Like a pair of odd shoes, that’s what Braamfontein was to Wits University ten years back. It did not make sense because Braamfontein and Wits are one. Braamfontein is to Wits what Greenwich Village is to New York University or what Bloomsbury and Camden is to the University of London.
But the mismatch was real, and, instead of Braamfontein being a place of vibrant student and business activity, it had slumped, with growing signs of inner city decay. In this atmosphere of neglect all but the very brave were investing.
One such person was Wits alumnus, Andrew Bannister, who bought a building in De Beer Street in 2002 where he had his photographic studio. He also rented out space to fellow creatives and cross border traders who stored their wares here and used it as an overnight stay.
Some day the down-and-out precinct would rise
Many thought Bannister was making a bad financial move in buying the building; such was the pessimism of the times. But he had two motives for doing so: his grandfather had built it and he believed that some day the down-and-out precinct would rise.
“It was naive faith more than anything else and I went through some very rough times, including a murder in my building in October 2004 of a close friend and fellow photographer, Andrew Meintjies, who had his studio here.”
A week before Meintjies was shot dead, the manager of the Braamfontein Recreation Centre, Louis Ngcobo, had also been shot dead in the centre’s offices. Murders and robberies were part of life in Braamfontein and it did not feel like a safe space. But better times were ahead.
A sign of better things to come
“For me, a sign of better things to come was when Wits alumna Lael Bethlehem became CEO of the Johannesburg Development Agency (JDA) around 2005,” says Bannister.
Bethlehem was CEO of the JDA until 2010 and her contribution to the inner city upgrade, including Braamfontein, was considerable. This included buildings, parks, museums, public artworks and public transport. The Rea Vaya Bus Rapid Transit system was one of her projects, and something she described as “a key element in the process of democratisation of the city”.
The most fashionable part of Braamfontein today
During this period Bannister developed his building into a boutique hotel and venue called The Bannister Hotel, which is situated in the most fashionable part of Braamfontein today, with over 70% occupancy.
“What really pleases me is that some of the traders who used to sleep on mattresses in my old building, are now thriving entrepreneurs who book into my hotel,” he says.
Young, old, student, business person, traveller, artist, entrepreneur, local, foreigner … a wonderfully diverse cross-section of people can be found hanging out at The Bannister or across the road at Anti Est., a new establishment, where you can catch up on what’s trending in music anywhere in the world and meet people from everywhere.
Anti Est. is one of the brainchildren of Wits alumnus and entrepreneur, Adam Levy, the creator behind the Braamfontein-based property development and urban regeneration company Play Braamfontein.
Living like most people can’t
On the wall of Play Braamfontein’s offices in De Beer Street is an anonymous ode to the entrepreneur that reads: Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t so that you can spend the rest of your life living like most people can’t.
Levy lives this code and has been instrumental in transforming Braamfontein over the past ten years. He’s bought and renovated buildings, and opened a string of exciting entertainment, business and accommodation spaces, art galleries and restaurants. He also founded the Saturday Neighbourgoods Market in a building in central Braamfontein.
Now in its fourth year it is one of the biggest attractions in Joburg, with 4500 to 6500 people visiting every Saturday.
Why did he choose Braamfontein? “I could see what it could become and I wanted to live here, but ten years ago it wasn’t anywhere near the kind of environment I envisaged for myself,” he explains.
His response was to build the world he wanted to live in “where diverse groups of people come together, mix and mingle, break down boundaries and develop innovative ideas and projects.”
Tearing down the bricked up ground floors
This meant tearing down the bricked up ground floors that characterised derelict Braamfontein, and replacing them with inviting businesses that open onto the streets.
“It’s all about restoring engagement in the city, where I can see you and you can see me, and we can stop and have a chat.”
Walking the streets here today, we get a strong sense of this. People are out and about on this beautiful Joburg afternoon, getting on with their day.
We’re alert because that’s how you have to be in SA, but the fear-factor we once felt when walking these streets is no more. In its place is a tangible friendliness and high-spiritedness that you don’t often find.
A crisp, sleek high-rise penthouse
“I believe that from this new energy in Braamfontein we are going to see great innovation coming out of here,” says Levy who has redeveloped ten buildings in the past ten years, including his home building where he has a crisp, sleek, high-rise penthouse with big screen views of the city.
Down below are the railway sheds where a large billboard speaks of a different reality: No condom. No sex. 4 million people tested in Gauteng.
“In a different way, I keep pushing for this concept of critical mass. If 10 000 people come to Braamfontein and enjoy the experience, that soon grows to 20 000 and so on. That’s how you have a shot at changing culture and that’s what we’re seeing in Braamfontein,” explains Levy who regards Braamfontein today as “South Africa’s preeminent creative and cultural hub”.
The first inner city steakhouse in 30 years
We head back into the street and he shows us around. We take in a choice of designer clothing and interiors stores, art galleries, like the Kalashnikovv Gallery, trend forecasters like Instant Grass and the Smokehouse and Grill – the first inner city steakhouse in 30 years.
He takes us to his latest project, 73 Juta Street, with its 1970s concrete brutalism façade by famed South African sculptor, Eduardo Villa. This 1970s high-rise is being be redeveloped into office space with a difference, including a major rooftop venue with a garden and rim-flow pool. It will be ready at the end of this year and tenants that have already booked space in advance at approximately R100 per sq. metre include Google, the British Consulate, Vice Magazine and Motif Records.
An exciting time to be in Braamfontein
“It’s such an exciting time to be in Braamfontein. When we started redeveloping here no one wanted to be here, and we were lucky to get two tenants. Now we can choose between 50 excellent tenants,” says Levy who has been featured in a range of newspapers and magazines, including the omega of design magazines, Wallpaper.
He attributes his success to an upbringing “that helped to formulate my mind in a different way”:
“My late father, Ivan Levy, was a self-made man and a great corporate attorney, who taught me to think clearly and be compassionate. My artist mother Barbara Levy, gave me the gift of creativity. I have had the great fortune of being able to be brave in my life because of the support from two parents who encouraged me to be different. This is what makes the Davids who can take on the Goliaths.”
Bureaucracy and blockage
His Goliath is the City of Joburg municipality with its daunting amount of bureaucracy and blockage.
“What we’re doing in Braamfontein is supposed to be a partnership with the City, but they don’t give you this feeling. To the contrary, I’ve never been invited to meet the mayor, despite being one of the key developers in Braamfontein,” says Levy.
“Instead, I’m constantly in legal battles with the City, and I’m constantly facing the most unbelievable hurdles to get plans approved or to get the city to assist with the basics, like fixing broken street lighting.
“After repeatedly contacting the City of Joburg about this, I decided to fix the street lighting myself. I bought and installed 80 giant fluorescent lights in the neighbourhood, for which we pay hefty electricity bills. But there’s no alternative. If we want a great neighbourhood we need to get moving without being held back by the City. Of course it’s highly frustrating but we all have to choose our battles, and I choose the City of Joburg.”
The bars and music venues
Back in the streets we seek out the bars and music venues, without which no reimagined village can succeed.
Witsies will be happy to hear the old Dev is being redone and any of you who have old photos from the Dev must please send them to us.
A current student favourite is The Great Dane, with its remarkable floor made with thousands of 5c coins, as a statement about the loss of monetary value.
DJs abound here but if this is a bit too trendy for you, head next door to Kitchener’s, one of Joburg’s oldest bars, where they have comedy nights and bands, and where you can philosophise with fellow hipsters.
There’s also is a new jazz venue The Orbit and an ubercool rooftop venue called The Beach, with real beach sand where patrons can relax on deck chairs and create sandcastles in the urban sea.
Randlords on the 22nd Floor
Where rooftop venues are concerned, you have to experience Randlords on the 22nd Floor of South Point Towers in De Korte Street.
Wits architects Lesley Carstens and Silvio Rech gutted the top three floors of an office building to create this bar and dining facility with beaded swings and giant resting beds set in a 360-degree view.
Even the men’s urinal is a talking point. Positioned in front of wall-to-floor glass, men without a fear of heights can peruse the northern lights of Joburg.
South Point Towers is owned by South Point, a major property development company in Braamfontein, which is considering converting some of the other floors into high-end apartments.
Secure, trendy, well-managed student accommodation
South Point has made a considerable contribution to Braamfontein since 2003 when they started renovating a number of office buildings into secure, trendy, well-managed student accommodation. It worked wonderfully for Wits as the residents could not accommodate the growing number of students, and it also nurtured the student village atmosphere in Braamfontein.
“We currently accommodate 5000 students in Braamfontein, predominantly from Wits, in a range of undergrad and postgrad accommodation options. We also have apartments and penthouses for academics and business people,” adds Josef Talotta, Executive Head of Precinct Development for South Point. The accommodation ranges from R2700 to R7500 per month.
“On the retail side, we have a range of desirable new tenants, such as Puma and the Branson School of Entrepreneurship. At the same time we make sure that we look after our longstanding tenants – from tailors to takeaways – who have been here for decades,” Talotta explains.
South Point owns and rents over 30 buildings. It made the rare exception of selling one of them to WWF-SA, which has renovated it and will be opening its Joburg offices here this year.
The Madison Avenue of Joburg
“Between the 1950s and 1970s, Braamfontein was the Madison Avenue of Joburg, with prestigious law firms and advertising agencies. We’re in the process of restoring its prestige, building by building,” says Talotta.
“Together with Wits and Play Braamfontein, we collectively own over 50 buildings here. We are partners in the precinct’s rebirth, together with the JDA and an handful of other privately owned property groups.”
The JDA is currently leading what is called a ‘complete street’ project in Braamfontein, with bicycle lanes, public transport, public art and street lighting.
Love Food, Father Coffee, Vuyo’s
Another essential element in the rebirth of the precinct is a choice of coffee shops, delis and restaurants for all pockets. Braamfontein has burgeoned with some excellent venues, including Love Food, Post, Father Coffee, Daleah’s and Vuyo’s, owned by Wits alumnus and gastronomist, Miles Kubheka.
We join Kubheka for a cappuccino at Vuyo’s before heading for the Neighbourgoods Market, which attracts shoals of visitors every Saturday.
It feels like the whole of middle class Joburg and beyond is gathered here, tucking into everything from eggs benedict to payella, cooked in enormous pans imported from Spain and overseen by yet another Wits entrepreneur, Daniel Forsthofer of the Tutto Food Company. His goal is “to feed the world, one paella at a time.”
Come back to Braamfontein
Wits and Wits alumni have played a major role in the rebirth of Braamfontein and are meeting with each other and with Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib and other leading members of the University to escalate the growth and reunion of Wits and its precinct. A pivotal new Wits-led development is the IT Hub, driven by Professor Barry Dwolatsky.
All that remains to be said is ‘Come Back to Braamfontein’. It’s alive and exciting, it’s on the up and up, and the shoes are starting to match beautifully.
Silicon Valley of Africa in Braamfontein
The Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) named the head of Software Engineering at Wits, Professor Barry Dwolatzky, ‘South African IT Personality of the Year for 2013/14’.
Dwolatzky is also the Director of the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) – a joint venture between Wits and the City of Johannesburg. As part of this, he is pioneering the Silicon Valley of Africa – what promises to be the most important digital technology hub in Africa, right here in half a city block in Juta Street, Braamfontein, named the Tshimologong Precinct.
Wits University owns the buildings in this precinct, formerly used as warehouses and a nightclub. They are being renovated and redeveloped into the hub from October 2014. Wits alumnus, Jon Jacobson, is the architect.
“South Africa is facing the bizarre situation of a skills shortage on the one hand but approximately 600 000 unemployed university and university of technology graduates on the other. This is a huge resource of bright, energetic young people, with many more following in their footsteps. What we are doing is channeling these young people into digital technology to develop hardware, software and content. Where these three meet we are going to see huge and rapid innovation that will underpin all aspects of economic and social life in the 21st century, and we want our youth to be at the centre of this.
“Once this happens it will make a reality of the ‘Africa Rising’ concept because we will be bringing large numbers of young South Africans and Africans into the mainstream economy. If you think what digital technology has done to our world in the last 20 years, the future in this field is wide open, with technology hubs driving this all over the world, including several in Africa, such as the extremely impressive iHub in Nairobi.
“The hub we are creating here in Braamfontein is an open-plan co-working space for 350-400 IT interns, postgraduates, innovators and entrepreneurs.
One of our projects is an App Development factory sponsored by Microsoft. Another is a project funded by the Department of Trade and Industry to create high maturity software development teams where we train interns in high-level software development methods as they work on a range of projects. An example is our partnership with researchers from Wits and Oxford University to develop a software system that collects data from meters providing real-time measures of domestic electricity use. The system will improve our understanding of how different communities can use electricity far more efficiently in the future.
“We also have a postgraduate leadership development programme in ICT- related disciplines called CoachLab. The hub will provide space to IT start-up entrepreneurs who work from here for a nominal monthly fee.
“The name for the hub has not yet been finalised, but given the support we received from our Vice-Chancellor, one of the names that came up is Hub-bib!”
Prof Dwolatzky is currently seeking sponsors and founding partners for the technology hub. For more information contact him on:
Phone: +27 (0)11 717 6390
Cell: +27 (0)82 881 7856
A new energy emerging in Braamfontein
Wits University’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, on Braamfontein:
“There is a new energy emerging in Braamfontein, sparked by a range of public and private stakeholders, including the University. For us, this is essential because a university needs to be immersed in society, and the environment around the university is key to its success.
“In South Africa, given the challenges of crime and service delivery, universities have tended to block themselves off from the very societies and environments in which they are located. This is not sustainable because if you want to attract top staff and students, you have to ensure that the university is situated in an attractive, safe, inviting precinct.
“Towards this we are discussing our strategic role in Braamfontein, in partnership with the City of Joburg, the JDA and private investors and entrepreneurs, such as Adam Levy and South Point. They are doing a great deal to rebuild Braamfontein and to bring people from all over the city back to Braamfontein. The Neighbourgoods Market is a good example of this.
“From Wits’ side, some of the initiatives we are wanting to pursue include:
- Partnering with investors and developers to re-energise the entire area between the Wits Art Museum (WAM) and the Origins Centre – from Jan Smuts Avenue to Yale Road. This would include developing student and staff accommodation, retail spaces, restaurants, music clubs, bookshops and other offerings that would be attractive to our staff, students and members of the public.
- Supporting Prof Dwolatzky in the development of the technology hub, an outstanding initiative, which he has discussed.
- Creating a safer, more attractive precinct in partnership with the City of Joburg and the JDA, including assisting with lighting, security and the general upliftment of Braamfontein.
“In the medium term we may start considering dropping our fences and integrating the university into Braamfontein where we already own a significant amount of property.
“Just as New York University played a pivotal role in the revitalisation of Greenwich Village, and there are many other similar examples from other universities worldwide, so too does Wits want to do the same in Braamfontein. The templates are there and I have already hosted a number of engagements with stakeholders to take this further.”