Will the whites return to Johannesburg?

The struggle against apartheid has taken on a new meaning in this still-divided city, writes Mary Braid
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White flight begins at 4.30pm. A near-hysterical hour later and a pale face - increasingly uncommon even in daylight - is an absolute rarity on the darkening pavements of Johannesburg city centre.

As the mass exodus of cars to the city'snorthern suburbs tails off, those unavoidably working late silently rehearse the drill for lone- after-dark retreat: keep the car doors locked and never slow down; jump every red light if necessary. By 7pm the streets are so menacingly empty of people of any colour that tumbleweed might be expected to blow down the broad avenues as bands of homicidal bandits ride into town.

In the past six years crime rates in Johannesburg, particularly in its centre, have rocketed, earning the city the unwelcome title of most lawless metropolis outside a war zone. Muggings, rapes and murders occur in daylight and car hijacks are commonplace.

This month teams have travelled to the US and UK on urban development fact-finding missions. Last week the provincial government presented its latest brainchild, the "safety lung", a high security, partly pedestrianised, inner-city zone designed for businessmen, citizens and tourists.

Control crime, the theory goes, and you retain those big white corporations which have so far resisted the lure of Sandton and Rosebank in the affluent north. Just as central - although unspoken - is another objective: persuading white folks back to town. But despite the headlines, at home and abroad, claiming that muggers and thieves have driven terrified whites from Johannesburg's streets, luring people back from the sanitised suburbs may depend on far more than bringing criminals to book.

Despite the common wisdom, whites gave up on Jo'burg's centre long before crime escalated. Luli Callincos, a social historian, says white residents began to flee to all-white suburbs in the late 1970s. As apartheid laws became harder to enforce, blacks began to settle illegally in inner city communities like Hillbrow. Once a critical mass was reached, whites moved north to antiseptic malls and suburbs.It was a flight from poverty and otherness.

Beneath the entirely justifiable fear of inner city crime there lies a complex mix of alienation and loss of ownership. "It's just become too black," said one exasperated man of a city centre once reserved by law for whites. "Why would we want to go there now? We can get everything we need in the suburbs." Another complains about the hawkers now free to trade and "defecate and urinate" on the city streets: they have made the place filthy and lowered the tone.

To suggest that the new Johannesburg is on the slide prompts accusations of racism from blacks who argue that all that is happening is the Africanisation of a colonial town. It may be overcrowded, blacker, poorer and more lawless, but it is more vibrant and representative than before.

Some blacks would not care if the whites never came back to town. "They complain about the mess and yet they know that only white people are allowed into the big city complexes to use the toilets," said one. "Apartheid required no public conveniences."

Ms Callincos argues that white attitudes to the city reflect the sense of loss of control. Neil Fraser, spokesman for the business-led Johannesburg City Partnership, admits persuading whites back to the city is a priority but would never put it quite that bluntly. To suggest to whites they have fled from anything other than crime is also delicate, he says. There are some who will always regret the loss of the chic white 1950s town, where ladies in long gloves met to take tea served by black waiters. The psychological barriers erected by whites could prove as hard to tackle as the muggers and thieves.

Columnist Dennis Beckett states matters bluntly: white neglect is partly to blame for Jo'burg's current sorry state. Whites gravitated north to nestle in the bosom of middle class, racial homogeneity. "It is part of the general phenomenon which says 'look at Africa and run like hell' and creates the Sandton Syndrome, which leaves people sitting behind high walls reaching for their panic buttons."

Mr Fraser prefers not to meet whites head on. Making the city clean, crime free and full of attractions he believes will eventually bring them back to a town representative of the national population for the first time in its 100-year history.

"White South Africans get annoyed with me for saying this," says Fraser, "but part of Johannesburg's problem is that it was designed as an apartheid, colonial city rather than an African city. If it had been designed as an African city it would have had open spaces, toilets and storage for traders."

He warns that whites cannot remain in high security isolation for ever and deplores the corporate trend of building restaurants and shops within city centre buildings so that whites and a few blacks can live in fortified towers "while mayhem reigns below".

Crime is real but whites must take a stake in the city centre's future, he says. "If Johannesburg city centre becomes 100 per cent black and Sandton 85 per cent white that will be a terrible indictment of the rainbow nation. That simply entrenches what was there before, without the laws of apartheid."

Samuel, a mini cab driver, like the majority of blacks, has nothing against whites returning to town. But for the moment he revels in its blackness. For decades his people were cleared from town and corralled into "kaffir locations". "It's much much better now," he beams. "Before the police would stop you and ask for your pass. If you did not have one they would throw you into jail. Now we are free to live here, to move around."

He admits the crime rate is appalling. But his sympathy for whites has limits. "They are simply getting a taste of what township people have suffered for decades." Anyway, he does not believe South African blacks are responsible for the lawlessness. "It is the Nigerians," he insists. "They have flooded in with their drugs and their crime."