Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Urban rebirth: Johannesburg shakes off crime-ridden past

From Nkepile Mabuse, CNN
updated 10:07 AM EDT, Mon May 28, 2012
The new Soweto Theater is a symbol of Johannesburg's rejuvenation. The US$18 million project aims to bring world-class drama to the heart of the historically disadvantaged township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The new Soweto Theater is a symbol of Johannesburg's rejuvenation. The US$18 million project aims to bring world-class drama to the heart of the historically disadvantaged township on the outskirts of Johannesburg.
HIDE CAPTION
Johannesburg's rebirth
Johannesburg's rebirth
Johannesburg's rebirth
Johannesburg's rebirth
Johannesburg's rebirth
Johannesburg's rebirth
Johannesburg's rebirth
Johannesburg's rebirth
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rising crime in the 1990s saw capital flight from Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city
  • Companies relocated their offices, and parts of the city were a no-go area after dark
  • But a wave of young entrepreneurs are bringing vibrancy back to the city center

Editor's note: Every week, Inside Africa takes its viewers on a journey across Africa, exploring the true diversity and depth of different cultures, countries and regions.

Johannesburg, South Africa (CNN) -- For decades, Johannesburg has suffered from an image problem.

Rising crime in the 1990s saw the flight of capital from the central city, with companies relocating their offices to the suburbs and the area becoming a ghost town after dark. Johannesburg became an international case study in urban decay.

But in recent years, South Africa's largest city has been undergoing a rebirth.

Thanks to a wave of young entrepreneurs bringing new life to the downtown real estate, hospitality and entertainment scenes, Johannesburg is gradually reinventing itself as the edgy, modern and diverse face of urban South Africa.

Adam Levy is a property developer who was born and bred in the city, variously known as Jo'burg, Jozi and eGoli. After traveling the world in his early 20s, he returned home in 2003 with a vision of bringing some of New York's hip designer living to his home town.

See also: Young, urban and savvy: Meet the Afropolitans

Redefining 'Johannesburg'

Rather than looking to make a home in the city's desirable northern suburbs, where many residents of the city set their sights, Levy focused on creating desirable new spaces in the city's downtown, which for many residents had become a no-go area.

A tour of Jo'burg's Constitution Hill

In an old office building, he developed architecturally-designed apartments sought after by young professionals -- where he lives today.

Read also: Dada Masilo, breaking all the rules

Johannesburg's budding nightlife

"It was right next to the railway track, which most people had a total aversion about. No one wanted to live here and people were going 'Adam, you must be out of your mind. What would compel you to do that?'"

But the building had clear potential.

"Who in their right mind wouldn't want to have a view like this? That, for me, was the catalyst (for) believing that people would want to live downtown, would want to be in an environment like this."

Levy's other projects include transforming a run-down warehouse into a hub of creative businesses.

But reviving the city's urban zones was not just a case of repurposing old buildings, he said: It was about creating a different mindset.

I don't believe in the culture of 50-foot walls and big electric fences. I think you can engender a different way of engaging with people
Adam Levy, Johannesburg property developer

"You've got to believe that you can change in the first instance... You've got to go out there and actively try and make a process of modifying the way people function," he said. "I don't believe in the culture of 50-foot walls and big electric fences. I think you can engender a different way of engaging with people."

He said the city was beginning to "find its feet," despite its troubled recent past.

"Too many of the bad stories make their way to mainstream media, so a lot of people have this negative perception of what's happening in Johannesburg," he said. "The things that are good make up 90% of the stories, I can assure you."

As crime gradually drops in Johannesburg, dining and entertainment precincts are springing into life.

Ziggy Thabethe is a successful restaurant and bar owner, who said he tried to capture some of the spirit of the city during the thriving 1970s at his establishments.

"The city was once very vibrant, if you go back into time," he said. Although the majority of the population was suffering under apartheid, "they were still able to say, 'Wow, let's go out and have some fun.'"

"The offices were (open) and the city was pumping, and people used to come into the city for good meals."

With money beginning to be reinvested in Johannesburg, people are starting to become more confident about heading out for an evening in the city again.

"I'm glad I've been able to attract a very diverse market in terms of my bars," he said. "It will be Indians, Chinese, blacks and whites. It's very...rainbow nation."

It's not just locals who are noticing the difference. Johannesburg resident Masego Maponyane said the city's new lease of life meant that visitors were no longer treating it as simply a transit point on the way to other destinations.

"Foreign tourists are ... coming here in their droves, and they're absolutely loving it," he said. "(It's) no longer a bit of a taboo or risky thing to come here."

Follow the Inside Africa team on Twitter: @CNNInsideAfrica, Presenter Errol Barnett: @ErrolCNN, Correspondent: @Nkepile Mabuse

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:04 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Photojournalist Daniella Zalcman asked Uganda's religious leaders their views on homosexuality. Their answers might surprise you.
updated 1:26 PM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Nazis, bomb raids, and a mysterious man with a mustache. The search for the spinosaurus reads like a spy novel.
updated 10:23 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Can a rat be a hero? It can if it saves lives. Meet the giant rats that sniff out landmines and TB
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
In Africa, royalty is an endangered species. Meet the man on a mission to photograph the last remaining kings and queens.
updated 7:10 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Can state-of-the art schools in rural Africa rescue the environment? One charity is betting on it.
updated 12:20 PM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
To save the rhinos, one charity is moving them out of South Africa, where poaching is at an all time high.
updated 11:42 AM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
mediterranean monk seal
Many of Africa's animals are facing extinction. Is it too late for them? Our interactive looks at the many challenges to survival.
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
No one knows what causes "fairy circles" in Namibia's desert. A new study, however, may have solved the mystery.
updated 6:54 AM EDT, Thu April 3, 2014
A picture shows the Rwenzori mountain range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo on March 8, 2014. At 5,109 metres (16,763 feet), Mount Stanley's jagged peak is the third highest mountain in Africa, topped only by Mount Kenya and Tanzania's iconic Kilimanjaro.
The 'African Alps' are melting, and it may be too late. Now may be your last chance to see the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains.
updated 5:34 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
The Hadza are one of the oldest people on Earth. Today, they battle for land, and continued survival.
updated 10:38 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
One company thinks so. They're investing in insect farms in Ghana and Kenya. Could bugs build an industry and curb malnutrition?
updated 6:20 AM EDT, Fri March 21, 2014
Morocco is famous for its historic cities and rugged landscape. But it's becoming known as a surfer's paradise.
updated 5:27 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
A photographer took to an ultra-light aircraft to capture Botswana's savannah from above. The results are amazing.
updated 12:37 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
Vintage helicopters, ziplines, private flying safaris offer new, spectacular views of wildlife and rugged terrain.
updated 6:16 AM EDT, Tue May 27, 2014
Makoko Floating School
A new wave of African architects are creating remarkable buildings in the continent, and beyond.
updated 10:15 AM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
A huge spiral in the Sahara had Google Earth users baffled by what it could be. So what exactly is it?
Each week Inside Africa highlights the true diversity of the continent as seen through the mediums of art, music, travel and literature.
ADVERTISEMENT