x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Fight to keep South Africa's historic face

In the heart of the central business district of the financial capital of South Africa's economy stands what should be an architectural masterpiece.

The four-storey Post Office, built in 1897, right, was gutted by a fire last month.
The four-storey Post Office, built in 1897, right, was gutted by a fire last month.

JOHANNESBURG// In the heart of the central business district of the financial capital of Africa's biggest economy stands what should be an architectural masterpiece. The four-storey Post Office, built in 1897, is one of only two buildings still standing from the days of Paul Kruger's Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek, replete with Italianate columns and other European influences, high ceilings, and topped with a clock tower.

But its windows are boarded up, the wooden front door has holes punched through it, and after a devastating fire last month the structure is little more than a shell, the ground floor covered in a vast pile of blackened remains of beams and twisted sheets of corrugated roofing. The loss is made worse by the remarkable ugliness of much of Johannesburg's central business district, known locally as the CBD, which is mostly filled with nondescript post-war concrete and glass towers that have become worn and dilapidated over recent years as businesses fled rising crime and traffic to relocate to the northern suburb of Sandton.

"It's an old building; it's nice," said Moses Magashule, 44, who drives past it every day on his way to work. "This property belongs to the City of Johannesburg metropolitan municipality. They should restore it." Such a move is easier said than done. The building has been unused since the postal service moved out in 1996, and attempts to have it transformed into the offices of either the Gauteng provincial premier or the speaker of its legislature - which is across the road - came to nothing.

Instead it became increasingly derelict as squatters occupied it - the most recent illegal occupants are believed to have caused the blaze - and thieves have stripped it of its fittings, even down to the bells in the clock tower and the cast iron columns in the main hall. After the fire, conservation activists are now seeking to have the city authorities prosecuted for neglect of a national monument, a criminal offence in South Africa.

"We have in place a really good set of laws relating to heritage buildings," said Neil Fraser, the chairman of the Johannesburg Heritage Trust, who is leading the judicial efforts. "The only problem is it's very very seldom actually used and very seldom stuck to by officials. They are totally uninterested and people are just not doing anything. The result is we have lost quite a lot of our heritage buildings.

"We have got to the point where we feel it's necessary to wake officialdom up." Chancellor House, which was the CBD home to the Mandela and Tambo law firm that the African National Congress's two future presidents ran in the 1950s, was also derelict, inhabited by squatters, and in a "disgusting" condition, Mr Fraser added. "In any other country that would be an icon, and looked after." The cost of a possible restoration has yet to be established, but Marcus Holmes, an architectural consultant to the city council, said: "It's the only significant building from the ZAR days and that's a very important factor."

In a statement, Gabu Tugwana, the council's spokesman, said any charges against it would be defended. "The city is taking all reasonable steps to the best of its ability to ensure that this heritage building is restored and redeveloped." He did not respond to queries on whether demolition might have to be considered. Even if the Post Office is restored to its former glory, the condition of the city centre as a whole remains a challenge, and has largely defied attempts to revitalise it for years.

When Johannesburg was first laid out it was a mining camp not expected to last much more 10 years, the usual lifetime of gold rush towns, so the streets are narrow and blocks small. In its initial decades, though, its wealth showed. "There were some wonderful buildings in early Johannesburg - Victorian, Edwardian, a huge amount of Art Deco in the '30s," Mr Fraser said. "It was quite a stunning city."

Yet that changed as the city's wealth grew. "Anything that got in the way got knocked down and rebuilt, and rebuilt rather badly," he said. "It's not an architectural gem to say the least." Flo Bird, of Parktown and Westcliff Heritage, another conservation group, said: "The CBD has many ugly and nondescript buildings because Johannesburg values money above all else and the penny-pinching property developers usually prefer to use commercial architects than anyone who is really creative."

It is a phenomenon noticed at all levels of society. Isaac Ngcobo, 38, works as a security guard at the Gauteng legislature, housed in the former City Hall that is almost as old as the post office. "They must renovate it and start it afresh," he said, adding that the city's other buildings "are not like these two". sberger@thenational.ae