Johannesburg’s Brickfields inner-city housing development is a showpiece for a country that prides itself on enlightened social policies. Located at the foot of the city’s Nelson Mandela Bridge, it comprises three clusters of tidy three- and four-storey walk-ups and nine-storey tower blocks, built around inviting courtyards.

Brickfields was built with the help of a state subsidy and 30 per cent of flats are set aside for poor tenants who pay rents 20 per cent below the market rate. Its residents are both blue- and white-collar workers and mostly – but not exclusively – black, making it a model of post-apartheid integration.

South Africa was praised in a recent United Nations report for its “consistent political commitment” to slum upgrading and provision for the urban poor. Since the end of apartheid in 1994, African National Congress-led governments have built about 2m subsidised houses nationwide. The country’s strong tax base means it has a welfare budget that poorer African neighbours can only envy.

A short walk east from Brickfields, however, Johannesburg’s Hillbrow district presents a decidedly uglier aspect. This neighbourhood of faded highrises, known for its chic bohemian ambience barely a decade ago, is now a sinkhole of overcrowding, violent crime and decay. Tenants – many of them poor immigrants from other African countries – live in Dickensian squalor. Some buildings have been without power, water or sewage for years. “Hijacking” of properties by criminal gangs is common, as is piling 10 or more tenants into a single flat.

The contrasts on display in South Africa’s largest city owe something to the country’s unique and tumultuous recent history, which up-ended apartheid’s repressive controls of movement. However, Johannesburg’s problems are not unusual in middle-income developing countries. The city, with a population of about 3m at the hub of the country’s richest province, is a magnet for rural and foreign migrants. Between 1996 and 2001 its population grew by 4.1 per cent a year, more than twice the national rate.

Local officials have struggled to keep up with the influx. In order to meet the ANC’s pledge to eliminate shacks and other substandard housing by 2014, Johannesburg would need to build about 48,000 new units per annum. It has averaged only 14,000 a year recently, according to Uhuru Nene, the city’s executive director of housing.

While some poor Jo’burgers brave dire conditions in Hillbrow to be near their jobs, many more have been pushed to shacks or subsidised houses on the distant periphery. The result has been an increasingly unmanageable sprawl and – depressingly – a reinforcement of the racially segregated urban geography of apartheid. Rising land and construction costs are pushing low-income housing – and the poor blacks who live there – to the city’s fringes. State subsidies have not kept pace with the property boom.

“Government has not been able to come to terms with the level of funding required,” says Taffy Adler, chief executive of the Johannesburg Housing Co, the non-profit community development group behind Brickfields. The public transport system, mostly ramshackle trains and minibus taxis, is also strained. Poor people pay disproportionately to get from distant homes to jobs: 46 per cent of households in the city spend more than 10 per cent of disposable income on public transport.

Unmotivated or unskilled local planners may be partly to blame. Few South Africans would describe Amos Masondo, Johannesburg’s second-term mayor, as a visionary. In keeping with ANC practice he was reappointed after this year’s local election and did not have to campaign directly against a competitor.

In spite of leftist rhetoric promising “a better life for all”, the ANC has taken a largely laisser faire attitude toward urban development. While subsidised low-income housing is desperately needed in the inner city, private developers have been given virtually free rein to convert former office blocks into luxury flats. Middle-class housing developments are sprawling north of the city with little evident planning. Apart from Newtown, Brickfields’ neighbourhood, city officials have shown little interest in drawing up blueprints to improve depressed areas such as Hillbrow. “The city doesn’t have an urban design framework and it desperately needs one,” says Neil Fraser, who runs Urban Inc, a planning and development consultancy.

Prompted partly by the responsibilities of hosting the World Cup in four years’ time, local officials are beginning to respond. The Gautrain, a European-style rapid rail link now under construction, will ease the city’s transport problems. Mbhazima Shilowa, premier of Johannesburg’s home province of Gauteng, is due later this month to launch a “global city region” scheme joining it and neighbouring municipal areas including Tshwane (Pretoria) and Ekurhuleni (the East Rand). The project aims to boost the region’s ability to compete with the world’s other “supercities” and draw in investment.

Even life in benighted Hillbrow is improving, albeit from a low base. The quarter’s formerly run-down Europa Hotel has been transformed into decent low-income flats. In the surest sign that the neighbourhood’s fortunes may be turning, private-sector property developers are beginning to move in. As run-down as they are, Hillbrow’s high-rise apartments boast panoramic views and an attribute in growing demand in Johannesburg: a central location.

This is the third part of a series on the issues facing the world’s fast-growing cities. Previous articles can be found at

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