Corridors of Freedom rains new hope on Johannesburg’s Tar Nile by offering renewal and new investment for the once economic hub.
Lonley petrol pumps stand with employees settled on the sidelines outside the manager’s office, waiting for the midday rush of motor vehicles to flow through the petrol station to wet their beaks.
In front of the office sits a stern man, engaging with his young protégés. His quiet dominance is felt by his younger peers as they talk about their lives.
He listens silently and cracks a slight smirk as the young protégés crack jokes. His intimidating demeanour is shed with the slightest sign of a smile, bringing light to a fatherly demeanour as he offers advice about the younger men’s problems.
Ndaba Mahlangu (46) is manager at Ener-Gi garage located on Louis Botha Avenue, Orange Grove. For the past four years he has witnessed the construction of what is meant to be the economic revival of Louis Botha.
It is meant to be the restoration of Johannesburg’s Tar Nile by carving out new transportation hubs through Rea Vaya, which will feed the economy of the suburbs it flows through. This is extensively explained in the Corridors of Freedom (COD) document.
However, the 46-year-old manager describes this as a “death roll” on his business.
“The development of the Corridors of Freedom, based on an effective public transport system and high-density neighbourhoods closer to the places of economic opportunity, giving rise to sustainable human settlements”: This is how it is stated in the Static Framework.
Breathing new life into the tar Nile
The COF framework further explains: “The majority of working class and poor citizens are still living on the fringes of the city, commuting daily, often at considerable cost, long distances to access work and economic opportunities.”
It aims to reduce these costs by feeding into the economic restoration of Louis Botha through a transport-centred plan that will function as an economic activation to bring back the vibrancy of this once legendary avenue.
“The intention of the current initiative is to optimise development in and around high- intensity corridors, to create more opportunities for residents of Johannesburg and create economies of scale that are attractive to investors.”
The sun rises with the sound of taxi horns heralding passengers to and from Louis Botha. It is a busy road with quiet pavements, swallowed by the grunts, groans, growls, wheezes and chuffs of different motor engines rippling through the surface of Johannesburg’s Tar Nile.
This is accompanied by the burble of tires rippling over the tar of Louis Botha. The energy is chaotic but controlled by the stop-and-go traffic and honks, which are enough to wash away one’s urge for five more minutes of sleep.
Louis Botha is the Tar Nile of Johannesburg, providing fertile land for development opportunity in the economy of more than nine varying suburbs.
The Tar Nile connects Johannesburg’s Fife Avenue, beginning at the edge of Hillbrow, with Bramley and transforms into Pretoria Main Road.
It facilitates multiple business transactions through the busy-ness of the road, assisting in the mixing of the different economic spices – the Rea Vaya becoming the emerging crocodile of the 9km Tar Nile.
RIGHT: Louis Botha is the tar Nile of Johannesburg. The 9km stretch serves to connect people through varying transportation. Future plans to revive the once booming economic hub involved an injection of people through construction, with major development into the Rea Vaya. Residents and commuters of Louis Botha share their thoughts on the stalled construction, particularly those close to Ener-Gi petrol garage.
The cost of renewal
“This Rea Vaya construction has cost us a lot. Some big trucks now cannot even drive in,” said Mahlangu.
In front of the distressed orange, white and black fill-up station, in the middle of the narrow road, is a large newly painted glass blue-red Island barricaded by concrete blocks.
The terminal prevents access by incoming traffic from Pretoria Main Road to Fife Avenue, a phenomenon that does not happen in front of big-name garages only a few hundred metres away from Ener-Gi.
The metal brocade is surrounded by an overwhelming combination: the drilling of nearby construction mixed with desperate hooting from taxis scavenging passengers.
“So far we have lost a lot of business, because since some roads are closed off already the customers from the other side can’t drive this side, so they just go to BP or Caltex,” said Mahlangu.
Early bird Johannesburg energy gurgles through this small petrol station for approximately two hours and later flows into a relaxed morning with light ripples of traffic, taxis swimming pedantically through the street.
The wave of activity rises again at lunch time and knocking-off peaks, with the sounds of motor vehicle engines gurgling as they continue to flow past the banks of the Tar Nile.
Rebuilding the economy of Louis Botha begins with the COF framework, which states: “The majority of working class and poor citizens are still living on the fringes of the city, commuting daily, often at considerable cost, long distances to access work and economic opportunities.”
The City of Johannesburg’s action plan to resolve economic issues along Louis Botha includes resolving inequality, unemployment and poverty.
This road has lent itself as a microcosm of Johannesburg’s greater economy. Like reflections on the river, the surrounding structures mirror a greater South African history.
Economic inequality waves through the Tar Nile, with a political, social and economic history entrenched in its buildings and demographics.
History gives breathes life to a new economy
Lining the banks of this Tar Nile are Victorian-styled buildings covered in dried, freckled, peeling paint on one side of the pavement characterised by curved lines and monochromatic colours.
The opposite banks of the avenue are filled with freshly painted developing upmarket real-estate with clean lines, modern-style architecture housing corporate businesses, and ongoing construction for key South African supermarkets.
Inserted on the horizon of Orange Grove are green hills filled with blooming jacaranda trees and a scattering of modern high-rise homes with wide-open windows and high brick walls.
But the heart of Louis Botha is formed by the tumble-down hotels turned into apartments covered with withering paint and dull glass windows buckled with butler doors.
The Tar Nile still holds its reputation as a migrant nucleus, transforming Orange Grove’s little Italy into an African migrant pivot.
This presented an influx of business opportunity stemming from capitalising on the busy-ness and energy of the road, one that carries its own flash-flood reputation with its notorious “Death Bend”.
The Death Bend is located on the Upper Houghton section of the Tar Nile marked by S-Bend wall, covered in a mural of art marking the different changes of Louis Botha.
The S-Bend, which in its history is infamous for a high accident rate in Upper Houghton, has in the past been difficult to navigate; thus its notorious history of fatal accidents, which earned it the name Death Bend.
“I think accidents are not predetermined. I have witnessed one once or twice. I wouldn’t say accidents help the business,” said Odinaka Ugwumba, a co-owner of and administrator at Kingsley Auto Motor Parts on 207 Louis Botha Avenue.
This reputation has produced a unique type of transaction, creating a micro auto parts economy evident in several shops on the pavement banks of Louis Botha, whose services transfer through its neighbouring suburbs.
“I think what helps the business is the busy road and the cars passing, and the people living in the community,” says the Nigerian native.
Ugwumba has been working on Louis Botha for three years, but the store has been open for only two months.
The tall, broad-shouldered, light-skinned, blue-eyed young adult is stationed at the back of the spare parts auto body shop scattered with car hoodsm with an administration desk in the back, stationed in front of a single window.
The 36-year-old recalls pleasant interactions with the transformation of Louis Botha, saying in part: “I remember when I started working here in 2015, towards the end of December. I used to take public transport from Ghandi Square, the Metro bus down to Louis Botha. It has been awesome, I think.”
Despite the booming business for auto body parts on the Tar Nile, the installation and towing are done away from the gushing street.
Not too far from Kingsley Auto Motor Parts stands Joel Auto Spares, a similar store and a familiar sight as the Nile is sprouting these types of stores.
Joel Auto Spares has been open for approximately a month. The quaint store is cluttered with car parts, with relatively no space in the front of the business to interact with its workers.
Sitting behind the entrance are three employees on their laptops and phones, conversing about synchronising price points.
The young business uses an online advertising model to set itself apart from the competition through advertising on several social media sites.
This transports the economy of Louis Botha away from traditional walk-in interaction, introducing the Tar Nile to a new type of consumer.
“Most of the customers we get are other people that also deal with auto body parts – shops and individuals,” said Brighton Chitekero, an employee of the shop.
“Some of the customers are mechanics, panel beaters, those people that fix cars,” added the 25-year-old, most of whom come from the surrounding neighbourhoods.
“Online is more effective because nowadays someone does not need to be driving around stop by stop, but he wants to be on his machine or his phone once.
“After he finds what he wants, he makes a call so that if he is leaving his place he just goes direct,” echoed Chitekero.
Their most expensive item, depending on the model of the car, is headlights, which can range in price up to R9 500, which would be a Range Rover headlight.
“We buy [these goods] from insurance companies,” said Bradley Dziva.
Dziva (26), another employee of Joel Auto Spares, echoed the business’s attraction to the busy-ness of the road, adding “the rates this side are affordable, the building itself”.
The current of the tar Nile
A continuous theme for the Tar Nile: The continuous flow of movement is what drives the economy, drawing investment from local business owners, old and new.
“Louis Botha is an important road, it’s a very busy road. When the highway, N1, has traffic, this road becomes the next nearest through road,” said Viml Daya, (45) a bicycle repair shop owner on Louis Botha.
“That is a bad thing because sometimes you need a bit of quiet and there is always this drumming noise of cars passing by and taxis hooting, so that creates a bit of noise.
“We have become accustomed to it. When there is no traffic or no noise, that worries us. When there is peace and quiet we worry, ‘now what’s happening outside, is there a problem,” he added.
“The busy road does play an important role in attracting customers,” said Daya.
“If I was on a quiet road, inside a quiet residential road, then there is no traffic, no one will know about my place.”
The shop tangled with bicycle parts has been there since 1992 and has been witness to the transformation of its industry on the Nile.
A common thread in the transportation economy of Louis Botha is the transit of commuters moving from one place to another. The flow of movement is the last remaining aspect of the once booming economic giant.
The COD aims to finesse this to attract investors.
“In their present form, the corridors already act as a significant spine on which diverse sectors of the city move and interact,” states the official document.
“Well [the location] it’s not ideal. For a bicycle shop you need parking and Louis Botha doesn’t offer parking, it doesn’t exist… and that is a challenge and has been a challenge since day one,” said Daya.
The COD aims to feed back to the economy of Louis Botha by placing more people on the streets. Through initiatives that include high-density housing, the COD wants to increase foot traffic, introducing human interaction along Louis Botha.
Through Rea Vaya, the residents will be able to sail further distances and return at little effort and cost to them. The increased use of public transport instead of private motor use is aimed at reducing traffic on the road, allowing for a clean flow for Louis Botha.
The bustle and noise on the road will also include the murmurs of human interaction along with the occasional taxi hoot.
FEATURED IMAGE: A slide show of the storefront of Joel Autospare located on 119 Louis Botha, framed with car bumpers and a tire-tower topped with the rim and some of the products in the store. Photo: Tsholanang Rapoo