White residents fled Johannesburg’s inner city in the 1990s. The removal of the Group Areas Act foreshadowed a flow into the city of black residents and owners of small businesses seeking opportunities and better lives. Former denizens looked back in self-righteous justification at a city that was given over to plunder and mayhem. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, backed up by eyewitness reports and statistics. Everyone had their horror stories.
In amongst this turmoil existed the tower blocks occupied by tenants who were holding onto occupancy and managing the buildings in ways of their own devising. Their story had gone something like this: in the 1990s the owners absconded, leaving managing agents to retrieve what rents they could. In most cases, these agents were corrupt, did not pay the utilities, and disappeared with the money. These were tidy sums, handed over by poor people who conscientiously paid up to avoid having to go back where they came from.
The decay of Jo’burg’s centre can be ascribed to many factors but perhaps none more so than the absence of Body Corporates. These had become relics of a more genteel era; the communal responsibilities that are contentious in even the most well-heeled blocks were not markedout. Windows were broken and not repaired. Lifts froze and their shafts became tips.
The relationship between tenants and owners or their agents deteriorated with disputes over the state of the buildings, and in some cases resulted in unpaid rents and dues. The buildings started looking like fire hazards, and the City Council began closing on them for unpaid utilities. In between the needs of City Council and the aspirations of developers anticipating the bloom of an African city lies the fate of Jo’burg’s residents. The outcome will decide whether or not Johannesburg becomes, again, a city of exclusion.