Business: Joburg's New Vibe; after a Decadelong Decline, South Africa's Commercial Hub Is Buzzing Again. Crime Has Fallen Sharply, and Both Businessmen and Investors Are Coming Back

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Byline: Tom Masland

The annual Gemini party draws together some of Johannesburg's best and brightest--thirtysomething achievers in business, the arts, info tech, law and the media. So it was a sign of the times this month when the nine hosts booked the 50th-floor observation deck of Johannesburg's landmark Carlton Center, South Africa's tallest building, for the birthday bash. "This is the safer downtown Jozi, monitored by hundreds of security cameras," promised the e-mailed invitation. And people came out in force. With the twinkling lights of the continent's richest metropolis spread below them, hundreds of guests partied until dawn above the empty streets of the inner city. "This is our Manhattan," said an actress named Jennifer as she stood in line at the bar. "We want it back."

Can South Africa's commercial hub, the city that gold built, rise again? That might seem unlikely, given how squalid Johannesburg became in the decade after the black-majority government took over in 1994 and whites abandoned the city in droves. Laundry still hangs from the balconies of once-tony apartment blocks. Thousands of poor people, many illegal immigrants, pay slumlords modest rents to sleep in former office buildings and run-down apartments without water or electricity. It's a striking contrast with life in the suburbs, where whites and a new black middle class live behind high walls and shop in antiseptic malls.

But after a decade of decline, Johannesburg is making a comeback. Office buildings, once home to vagrants, are being rehabilitated. Chic coffee shops are popping up in the financial district, and artists are building studios in former factories in the industrial neighborhood of Fordsburg. A new pedestrian mall will become a six-block green zone. Crime has fallen dramatically. In a new gold rush, city real-estate prices are shooting up. A developer who plans to rehab gorgeous art-deco office buildings into luxury apartments quickly sold all 100 units this spring. Local government have adopted pragmatic strategies to help pull the inner city out of its death spiral--and attract interest from private investors. Left-wing activists say that as developers move in, the poor are bound to suffer. But the black establishment stands behind Mayor Amos Masondo's vision: to create "a world-class African city."

Creating a new, multiracial Johannesburg departs radically from the city's original design. Johannesburg was founded in 1886 after the discovery of the Witwatersrand Reef, a 97-kilometer-long gold formation in South Africa's central plateau. From the beginning, the city was made for the white ruling class. In the 1930s, mining profits financed construction of stunning corporate headquarters, some of the world's finest examples of art-deco architecture. The so-called Randlords, captains of the mining industry, took lunch at the lavish Rand Club, a gem that boasts a 50-meter bar, while they built hostels in the hinterlands for black migrant workers who labored deep in the mines. In the 1940s, laws designed to separate the races codified this kind of division, formally forbidding blacks from living in central Johannesburg and adjoining Hillbrow, a residential district where high-rise apartments soon sprouted.

The Carlton Center, once Johannesburg's showcase office and hotel complex, charts the city's boom, bust and new beginning. The giant mining conglomerate Anglo American, along with South African Breweries and Barclays Bank, spent seven years building the Carlton, which was completed in 1972. Over the next 25 years, its guests included Mick Jagger, Margaret Thatcher and Francois Mitterrand. But the political uncertainty of the late 1980s provoked an exodus of business tenants from the city, and the guests stopped coming. Consumer traffic in the Carlton mall disappeared. Crime soared. Although the African National Congress staged its 1994 victory party at the Carlton, the end was near, symbolized by a murder committed in the hotel foyer. …