“If you drive over the bridge, you’ve gone too far. Then you’re in the CBD CBD” – this was the warning I would add when giving directions to my friends when I used to live in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. As a student it was public knowledge that crossing the Nelson Mandela bridge, meant leaving the relative “safety” of the patrolled, student filled streets of Braam and entering, “real” downtown Johannesburg.
When I lived in Braam four years ago, the prettification of the place had only just begun. The trendy, art decor-ish apartment block I had moved into still had builders coming in and out, paint fumes choking us and an irregular electricity supply. But it was by far the safest and cleanest place around me. Standing on the balcony of my brand new apartment, with supplied furniture and 24-hour security and fingerprint access, were the rows and rows of rusty, bird-shit-stained, peeling walls that housed the bane of property developers and the state’s existence. The blaring gospel music and the sight of panties on balconies became mine.
The run down apartments – housing entire extended families – around me reminded me of Lucky Kunene, a fictional character in a local movie, Jerusalema. Basically this ex “baddie” buys rundown buildings in the inner city, promises reduced rent to inhabitants, collects it then forces the landlords to take the reduced rent. When they fight him on it, he makes running the place and evictions impossible; then buys the buildings when landlords inevitably give up. And when he gets control, the twisted Robin Hood of Hillbrow rids the buildings of drugs, prostitutes and general squalor. The apartments around me are the places we see red ants descend upon where people are evicted after not paying rent because of the lack of services, which are a result of unpaid rent and so on and so forth.
Dictionary definition of Gentrification: the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents.
By the time I was in third year, our prettified part of the inner city had really come alive. Jolling in Braam was now a viable option. You could hop from Puma Social Club, to Great Dane to Kitcheners. None of which had entrance at the time, Great Dane just had a password some nights and if you didn’t have it R20 was your fine. In the daytime there was Post and Double Shot and Father – all of which my student budget could never quite afford but made an effort to save for come allowance day.
“Once you start to notice bike lanes in your neighbourhood – especially if you’re from the hood – that’s an indication that the neighbourhood is about to be gentrified.” – Negus Korby in Not in my Neighbourhood (2013)
Then there was that whole “take the streets back” thing Nike had going on, I asked myself “back from who?” but those thoughts were quickly sanitised by the cute banana loaves and frozen lemonades at Motherland. At the time all the change happening on the streets I walked on daily was exciting. I spoke about the “rejuvenation of the inner city” with that hipster smugness we all hate. Without thinking about the people that lived on the periphery of these changes, on the other side of the bridge or even in the middle of these changes but not being able to enjoy the changes because of financial barriers.
I love Braam with all of my heart. As a girl from Pretoria it helped me begin to navigate the city in a way I never would have if I lived in res or at home. Of late, I have had to reevaluate this love. Gentrification and spatial violence in these rejuvenated spaces has come under some scrutiny. I’ve read the articles with an open mind, making me question myself and ultimately feeling guilty for my entire social life being based in one of these questionable spaces.
In 2013 evictions of informal traders in the inner city, saw over 2000 people displaced. Operation Clean Sweep (uncanny coincidence huh) was apparently an initiative aimed at ridding the city of “illegal hawkers”.
One of the things that has contributed to my mixed feelings is Not In My Neighbourhood, a unfinished documentary by Kurt Orderson. I saw the full version this past week for the first time, screenings haven’t come up to the city of gold yet but I have spoken to him and he assured me it will happen at some point. Watching this actually made me think about spatial violence in our current context. The evictions we see in buildings too close to our little bubbles are akin to the forced removals of apartheid, are they not? But perhaps instead of bulldozers arriving suddenly, we now force people out with the exorbitant rental fees imposed after renovations.
“For inner city street traders, who are increasingly pushed into smaller and smaller spaces… Gentrification is also about – in Johannesburg – urban redevelopment is also about not just a particular aesthetic effect, it’s also a mode of governance.” – Mpho Matsipa in Not in my Neighbourhood (2013)
It had never occurred to me until I wrote this, but there are no street vendors in Braam, there are many little spaza shops and cellphone shops and salons – but no one has a little table set up on the street. Now I’m wondering if this is by design or perhaps there was just never a need for “informal traders” because everyone has a shop? Hmmm.
I don’t have an opinion on “gentrification”, I think I see both sides on this one. I get people who argue against it and I find their arguments valid but I also get people who are in favour of it and think that it brings positive change but for who is the question? I don’t have the answers, I’m just a girl with a blog, thinking out aloud.