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Johannesburg's Gandhi Square, a major transportation hub in the downtown core, has been transformed in recent years from a crime-ridden area that was considered one of the most dangerous in the city to a safe public space ringed by small shops and restaurants. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith For The Globe and Mail)
Johannesburg's Gandhi Square, a major transportation hub in the downtown core, has been transformed in recent years from a crime-ridden area that was considered one of the most dangerous in the city to a safe public space ringed by small shops and restaurants. (Erin Conway-Smith/Erin Conway-Smith For The Globe and Mail)

Johannesburg's inner city makes an amazing revival Add to ...

From his high-rise office, a young lawyer named Gerald Olitzki looked down on the city and watched the slow, agonizing death of downtown Johannesburg. He saw beggars, muggers, glue-sniffers, pickpockets and tramps. He saw the city abandoned, the whites fleeing to the suburbs, the empty buildings seized by crime lords and squatters.

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When he became a property developer and sketched out a plan to revitalize the inner city, even his own family thought it was a doomed dream. "They said it was sheer madness," Mr. Olitzki recalls. "Nobody had any faith in the city."

That was two decades ago. What has happened since is one of the world's most fascinating experiments in urban renewal. Johannesburg, long notorious as the "murder capital of the world," is quietly winning back its inner-city core. Many streets are safe again and cosmopolitan downtown neighbourhoods are filling up with art galleries, cafés, boutique hotels and pedestrian precincts.

But the battle is far from over, and a crucial test arrives on Friday when the World Cup kicks off its cavalcade, throwing this city under the global spotlight for a month. While soccer matches will be held across South Africa, ground zero will be Johannesburg - and it will take only one violent crime or transportation fiasco to unravel years of effort.

Indeed, most of the soccer tourists are likely to miss Joburg's revival. Few of the 350,000 foreigners who arrive for the World Cup will set foot in Johannesburg's downtown core, having fallen under the spell of lurid accounts in the tabloid media, which portray the country as a gang-ridden hellhole.

The statistic that everyone still uses is South Africa's dismal murder rate - nearly 50 per day, more than the United States, which has six times the population.

Yet the country's homicide rate has dropped by a dramatic 44 per cent since the mid-1990s - from 70 per 100,000 people to a new low of 37 per 100,000. And reports rarely mention that the vast majority of these killings are in isolated townships, far from the heart of the big cities. In the centre of Johannesburg, where the revitalization is concentrated, the murder rate has dropped by 27 per cent since 2005.

The foreign soccer fans who do dare to venture downtown during the World Cup will catch a fascinating renewal process in mid-flight - still a struggle, sometimes failing, but filled with intriguing stories and inspiring victories. Much like the sporting contests at the World Cup itself, in fact.

The South African government has spent an estimated $5-billion (U.S.) on soccer stadiums and infrastructure for the World Cup, along with billions of dollars on rapid bus networks and a new Canadian-built high-speed train service.

Johannesburg's own municipal government has helped to spur the revitalization with rapid-transit systems, new sidewalks, street lights and reinforced police patrols.

Yet none of this has made as dramatic a difference as the gutsy entrepreneurs who have transformed some of Johannesburg's shabbiest and most crime-ridden districts.

THE WAY GANDHI SQUARE WAS WON: INCH BY INCH, RECLAIMED FROM THE 'HIJACKERS'

It's often treacherous work.

As he tours his newly acquired sites, Mr. Olitzki takes a wide berth around one of his buildings, not daring to enter. Years ago, criminals "hijacked" the building - stole it from its true owners, and collected rent illegally from squatters who invaded it.

The squatters lounge at a broken second-floor window of the crumbling edifice, glaring daggers at the new owner.

"It's quite dangerous - you wouldn't want to go in," he admits as he gazes at the squatters from a safe distance across the street.

"There's a strong criminal element in there."

Back when Mr. Olitzki was a young lawyer despairing of the city's abandoned core, apartheid was on the verge of collapsing, and the whites were fleeing. He says it was a simple case of swart gevaar - an Afrikaans term that can be loosely translated as "fear of the blacks."

Thousands of affluent whites decamped to Sandton, which soon became the wealthiest suburb in the city, filled with luxury buildings and huge shopping malls.

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