogeal environment. Our systems are not yet ready for urban scale shifts towards subterranean life,” he says.
Harli and Mandevhana both see the potential of commercial spaces underground.
But Harli too is of the opinion that, in Africa, underground housing may be difficult to implement.
“You cannot justify building accommodation underground right now in Johannesburg when there are many abandoned buildings. I understand in China, where space is a problem. I don’t see residences underground but rather underground public space with commercial spaces,” says Harli, adding that building underground will always be a more expensive proposition than construction above the ground.
“For example, building an underground parking structure is five times the cost of building one above the ground,’ he says.
Deon Du Plessis, Function Manager, Urban Development, at SMEC, a multi-disciplinary engineering and infrastructure solutions company, agrees.
“It costs more to drill down the ground. We also still have a lot of land that we can build on in Africa. From a health and safety point of view, it will also be a challenge because you need ventilation and fire protection down there, for instance,” says Du Plessis.
Mandevhana says that building underground has higher initial costs but says there are anticipated lower-running costs as well, which implies “a less-costly lifecycle” compared to surface developments.
“The negative is that, currently, the resale value of these homes is quite low, as prospective buyers avoid them due to their unconventional nature. At an urban scale, the amount of earth that will need to be removed to create volumes for the developments will be something to think about,” says Mandevhana.
There are ups and downs to several of these hypotheses.
Science informs us that underground developments will not need costly heating and cooling systems due to the thermophysical properties of the earth; they could be used as shelter from adverse weather; and would require little, if any, exterior maintenance.
Another big question or concern is that of food supply underground. Would we be able to grow food underground?
Mandevhana has some answers.
“Due to similar conditions between underground spaces and greenhouses, it’s possible to grow the same types of food that we grow on the surface, but again, there is an opportunity to use the surface for agricultural purposes, afforestation and reforestation to reverse global warming, for instance,” he says.
Based on questions that have arisen from the recently-unearthed ancient Turkish city of Nevşehir, perhaps an even bigger concern is if humans will be able to physically and psychologically adapt to life underground.
“The generalizations about these factors affect the applicability of hypogeal cities. Sensory deprivation is one such factor, people are stimulated by their surrounding environment, and this becomes critical in small, enclosed spaces. On the physiological side, the challenges are associated with lack of natural light, indoor air quality, high humidity levels underground, and even lack of noise,” says Mandevhana.
It means the fundamental principles of urban design and urban planning will need to be redefined, the role of the urbanist and the architect will need to be clarified and the engineering field will need to establish relevant innovations to provide appropriate solutions if we are to go the underground mass residential route in Africa.
Du Plessis thinks the first priority is to fix the infrastructure problems we have now, before exploring underground options. “Our cities are growing at such a rapid rate that we can’t keep doing what we are doing. It is not sustainable. Our biggest opportunity is to revitalize Hillbrow and the central business district,” he says.
His first call is to build more compact cities that are taller.
“The trick is to provide urban spaces that actually work. You don’t just need a roof over your head but you need to be safe, be able to work, for children to be able to play in the park and having attractive spaces. It is a much bigger social construct that needs to be addressed. We need to build much closer to where we work,” he says.
Du Plessis thinks underground developments, like the Johannesburg tunnels, can best be used to provide better transport routes for people to get to work faster.
Be it for commercial space, housing or transportation, it seems these old tunnels have triggered a new debate that may change the way we live. Forever.
A Statement On The Skyline
South Africa is on its way to another record with Africa’s tallest building.
A new superstructure is making its mark in Sandton in the heart of Africa’s richest square mile.
The $3 billion project is expected to be completed by the end of 2019 and beat Carlton Centre’s reign as the tallest building in Africa since 1973.
The 223-meter, 50-storey Carlton Centre in Johannesburg has for 46 years stood the test of time as a skyscraper dominating the skyline in South Africa and the continent.
The new building coming up in Sandton will be a 55-storey, 234-meter classical Italian eponym paying homage to Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian artist of the Renaissance era.
It adds to the luxurious portfolio of hotels by the Legacy Living property group.
As The Leonardo rising from the bedrock and gradually etches its presence on the skyline, Gijs Foden, Director of Retail Management in Legacy Living, says it is a beacon that represents economic growth far beyond the surface.
“From a development perspective, everyone knows about the crisis in construction. There is light at the end of the tunnel, through a tough economy. It is a tough market and we are working our way out of it. We are going up. We are part of the beacon of hope through tough times,” he says.
South Africa has nine out of 20 of the continent’s tallest buildings, amounting to 1,277 meters in total and 5,000 steps up a staircase.
While most of these buildings were erected in the 1900s and early 2000s, records have stayed the same.
Johannesburg’s Ponte City Tower standing as the third tallest building in Africa, coming in after Kenya’s Britam Tower at 200 meters.
The Leonardo was initially set out to be a mixed-use building with 33 floors but has since escalated to dominating the South African skyscraper inventory.
Foden says the development will not only provide investment opportunities for South Africa, but it will celebrate African authenticity.
Set to be completed in the year of Leonardo Da Vinci’s 500th death anniversary, African art will be the center-piece of the tower.
You look out of the window and that is your canvas. Internally, the art in the building is African art.
“We are supporting the African artist, it is what it is. The art defines the building. Keeping the essence of the building and at the same time the warmth and lifestyle will be an attraction, irrespective of the Italian name,” Foden says.
By following due processes in getting the height approved, overtaking Carlton Centre’s record, Foden says: “It [Carlton Centre] is still an icon and no one has been able to beat it. It is different times and it is also different generations. This is our generation which is going to be a timeless building for many years to come. It is an urban flight.”
However, the record by The Leonardo may be short-lived as yet another African skyscraper may overshadow it by the end of 2021.
The Pinnacle, currently being built in Nairobi’s financial hub, is set to be a 70-storey mixed-use development.
According to a yearly study published by The Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH), Beijing’s China Zun 528-meter skyscraper was the tallest building completed in 2018, making it the eighth-tallest building in the world.
The study reports that 16 new buildings entered the 100 tallest lists in 2018; up from 14 in 2017, 76% of these were in Asia.
Co-Arc Director, Francois Pienaar, says the influx of skyscrapers in Africa is a way for property investors and developers to exploit the options of sites.
“Sites can become very valuable. There are a lot of things to do with money – [for] better returns for the investment of the land, and that is why people go up. It takes quite a lot of courage, to go 55 floors.
You need to have a client who is inspired to do it. Especially, with the volatility of Africa,” Pienaar says.
Despite the competition for a piece of the sky, none of the 2019 projected top 30 tallest buildings will supersede the world’s tallest building in Dubai at a towering 829.8 meters with 163 floors above the ground.
The Burj Khalifa has boasted this record since its completion in 2010.
According to Pienaar, the opportunity to build a structure of this magnitude does not come by every day in Africa.
Breaking his 30-storey skyscraping record, Pienaar, who is currently working on The Leonardo, adds: “It takes a lot more when it comes to delivering services and the kinds of aesthetics that take place.
“The building has a skin outside which is imported from Spain. It is a new invention from Spain that reduces the heat load on the glass. We have produced a building that is responsible for the climate. We are trying to keep the building energy-efficient,” he says.
As the global economic outlook develops, there is fierce competition for a piece of the sky.
The taller the building, the more money it pulls in.
As the South African economy picks itself up, the lingering shadow of the Leonardo will represent a symbol of growth and a new dawn.
Lab-grown Diamonds: Never Mined, It’s Man-Made
Turns out there is literally no difference between lab-grown diamonds and natural diamonds, well, apart from the price.
Ever wondered what the difference between lab-produced diamonds and natural diamonds was? Well, nothing. They are exactly the same.
As with most things of value, a great deal of information has been produced over the years about the price of diamonds. In short, many believe the real price of diamonds is far lower than what ‘big business’ would have us believe and that it is driven up by our insatiable hunger and the social importance we place on the stones.
In line with this, there is a widely-held belief that they are not rare and the market is being deliberately controlled to create the façade that they are difficult to produce. Therefore, their price is dictated by the fact that they symbolize the most enduring of all human emotions – love.
With that out of the way, in recent times, society has developed a pragmatic relationship with diamonds, rather than a romantic one that has long sustained the industry.
It might be that we live in the era of instant gratification or that we have stopped romanticising the idea of waiting millions of years for the precious stone, but more people have embraced the idea of purchasing lab-grown diamonds.
Unlike an imitation gem like cubic zirconia, it has the same physical characteristics and chemical components as a natural diamond but production time is much shorter, enabling producers to create it in a matter of weeks.
Lab-grown diamonds producer Ross Reid offers FORBES AFRICA a very sobering perspective with the following analogy to describe man-made diamonds.
“If a couple can’t fall pregnant using conventional methods, they do IVF where the baby’s origin of life is manmade. Is that not a real baby when it’s born?”
The room falls silent as all contemplate this question.
“So by that logic, it is a real diamond,” Reid states emphatically.
Reid is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Inception Diamonds, One of South Africa’s first Diamond companies to offer lab-grown diamonds and fine jewelry.
The world’s leading diamond producer, De Beers, however, has a different perspective.
“We view natural diamonds and lab-grown diamonds as very different products as they have completely different production processes. Natural diamonds are created in the earth, under intense heat and pressure over billions of years. Each diamond is rare, finite and unique,” says Bianca Ruakere, a De Beers Group spokesperson.
Reid says he recognizes the market potential for global growth in being able to offer conflict-free, environmentally-friendly lab-grown diamonds, especially to the millennial market.
“With the creation of laboratory-grown diamonds, it allows you to offer the consumer the same thing optically, physically, and chemically at a big discount. So you can have the same beauty, the same hardness, the same look and the same feel for less money,” Reid says.
Large diamond producers have also recognized the same potential.
De Beers Group has been producing synthetic diamonds for industrial purposes for more than 50 years. “Last year, we launched Lightbox in the United States to market a range of fun, fashion jewelry using lab-grown diamonds. They are accessibly priced, and a distinct product offering compared with natural diamonds,” Ruakere says.
Price is not the only reason that encourages the market to opt for lab-grown diamonds. They are also other ethical factors such as having a guarantee that the rock on your finger is conflict-free.
Shogan Naidoo, who proposed to his fiancé, Preba Iyavoo, on Valentine’s Day at the popular independent cinema house, The Bioscope, did so with a healthy bank balance and clean conscience.
They were traditionally engaged in July last year, so by the time the ring engagement happened, Iyavoo was caught completely off-guard and was pleasantly surprised.
“Shogan is the most endearing person, but he’s not romantic in the slightest,” says a giddy Iyavoo, who recalls the proposal that happened in a filled theater, with a movie Naidoo had created just for her.
The couple are besotted with their lab-grown diamond. Naidoo says after doing exhaustive research to find the perfect ring to propose with, all conventional options had failed him.
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He says his final ring choice far exceeded his expectations in price and design. Naidoo explains that Iyavoo has a very specific preference and that he was not willing to compromise in getting her the perfect ring but the one he initially wanted was in the range of R80,000 ($5,500).
“We were planning a wedding and we’d just bought a house,” he says. The exorbitant cost of retail rings led him to search out of the box, and eventually the box returned with the perfect gem.
The couple who lead a very environmentally-conscious lifestyle, say they are especially proud to be the custodians of this ring because they are guaranteed it’s conflict-free and no miners were exploited.
Reid says he has to grapple with a great deal of scepticism because many are not ready to fully embrace the idea of lab-grown diamonds despite their advantages.
“The Federal Trade Commission has changed the definition of a diamond. It does not need to come from the ground.
“We have opened up the market for people to be able to afford beautiful pieces without compromising on quality,” Reid says.
Change is inevitable and with that, there will always be those resistant to it. But one thing is for sure, society’s relationship with diamonds are changing.
A New Language Doesn’t Hamper Kids Learning. Other Things Do
South Africa is a linguistically and culturally diverse country. There are 11 official languages and several other minority languages. But English continues to be preferred as the language of learning and teaching.
Many South African children are still in the process of learning English by the time they first start going to school. In a single English-medium classroom, one can find children with various levels of English proficiency; from children with English as their mother tongue to children who have never learnt English before.
This situation poses a range of challenges for both the teacher and the children. One of the biggest challenges is that a certain level of proficiency in English is required for the children to be able to perform well academically in an English-medium school. It’s a widely known factthat academic success is very much dependent on language competence and proficiency.
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This means that there’s a great need to understand how language develops in children’s early school careers. It is also important to understand the cognitive mechanisms that underlie language learning. To further explore how this happens in the early years of schooling I did a study involving pre-primary children in an English-medium school in Cape Town.
The group consisted of children who were still learning English as well as children whose mother tongue was English. The children were very diverse – there was a total of nine different home languages in the group of children who were still learning English.
The findings showed that the ability of children to develop their language skills didn’t depend on whether they were proficient when they started out. Their ability to learn and advance – or not – was in fact dependent on a range of other factors, none of which had to do with English language proficiency.
The research aimed to understand the link between language and working memory development. I did this by tracking how working memory developed for the children chosen to take part in the study.
Working memory is the ability to store and use information in the short-term and is important for our everyday lives. For example, we use working memory when we need to remember an address that we just heard while we are looking for a pen to write it down. Working memory also underlies many important academic competencies, like reading and mathematics.
The children were broken into two groups: those with English as their primary language, and those still learning English. They were given the same tasks; these were an English language assessment and working memory tasks. They were assessed three times over the course of the year – at the beginning, middle and end.
The results showed that both groups improved over the year on the assessment of English language abilities. The results also revealed that great improvements were made in language development during the first year of formal schooling.
Results from the working memory tasks indicated that children who were still learning English, as well as the children who have English as their mother tongue, performed the same on these tasks and achieved comparable scores. Children in both groups saw their language abilities and working memory abilities improve over the year.
The most interesting finding is that the route, or trajectory, the children’s cognitive and language development followed was the same for both groups, regardless of the English abilities they had at the beginning.
Importantly, the result that working memory scores between groups were comparable also indicated that the amount of knowledge of English that a child had didn’t affect their working memory abilities.
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What this points to is that, if a child’s working memory scores are low and the trajectory of the development is not the same as their peers, there may be cause for concern. In this case, the children should be referred to an occupational or speech therapist for further assessment. Our research shows the fact that they’re struggling can’t simply be explained away as a “symptom” of the child not knowing English well enough.
Falling through the cracks
Studies like these are important for giving professionals better ways of seeing if a child has a disorder or is only struggling because they have not acquired a sufficient level of English yet.
In the context of a classroom with various languages and proficiencies of English, it is easy for a child with a disorder to be overlooked.
Along with the under-resourced schools and over-burdened teachers, heterogeneity among learners results in them not receiving the support that they need, be it academic or linguistic. Those whose primary language is English as well as those learning English suffer alike. The upshot is clearly seen in the worsening educational crisis in South Africa.
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