Skip to main content

By Tracy Ledger (van der Heijden), for the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice

Johannesburg started life as a mining village in 1886. Half a century later it was a fast-growing city, and by 1936 was considered important enough to host the Empire Exhibition. Its rapid expansion continued through the 1960s: The South African economy was booming and, given Johannesburg’s undisputed status as South Africa’s industrial and commercial capital, large investors poured money into developing the city. In the 1960s and 1970s the central business district (CBD) was almost completely rebuilt, with the new 50-floor Carlton Centre becoming the tallest building in Africa.

Few would have foreseen that, less than 30 years later, Johannesburg would be described as ‘a city on the verge of an abyss, slipping inexorably into ruin and decline; where the streets are littered with refuse and garbage; a filthy, chaotic, and uninviting place’.
A tight planning regime meant that up to the 1970s most corporate head offices and major retail centres were located in the CBD, which helped to maintain demand for space and property prices. However, Johannesburg was still a relatively small and white place. This was largely due to the apartheid regime, which went to extreme lengths to restrict the flow of Africans from rural to urban areas. Given this centralised pattern of metropolitan development, Johannesburg’s infrastructure was under growing pressure by the 1970s. Traffic congestion became a serious problem. The city responded by trying to discourage motor vehicles from entering the CBD, and encouraging people to use public transport. Among other things, it no longer permitted new parking areas or basement parking in new buildings. […]