Crossing Johannesburg's red line

Justin Pearce

"The best thing about it is the security," Sam Maleka, 27, says of the flat where he lives in the Brickfields complex, in Johannesburg's inner-city Newtown district.

"It's nice to have peace of mind, and no thugs around."

Peek through the bars of the card-operated security gate that gives access to Brickfields and you see children playing on a green lawn in the middle of the red-brick flats, while adults wander home from work or carrying shopping.

It looks like a bubble of calm amid the decay and insecurity that has come to characterise much of central Johannesburg in the last 20 years.

What's more, these are not wealthy people: some earn as little as 2,000 rand ($300) a month.
Brickfields was designed to provide housing in the inner city without creating ghettos, says Dombolo Masilela of the Johannesburg Housing Company - a non-profit urban development company which built Brickfields on land provided by local government.
"It's a project that will deliver mixed income housing," she says.

At Brickfields, 40% of the flats are available to people earning between 1,500 and 3,500 rand ($250 and $600) a month, who qualify for a government rent subsidy.

The rest are available at market-related rents.

Location

The location, near city-centre offices and a rank from where minibus taxis fan out across the city, is a draw card. Tatho Takalo, 24, was drawn to Brickfields "because it's close to taxis and shops".

"The neighbours are fine, though these days there are more foreigners - I'm not happy about that but there's not much I can do about it."
When she applied for a flat, the developers checked her payslips - she works as a supervisor at a cinema - and allocated her a unit that matched her income.

But many would rather move into a house, and use the monthly payment that currently goes on rent, to pay off a mortgage - known in South Africa as a bond.

Critics of Brickfields and similar schemes say they offer nothing to the poorest inner-city residents, who are occupying dilapidated buildings and threatened with eviction as property speculators buy them up.

Even in the complex, some residents are getting disillusioned that living there is costing more than they originally anticipated.

"If I'm paying 2,500 a month [in rent plus service rates], that's the price of a bond and I might as well be paying something that I'm investing in," Thato says.

Dombolo Masilela admits that it's a challenge to keep up with inflation, and with the rising prices charged by companies that provide services.

She also says there are no plans to sell off the flats, since South Africans looking to buy property tend to be more interested in free-standing houses.

But she is encouraged by the fact that private investors have provided loans and equity for the project, in addition to the government subsidies for the poorer residents.

"Brickfields is the first project that has broken red lining," she says, referring to the practice whereby financers would shun property in areas seen as a risky investment - a decision that pushed the inner city into a downward spiral.

Neglect

Elsewhere, red lining continues despite a court ruling that it is illegal, according to Ethel Williams and Guy Oliver.

The couple have adopted the name "The Red Line" for the building they are currently renovating in Troyeville, east of the city centre.
A bright red painted wall underlines their point: that banks and city authorities are still selective about where they put their money.

"The Red Line is where the struggles begin - last week they didn't even collect our rubbish," Ethel says.

Troyeville is one of Johannesburg's oldest residential areas. Within a kilometre of the Red Line are illegally occupied slum buildings with no running water, and miners' hostels left over from the days of apartheid migrant labour - as well as a number of artists working from home in a low-rent neighbourhood.

Guy and Ethel - he's a journalist, she's a filmmaker by profession - are developing the Red Line as a community centre and cafe for everyone who lives in the neighbourhood, and as a gallery that will allow the local artists and craftspeople to exhibit and sell their work.

Their security fence - a hand-welded fantasy of metal stars and foliage - already stands as testimony to local creative talent.

Ethel hopes that the 2010 World Cup - with matches being played at nearby Ellis Park - will help end the neglect: "Ninety minutes can't change people's lives - but we're prepared to show off in 2010 and we'll capitalise on that."

But for now, as private investors they feel they are on their own.

"Banks see this as the seventh circle of hell," says Guy, who believes that the investment being made in Newtown is linked to the presence of corporate headquarters nearby.

"They don't see the value of what is one of the oldest suburbs in Johannesburg, and has potential. In other cities in the world this would be highly sought after."

But he adds on reflection: "Maybe it's better that it's not," arguing that the gentrification of the area would only serve to drive out the poorest residents.

http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/africa/4758553.stm