Back to the Future

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Imagine if the London Stock Exchange were to move to Notting Hill or Wall Street were to suddenly pop up on Long Island. Something like that will happen in South Africa in a few months when the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, by far the largest on the continent, moves from central Johannesburg to the swanky northern suburb of Sandton. The j.s.e. was founded in 1887, less than a year after President Paul Kruger opened up prospecting in the wondrously rich Witwatersrand gold fields. But in recent times violence and decay have tarnished Johannesburg's once golden image and forced many brokerages and finance houses to the relative safety of the suburbs. "The environment out there was perceived to be more pleasant," says Bill Urmson, the exchange's director for surveillance and finance. "We operate 24 hours a day and the central business district at night is not an ideal place for women computer operators to be coming to."

Johannesburg has become a byword for violence, earning the unwanted title of the most dangerous city in the world. As crime rose through the '90s many businesses followed the stockbrokers and fled to Johannesburg's affluent and mostly white northern suburbs. Embassies, shops and major hotels closed down, including the landmark 513-room Carlton Hotel. Newspapers catalogued the latest rapes, murders and carjackings. "It's got so it's out of control," says Waltraud Day, who last December lost $22,000 worth of jewelry in an armed holdup of her shop on the top floor of the 50-story Carlton Centre. "The government does nothing against the crime. We are living in a prison."

Despite Day's lamentations, the tide may be turning. Over the past year violent crime in the central city has actually dropped. According to provisional figures there were 19 murders in the first three months of this year compared to 33 in the first quarter of 1999. The number of carjackings was down by 10%, while burglaries were down a third. But common robberies purse snatching, pickpocketing were up by 30%. Cynics say the drop in crime is due to the lack of businesses to break into and people to rob. But better policing has helped. "We've really raised our visibility," says David Botha, commander for city central. "And it seems to be working."

Companies that have stayed on mostly big mining firms and banks did so because they own their buildings and would find them hard to sell. But there is evidence of new investment. ABSA bank, one of South Africa's largest, recently opened a new office tower and has plans for a shopping mall on the lower levels. A Malaysian property developer is interested in converting the beautiful but dilapidated Rissik Street Post Office into a hotel. And shopkeepers are moving back to the city.

The retailing revival is evidence that central Johannesburg never exactly died, but rather changed. Medium and small black businesses have replaced large white-controlled companies and street hawkers now sell their wares where businessmen used to park their expensive cars. In short, downtown Johannesburg has become an African city. "There's a lot of people still living in Johannesburg and around 600,000 people a day come in to shop," says Dan Barrett, boss of South African retailing giant Game, which opened its first central city outlet last November. "Areas like Soweto are getting electrified so people want to buy kettles, irons and table-top stoves," says store manager Alpheus Mseleku, who points out that the city outlet is already in the top half of Game's 48 stores in turnover and in the top 10 for sales of household appliances. "There's money to be made here, you just have to know your market."

Efforts are underway to entice more people to live in the central city. "We need to have a city like New York where you have low cost, medium cost and expensive residential areas," says Neil Fraser, head of Central Johannesburg Partnership, which helps run "improvement zones" around the city and represents city businesses. "We're trying to create a city that people want to live in." Or even visit. Many of South Africa's tourists bypass Johannesburg for Cape Town or the country's game parks but Llewellyn Kriel, communications director for the non-profit group Business Against Crime, imagines a "central Johannesburg that has the same tourist value that Times Square has for Manhattan."

To encourage growth the city council, police and groups like Business Against Crime last month installed 12 surveillance cameras to monitor the city's streets. Similar systems in Durban and Cape Town cut crime by up to 80%. Efforts are also underway to create a series of official marketplaces for street hawkers and taxi ranks for the city's 18,000 minivan taxis. "Once we get crime under control, economic factors like really cheap rents will kick in," says Fraser. "It's a slow process but we're getting there."

There is no doubt central Johannesburg is still dangerous. It can also be cold and alienating, full of windswept canyons and blank concrete walls. Many of its offices remain empty and the place is dead at night. But ask Maria Mxoli, who demonstrates a popular new manual food processor to interested lunchtime shoppers in Game, and she'll tell you that things are getting better. "People from places like Soweto are just happy to have somewhere nice to shop and it's easier to get into the city than to travel to the malls in the rich suburbs," she says. "The city was dead but it's waking up now." It's a slow process, but the city of gold may slowly be regaining its glitter.