'A vision is a story people tell themselves'

How a Joburg visioning process crossed the River of Steel

The first post-democratic visioning process for Joburg was a time of optimism and desperation. Post 1994, the country rode the wave of goodwill, while the inner city of Joburg was falling to pieces. Property companies saw the value of their investments plummet, empty buildings degenerated, reduced rates left no money for crumbling infrastructure.

The process embraced business leaders and citizens, Council & Province. After six months of facilitated engagements, agreement was reached around vision and goals, with structures to implement. As progress was shared, energy and enthusiasm returned, deals were ma de. Within 18 months, the Carlton Centre pivoted from 95% vacant to 95% tenanted. Old office blocks and warehouses began to be saved from near-collapse and converted into modern living spaces. Precincts began to be carved out, from Constitution Hill to the Fashion District, Braamfontein and Newtown.

The vision cascaded into goals, which were crystallised into desired outcomes, strategies and plans. One goal was ‘A vibrant day and night Inner City’ - to close up at 5pm wastes the melting pot of energy that urban centres generate.

The strategy supporting the ‘day and night City’ was to develop the cultural arc from Braamfontein, which hosted the Civic Theatre, to Newtown, where the Market Theatre and Kippies provided edgier drama and jazz.

Braamfontein was sliding from hip to hapless, Newtown had never recovered from the closures of the fresh produce market, and power station. The precincts were separated by a mass of railway lines, called the River of Steel. This river connected Joburg with the continent, while splitting the city. To realise the goal of a cultural arc, the river of steel needed to be crossed, simply and safely. It was also the opportunity to make an iconic statement. The Nelson Mandela bridge was opened in 2003, seven years after the process began.

Why spend money on over R100 million on a bridge, when there were homeless seeking shelter in crumbling, disused buildings? The Nelson Mandela Bridge was built because: - - it cascaded from goal and strategy…to the catalytic project, enabling two precincts become vibrant economic hubs, once more - it is an icon of a new dawn, an African renaissance

20 years on from the vision, both precincts thrive. The Wits Arts Museum (WAM) in Braamfontein, where a motor dealer once stood, houses an extraordinary collection of African art, while Turbine Hall in Newtown is home to Anglo-Gold Ashanti and world-class events.
The main complaint is that the bridge is not wide enough to accommodate the new traffic.

There is still much to be done in Joburg’s inner city. lmplementation has had its stops and starts. A facilitator who has overseen vision processes for major American inner cities told us back in 1996 that it takes 20 years to change perceptions and realities. He is spot on.