|He's got a full white beard and moustache to match his white hair, he smiles often, and he's passionate about cities, particularly Johannesburg . . . he's Neil Fraser, executive director of the Central Johannesburg Partnership (CJP), an inner city renewal initiative.|
Fraser's been in Johannesburg since 1985 and is fiercely involved in many aspects of the city - from its growth into an African city, to creating jobs for people on the street.
Born in Hopetown in the Northern Cape in 1939, Fraser qualified as a quantity surveyor at UCT in 1961. He spent a year in the profession but found the work "dull". He joined construction company Murray & Stewart (later Murray & Roberts) and moved into management. In 1985 he was transferred to Johannesburg as divisional director, responsible for building construction in the Transvaal, Natal and Swaziland. In 1988 he was seconded to the Building Industries Federation of South Africa as executive director for a year, but ended up staying four years.
In 1991 he set up his own consulting practice, Neil Fraser & Associates. But it didn't take Johannesburg businessmen long to appreciate the asset in their midst. They approached him, and the CJP was born.
The early years of the CJP involved "lots of research into why things had deteriorated, and looking at what other cities had done".
The CJP became a member of the International Downtown Association (IDA), based in Washington, DC. "I think we were their first international member," Fraser says. He was appointed to the Board of the IDA in 1995. Membership of several other international and African organisations followed, and through these contacts, he caught the city bug.
The city was in dire straights in 1992, characterised by "political paralysis of white councillors", and still three years away from a change of government.
"There were huge fights between landlords and tenants in Hillbrow and other areas, and at some point the officials stopped prosecuting," says Fraser. He cites an example of 75 people living in a three-bedroomed house in Bertrams, the owner collecting R200 rent from each person. The CJP was involved in mediating these messes.
Johannesburg is no exception when it comes to degeneration. "Johannesburg is a classic example of city degeneration. Cities like Washington, New York, and Los Angeles have all gone through the same process. New York took 20 years to come out of it. Our problems were however exacerbated by many years of apartheid planning."
There were other factors, says Fraser. The first post-1994 council was concerned about taking down apartheid structures. "The city was still a stepchild. It's gone through its adolescent period, and is now in its late teens. We have the political will and discipline now."
Fraser says he was never a city person; he always lived on the outskirts of a city - in Johannesburg he used to have an office in Midrand, and another in Bedfordview.
"It took me two years to understand the forces needed for developing city management skills," he says.
In his leisure time Fraser is involved in church work. He is "crazy about cooking, gardening and reading" and enjoys spending time with his four grandchildren. His children live around the world, and he lives in Atholl.
His favourite city place? You'll never guess - his offices, in the 100-year-old ex-FNB museum building at 90 Market Street. His favourite suburban hangouts? Melville and Greenside, which he says have become "funky areas".
The Central Johannesburg Partnership
Fraser established the CJP in 1992 with a trilateral structure - business, the City of Johannesburg and the community, at a time when the apartheid city council was particularly unpopular with the community. But this trilateralism disappeared in 1995 once needs had changed - it became representative of inner city business, concentrating on the interests of business in the city. In 1998 it became a private, non-profit company focusing on the revitalisation of the city, with a very flexible structure. "We adapt to whatever people want," says Fraser.
The CJP has since spawned many other specialist organisations. One of them, the Partnerships for Urban Renewal, established in 1997, took the Johannesburg model of the CJP and applied it outside the CBD - first to Rosebank, Sandton and Midrand, then nationwide, then into Africa.
Other organisations that were spawned include: the Inner City Housing Upgrading Trust (1993), Homeless Talk with two church groups (1994), the Johannesburg Trust for the Homeless (1995), the Inner City Business Coalition (1997), and the Johannesburg Heritage Trust (2001).
Fraser says the secret to the CJP's success is to "keep the operation reasonably small and very focused, then move on". Two examples of this are the Johannesburg Trust for the Homeless and Homeless Talk. The CJP set both of these up to satisfy a social need, made them sustainable in terms of good management, then got out of them, keeping informal links.
Fraser says he judges the success of these ventures on two simple criteria: whether they are sustainable projects, and whether they create employment.
An African city
Fraser defines an African city as one which reflects the demographics of the country, and in Johannesburg's case, it certainly does. "If you go to Sandton City or Cape Town, you'll mostly see white people, but downtown Johannesburg will be 80% black."
He enjoys areas like Faraday Market, where you'll find an enormous colourful range of traditional medicine stalls, and in some cases a stomach-turning array of indigenous cures, just south of the city centre.
Although there have been big moves to relocate the taxis and hawkers out of the city centre to specific areas, this will never happen completely, says Fraser. But seeing hawkers and taxis on street corners is an important part of being an African city, things that you'll seldom see in North America or much of Europe.
Johannesburg is still a long way off expressing its Africanness, says Fraser, because it is dotted with colonial buildings - from Victorian and Edwardian buildings at the turn of the century, and 1930s and '40s art deco buildings, to American-style glass skyscrapers. He cites Bank City as mirroring the city's colonial roots, and the diamond building in Diagonal Street as an inappropriate American influence.
"These buildings must stay, they are a part of our history," adds Fraser. But our Africanness will be established with the construction of new buildings, like the buildings on Constitution Hill, in particular the Constitutional Court, and the new Metro Mall in Newtown.
Fraser is bullish about where Johannesburg is going. "Cities recreate themselves all the time. Johannesburg is one of the youngest cities in the world, it can't be compared to London."
He foresees that some buildings will be demolished, to make way for more green spaces. Lower-rise buildings are likely to be built in the future, and whereas Johannesburg has seen two waves of businesses leaving the city - in the 1970s, and again in the late 1980s and early 1990s - he speculates that emerging, entrepreneurial businesses will be the new city tenants. These are likely to be IT, advertising and the arts, who will "lead the way".
"These businesses are risk takers and sensitive to costs, and city rents are now low."
Together with this, the city is busy creating a "great city experience". This involves a number of things. Some areas, like Hollard Street, have been upgraded with several restaurants, attractive gardens and paved areas, providing a "wonderful atmosphere" for Johannesburgers.
This "wonderful city experience" is being developed in other ways. "There are now guided walk tours around the city. The art city project will have a long-term effect, particularly as the artworks are placed on buildings in areas undergoing development. The city is now clean and safe. We need to encourage people to walk in the city, to experience it."
Fraser says that besides bringing people into the city on art tours, the CJP is targeting schoolchildren - bringing them into the city, changing their perceptions and ultimately, through them, changing their parents' perceptions.
"The experience in the city must be good," he adds.
Fraser reckons we're about halfway now in the city's regeneration. "In five years we'll see the city humming," he enthuses.