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What's happened to the Gauteng precinct?
27 August 2007

There has been a deafening silence from government quarters about the much-talked about Gauteng provincial government precinct, announced almost four years ago.

Neil Fraser
About Citichat

NEIL Fraser is a partner in 'Neil Fraser & Associates trading as Urban Inc', an urban consultancy dedicated to the revitalisation and regeneration of cities and of the inner city of Johannesburg in particular. He can be contacted on 083 456 0242 or 011 444 4895 or by e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Citichat is a free weekly publication concerning cities generally and Johannesburg specifically. Please forward Citichat to your colleagues who may wish to be placed on the subscription list. To subscribe please contact us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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GAUTENG Premier Mbhazima Shilowa announced the establishment of the Gauteng provincial government precinct (GPGP) on 17 November 2003 - that's almost four years ago.

In the announcement he stated that: "The establishment of the precinct is an indication of our confidence in the future of the city and our efforts, together with the City of Johannesburg and other stakeholders - including the private sector - to revive the city and turn it into a world-class African city. We believe the initiative will send an unequivocal message - as government we are here to stay."

A subsequent Gauteng provincial government (GPG) newsletter was headlined "You might have heard about it in the corridors of the GPG head office buildings, read about it somewhere and might even have talked about it … the next meeting place of Gauteng is in a public sector zone in the Johannesburg central business district. This zone is known as the GPG precinct."

Cost of GPGP
Two years later, the MEC for finance and economic affairs, Paul Mashatile, was reported in The Star newspaper of November 28, 2005, as announcing that the project would cost R2,5-billion, "including the costs of refurbishing, cleaning and replacement of the facade and building a new heritage complex, parkade, underpass and square in the city centre".

The assembly of the 18 buildings required by the provincial government to form the nucleus of its precinct was undertaken in secret (although all the property people I spoke to before the premier's announcement of course knew about Project Kopanong). The reason for the secrecy was, evidently, so as not to influence the market positively, thereby driving up prices.

From 2003, Citichat has recorded the progress of the GPGP. Just short of two years ago, on 30 September 2005, it reported that the final heritage impact assessment report (HIA) had been made available for public comment; a month later, on 21 October, it commented sadly on the decision by the South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) to approve the demolition of 10 heritage buildings; in July 2006 it recorded that the appeal against the Sahra decision had been heard (nearly nine months after objections had been made); and on 21 September 2006, exactly a year ago, it recorded that the decision to demolish at least five of the buildings had been reversed by an Appeal Committee.

The results of the appeal hearing were gratifying (although not totally so) in that it appeared as if the system in so far as objections, appeals and so on had been concerned, worked - although the procedures adopted by Sahra throughout the process were, in my opinion, highly questionable. I did, however, raise a number of questions at the time, all of which have been and are likely to remain unanswered:

  • How the provincial authorities, using tax-payers' money, could place themselves in a position where they now own buildings that they are unable to proceed with as planned. This would not happen in the private sector, where investors would not take such risks with their own money. Buildings that might fall under some form of restrictive legislation would be purchased "subject to obtaining demolition" or other permission.
  • Were the provincial authorities so presumptuous as to believe that they could ignore national legislation because they could apply pressure to have it bypassed?
  • And why was there no consultation between provincial and City authorities during the planning stage? While the provincial government is the senior partner, the city is ultimately the responsibility of local government, and to plan major changes to the city's public environment (and traffic) without any consultation is, as a citizen and a taxpayer, unacceptable.

Objections and withdrawals
The City, you may remember, had been "strong-armed" into withdrawing its objection to the design of the GPGP with a promise of "consultation" in arriving at the final design. A committee of local and provincial government was, in fact, established (I was appointed by one council department to safeguard its interests, but there was an objection from the provincial authorities that I was one of the objectors, so I was unable to attend the meetings).

I know that the City representatives put forward a highly practical alternative approach that would have ended in some limited demolition but on the north side of the square with only one heritage building affected, the demolition of which, weighed against the gains that could be made to the overall design, was acceptable.

The last I heard was that this had been rejected by the province, which evidently stated that "No demolition of any buildings would be undertaken'. Since then, there has been a long, loud silence.

In the meantime, the buildings bought by the provincial government five years ago have been empty and left to disintegrate, thus creating an added eyesore in the city centre. Surely it is incumbent on the provincial government, particularly given the premier's and the MEC's comments way back at the start of the project, to advise the citizens of the city just what it is now planning.

Surely it is incumbent on the provincial government as one of our custodians of the built heritage and as the owner of these crumbling structures to tell us what it is planning to do with the heritage (and other) buildings that daily degenerate?

Why the current secrecy? Surely there are undisputed parts of the plan that could have gone ahead some time ago and, in fact, been completed by now that would have a positive effect on the built environment? I refer here to the awful buildings on the north and south of Beyer's Naude Square that have become nothing better than open urinals and, by edging directly on to President and Market streets, force pedestrians into the roadways.

The plan was to demolish them, hallelujah! But why hasn't it happened? Why has the fountain between the legislature and the Rissik Street Post Office not been removed (it hasn't worked for years other than as a washing area for homeless people) or at least been reconfigured and put back into use - although I can hardly think the latter is an option.

When will government at all levels understand that the city belongs to the people who pay their rates and taxes from which the city is maintained but also from which these edifices were built in the first place - the least we deserve in the "accountability" and "transparency" of our newly democratic country is just that.

It is bad enough that the refurbishing of the previous City Hall section and the fast-fading Rissik Street Post Office has taken the time it has, but this new situation is not acceptable. (I understand that proposal calls for the design of refurbishment of these buildings has now been advertised, although I missed seeing the advertisements myself.)

Supportive of principles
All of us who were involved with the objections were, in fact, highly supportive of the principles behind the proposals. In Citichat 34 of2005 I repeated that I was highly supportive of the Gauteng provincial government's proposals "to bring together different GPG departments in a cost-effective manner".

I am equally highly appreciative of the published "potential benefits" of the project, which include improving service delivery; identifying a vehicle for changing equity ownership of the property estate in the CBD; improving space functionality and working environment; eliminating process and work disruption; and creating an urban design of a government precinct through consolidation of office space structures that will act as a stimulus for urban regeneration and socio-economic empowerment.

I am also supportive of creating a resource that celebrates the heritage of African peoples who were here before the "discovery" of gold in 1886.

What I am totally opposed to, is creating a poorly conceived public open space at the expense of culturally significant buildings and irretrievable damage to an important existing heritage resource. The celebration of those African peoples here prior to 1886 must be done, but in an appropriate place and manner.

But let's get on with it!

Old public space
There were numerous media articles published while the controversy raged - one of the best from Lone Paulsen and Melinda Silverman, who reminded the public that the existing square was one of the city's oldest, most inclusive public places. When it was laid out in 1886 it accommodated Johannesburg's first government building at a time when the square was a vast open dusty plain.

As the city grew this turned into a frenetic trading place for both white and black - the Boers' defeat at the turn of the century heralded in Edwardian architecture and the new city hall was completed on the east of the square in 1915. By the 1930s the public library had been completed on the opposite east side and the "market" was replaced with gardens.

In 1980 the area was desecrated through the controversial Library Gardens project and the area has been languishing ever since. This historic focal point of the city centre is surely worth some effort on the part of the authorities to ensure that it is a welcoming and attractive meeting place for 2010 visitors, let alone the citizens of the city … or has it gone the way of the monorail?

There is some great stuff on in the City over the next two weekends. And go and look at the impressive Eland statues erected last weekend on the corner of Bertha and Ameshoff streets in Braamfontein.

Ciao, Neil

Kensington Community Spring Fair
The annual Kensington Community Spring Fair will be held at Rhodes Park, in Kensington on Sunday, 2 September from eight till late.

This fair has been a drawcard to one of Joburg's flagship parks for nearly two decades and gives schools, churches, NGOs and so forth a platform for raising much-needed funds.

Contact Carol Milner for details on 082 797 0891.

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Last Updated on 18 November 2011