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article imageEmbattled Downtown Johannesburg Dreams Of A Comeback

By Ralf E. Krueger     Jan 25, 2002 in Technology
JOHANNESBURG (dpa) - Anyone who wants to get to the top in Africa can't avoid running into Waltraud Day. The grey-haired, German-born lady from picturesque Bavaria sells souvenirs on the 50th floor of the Carlton Centre skyscraper.

Rising 220 metres, this is Africa's tallest building, located in the centre of Johannesburg. It stands at a site which no longer stands for white wealth but rampant street violence, ranging from robbery to murder.

"On March 1, I will have been up here for 18 years," said Waltraud Day who can remember dozens of distinguished visitor, including some from her home country like the late Bavarian premier Franz-Josef Strauss and former Social Democrat German chancellor Willy Brandt.

But the days when statesmen, and above all droves of tourists, came here to enjoy the view at the "Top of Africa" are over. The sharp rise in brutal violence has changed the centre of this city and Waltraud Day has seen her takings melt away like butter in the sun.

"Gangster's Paradise" - that's what some call the still glittering South African metropolis - a jokey reference to the region's car registration suffix GP.

Johannesburg's problem area is admittedly only one facet of this city and both officials and tourist bosses are trying hard to outlive the negative cliches.

They pin their hopes on the fact that crime is being beaten slowly but steadily and regard increased entrepreneurial interest in downtown Jo'burg as a hopeful sign.

Business here has entered a partnership with city authorities. It financially supports investment in improved surveillance cameras, new police equipment and repairs to sidewalks as a way of attracting people back to the city centre.

"In places where the cameras were installed crime has gone down by 57 per cent," John Penberthy announced last August proudly. The chairman of the working group "Business Against Crime" had to admit though that only 86 cameras have been installed up until now.

"By June 2002 it will be 350," promised Penberthy. The aim is to cut crime by 80 per cent. "This system brings business back to the city and several big companies like Anglo American Properties, who planned to leave, have now decided to stay."

The live pictures from the street afforded local people a grim close-up of a murder in cold blood. At 2.30 a.m. on a November morning a guard saw on his monitor how a man was gunned down and killed on the corner of Troye and Marshall Street.

Seven minutes later the astonished murderer was arrested. The cameras showed that several witnesses had walked past the body, apparently unperturbed.

Sibuzizo "Elvis" Shabalala is still convinced that "crime is nothing like as bad as it was." Shabalala is one of more than 100 security officials employed to keep a watch on Africa's tallest skyscraper. His beat is on the top floor of the Carlton Tower.

His colleague on the ground floor guarding the elevator entrances has a machine-gun primed for use and wears a bulletproof vest. Moving for the cover of a pillar his eyes dart to the left and right as if he could sense imminent danger. Crime is everywhere in Johannesburg but not always visible.

A trip to the Carlton observation platform costs 7.50 rand or 64 U.S. cents. "We are up there in 35 seconds," said a black official. White faces have become rare up here. The majority of them are German, Swiss or U.S. tourists.

Petra Dasar, 30, from Ingolstadt in Germany, is one of them. She headed straight for the commanding view after arriving in the city.

"Everything looks much better from here than it does from down there, not in the least bit threatening," she said, peering through the viewfinder of her camera.

Cameras are all over the Carlton Tower although most of them have got more to do with security than snapshots for the family album.

It's the same story in the former Carlton Hotel on the site, a 600-bed house on 30 floors. Street crime and general decline ruined business. After years of losing money, the doors of this once glamorous five-star hostelry revolved for the last time three years ago.

Since then they have been secured with a heavy duty iron chain. The state-held Transnet company, which occupies most of the office space in the tower, has been trying desperately to sell the hotel for 34 million Rand (2.9 million dollars).

Rumours that the hotel is poised to reopen just refuse to go away. "Unfortunately they are not much more than just that, rumours," said former hotel employee Peter Watson. He knows works for the tower administration. The rot set in when the country underwent its transition at the start of the 1990s and tradesmen set up stalls outside in what used to be an area where visitors enjoyed a stroll.

Hordes of small traders, black South Africans forbidden from any commercial activity under the apartheid system of racial segregation, set up shop here and with them, the pickpockets and later gangsters. their methods became increasingly brutal.

These days between 35 and 40 bodies a day arrive at mortuaries in Gauteng - which covers Johannesburg and Pretoria. Most are victims of violent crime.

The Central Business District/CBD and the districts around it soon became the epicentre of this crime quake. The customers stayed away, shops closed and restaurants and cafes moved to the northern suburbs. The stock exchange re-located and for many the letters CBD came to stand for brutal crime.

Against this background the decision by Susan Gilliam, who bought a roof apartment on the 18th floor of the Anstey highrise block in the middle of last year, seems like madness. The building stands at the pulsating centre of the district on the corner of Joubert and Jeppe Streets.

Her example may prove and example to others since the provincial government now wants to buy up the 200-million rand building and turn it into flats. The aim is ambitious; the first 5,000 families are due to move in this year in a bid to stop the CBD from becoming a ghost town after 5 o'clock in the evening.

Gilliam has not yet managed to persuade any of her friends from the suburbs regarded as chic and safe to move to downtown Johannnesburg but planners point to a scheme they call "iGoli 2002".

It is designed to herald a new era in what was once the glittering City of Gold and since it was introduced there have been spectacular police operations in former trendy parts of the city like Hillbrow and Yeoville where prostitution, drug dealer and organized crime is at home.

A large chunk of the city's 8-billion-rand budget goes towards cosmetic measures in the deprived districts. A whole lot of building, renovating and painting is going on.

The famous market theatre with its legendary jazz bar "Kippies" is getting its own car access bridge so visitors will not have to wander the mean streets of Johannesburg if they come for a night out.

Time is of the essence since in August the city is due to host an earth summit. Ten years after Rio de Janeiro 65,000 delegates from around the world will meet and discuss environmental progress and Jo'burg is keen to prove that the post-apartheid state is not capitulating on crime.

Even Waltraud Day has put off thoughts of calling it a day.

Two years ago, after she was attacked, Waltraud did consider giving in to the violence. At nine in the morning two men attacked her. One held a pistol to her head while the other shouted hysterically "shoot that bastard, shoot that bastard". She owes her life to a jammed gun.

Waltraud Day is carrying on even though the loss of so much stock almost made her go bankrupt. She clings to the hope expressed by an American visitor to her kiosk. "Even in the Bronx things eventually got better.
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