There is one resident in Rockey Corner who does not want to stay in Yeoville any more. She opens her door to the smell of decaying rubbish and fears her children will be victims of crime on their walk to school. She is happy with her building’s redevelopment but thinks her neighbours don’t belong.

Melba Khumalo lives in flat 102 of Rockey Corner on Rockey Street, Yeoville. A qualified financial accountant, currently unemployed, she has been living here for the past eight years. The building consists of 10 apartments and most of the tenants are Zimbabwean migrants.

During the 1970s and ’80s the building had mainly white middle-class tenants but Yeoville experienced a dramatic demographic shift, with its population changing from 85% white in 1990 to 2% white in 2011. The demographic shift came about as urban management went into decline in the Johannesburg CBD. The urban decay infiltrated into neighbouring areas, as major businesses moved north to Sandton.

COMPARISON: Property developers Vuka Jozi spent approximately R4-million on Liandra Centre in 2008, after the decaying building was hijacked by tenants. Investor Michael Dick considers the money spent to be a poor investment. Photos: provided

Vuka Jozi Properties bought Rockey Corner in 2008 and, by the end of 2009, had spent close to R4-million on its redevelopment. Vuka Jozi has attempted to bring the building back to its original economic status: providing middle-class accommodation. Rockey Corner is a newly painted building with upgrades such as refurbished bathrooms, security features, newly employed cleaning staff and a designated caretaker.

Hijacked buildings

Khumalo, a South African born in Limpopo, says she feels content with her living conditions but every time she opens her door, she is greeted by the smell of decomposing rubbish. As she looks across the corridor, she points to a building a few metres away. This is Melody Court. It has been hijacked by what Khumalo calls “thugs”, people who are not tenants and who pose a threat far more dangerous than a tenant hijacking, according to her.

When tenants hijack a building it is because there is a dispute with management. They will refuse to pay rent and continue to live on the property without engaging in any dangerous behaviour.

When “thugs” hijack the building, they are usually armed and can take over a building, overnight. According to the City of Johannesburg, the hijackings occur mostly in “bad buildings” – buildings that have been abandoned and neglected by their owners – leading to illegal occupation. In most cases, these “bad buildings” do not have electricity or running water, are overcrowded and are a fire and safety hazard. Often, the residents are illegal immigrants without proper documentation.

Khumalo believes the “thugs” next door are foreigners looking to make some quick money. These usurpers rent out rooms to tenants. The rooms get divided into sections using curtains rails. Then a bed is placed in each section on the floor. The residents pay R1200 or more for a single bed, while all the residents that can be fitted into the flat have to use the same bathroom.

Rockey Corner’s caretaker, Daniel Rasebotsa, says that “thugs” from Melody Court have attempted to steal electricity from Rockey Corner, using illegal cables connected to the building’s basement. They were soon apprehended and police confiscated the cables.

THE BASEMENT: The basement of Rockey Corner has been occupied by a panel beating company. This is also where “thugs” from the neighbouring hijacked building broke through the wall in an attempt to steal electricity. Photo: Luca Kotton

Rasebotsa says the tenants of Melody Court also routinely throw refuse and other waste onto the grounds of Rockey Corner, causing the stench Khumalo describes.

Rattling the window that has been welded to its bracket because of the theft of all the brass handles, Khumalo says: “Our building looks so nice. Our neighbours don’t qualify to be our neighbours. Anyone who doesn’t want to pay rent is a dodgy person in my eyes. The crime in our building has increased and it’s all because of the people next door, who don’t want to look for a job.”

Yeoville’s big backers

Vuka Jozi Properties has eight residential buildings and 10 commercial buildings in Yeoville and its surrounding neighbourhoods. The company is pessimistic about the chances of an immediate regeneration of the area.“In theory, Yeoville can be redeveloped but there is no chance of this happening any time in the near future. Yeoville needs a champion to go in and do all the legwork,” says Vuka Jozi owner and managing director, Michael Dick.

Rockey Corner was Vuka Jozi’s first Yeoville residential purchase back in 2008, when the building was still called Liandra. In the 1990s, it housed a well-known bakery and a Jamaican eatery that Rita Marley, the widow of Bob Marley, frequently visited when she was in South Africa. The building also housed the first mosque in Yeoville, situated on the second floor, which later relocated to Dunbar Street. ANC activist Janet Love, part of Operation Vula, is said to have kept arms and ammunition hidden in the building’s ceiling during the peace negotiations in the 1990s.

Things deteriorated in 2007 when tenants who were dissatisfied with their living conditions hijacked the building. After the purchase, Vuka Jozi laid out a plan of action which included keeping the entire group of original “hijackers”, some of whom even worked on the redevelopment by cleaning and painting.

Dick says if he could go back in time he would never have bought the building, because of the high risk of crime and fairly low profit margins. He describes Rockey Corner as a poor investment in terms of redevelopment. He has spent large amounts of money on the building and it has ultimately been wasted by the behaviour of residents in neighbouring buildings.

Dick says crime is a major problem when it comes to maintenance. His company constantly replaces and repairs damaged or stolen parts, eating into his profits. For security reasons, a building employee stays permanently in most of Vuka Jozi’s properties in Yeoville. The employee is expected to check up on the building two to three times a day, monitoring tenants, maintaining the building and managing cleaning and security staff. The employee is also a communicator between the tenants and owner.

PRIVACY ISSUES: Melba Khumalo sub-lets to four tenants to make extra income because of the couples’ financial situation. Seen here are curtains dividing the TV room to create extra space for a woman and her daughter. Photo: Luca Kotton

New building owners come into the area and find a huge hole in the roof with all the new belongings gone. This, Dick says, is known among owners in the area as the “Yeoville initiation”. And the first thing he does when buying a new building is equip it with an electric fence.

Failed bids

The Johannesburg City Council (JCC) has invested in Yeoville. The library and public swimming pool have been refurbished, a recreation centre has been built and a new police station is currently being erected. Angeline Ramahlo, town planner of the JCC, says that for an area like Yeoville to properly redevelop, it would need to apply to the JCC with a proposal to become a city improvement district (CID).

A CID is a private initiative by building owners in the area. In order for Yeoville to become one, 33% of the building owners in the area would need to approach the JCC. If their proposal is approved, more than half of the building owners would need to pay a levy every month to sustain the extra maintenance, cleaning and security services the city would supply.

Ramahlo says that CIDs are high priority areas for the JCC in greater Johannesburg. For example, if there is a pothole in Yeoville and one in Braamfontein, the pothole in Braamfontein would get attended to first, because of the latter’s CID status.

Ramahlo says attempts have been made in Yeoville to develop a proposal to get CID status. But it has not worked out. The biggest problem was that a large percentage of property owners could not be found, so they never reached the 33% needed for a successful application.

The JCC classifies areas into certain categories in order to allocate resources. For the JCC to focus more on an area, it would need to be classified as “marginalised”. This means that the area would need to be previously disadvantaged and have little or no access to basic city services such as running water, proper sanitation and electricity. Examples of this are parts of Diepsloot and Soweto.

Yeoville has a large number of hijacked buildings where residents burn candles at night, use buckets filled with water and share a bathroom among six or more residents. But that’s not enough for it to be classified “marginalised”, according to the JCC criteria.

“Yeoville is not yet considered a marginalised area. The area’s history means it was not considered in this category. However it is slowly becoming more of a marginalised area,” Ramahlo says. She adds that areas are constantly being monitored and, in the near future, Yeoville could be considered a marginalised area according to the JCC.

Neighbouring CID zones

There have been successful transformations in neighbouring areas of Yeoville. Braamfontein and the downtown Maboneng Precinct are now considered CID zones.

In 2002, local government realised how important the location and function of Braamfontein was to the local economy, and embarked on a multimillion-rand regeneration programme for the area. This was supplemented by significant private-sector investment.

Property developer Adam Levy, who has been largely responsible for the regeneration of Braamfontein, says: “Redevelopment in Yeoville absolutely could work. But you need heavy investment, the property owner community buy-in and someone with backbone to drive it all.”

Levy adds that Braamfontein and Maboneng were different to Yeoville as the majority of properties in the area were owned by only a few investors. Yeoville, however, has separate owners for separate buildings, which makes it more difficult to get CID status, because of the need to contact all property owners and get them to work together.

Levy worked on renovating buildings in Braamfontein for 11 years and helped the area achieve CID status in 2004. He says the process of creating a CID takes time. According to him, Yeoville is a good opportunity for someone from the next generation of property developers because it is well positioned and could be developed into something similar to Braamfontein.

Let’s move

A LONG WALK: Rosy Khumalo’s mother fears for the safety of her 15-year-old daughter because she has to walk through Yeoville to get to school – about 5km away. Photo: Luca Kotton

Khumalo, in her eight years of living in Rockey Corner, has made flat 102 her home. She lives there with her husband and three children, aged 11, 13 and 15. Their children go to school in Braamfontein and she has plans of moving.

“I hope in time that the building next door will be bought and redeveloped by an owner. When people have to pay a bigger rent, they will start treating their living spaces like a home and all the rubbish and crime will hopefully slowly go away. I believe it is a chain reaction and when people take initiative and start redeveloping, others will also take more pride in the area and eventually Yeoville will actually start looking and feeling much more like a home.

“But for me, as soon as my husband and I can get stable jobs, we will be moving to a better area because Yeoville is not a safe environment for my children who have to walk from my house to school every day. I don’t want them growing up in this neighbourhood.”

Meet 92-year-old piano teacher Ros Liebman, who has lived in Yeoville-Bellevue for over 53 years. She has seen the once famous Rockey Street deteriorate as she started to experience more crime and lose some of her students By: Luca Kotton

FEATURED IMAGE: Melba Khumalo sub-lets to four tenants to make extra income because of the couples’ financial situation. Seen here are curtains dividing the TV room to create extra space for a woman and her daughter. Photo: Luca Kotton