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Johannesburg no longer a no-go for tourists, investors

Johannesburg has a reputation for high crime, but efforts to rejuvenate the South African city are having an impact.

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A woman walks by a freshly-painted mural in Johannesburg, South Africa. The city has made a concerted effort to reverse urban decay.

Lungelo Mbulwana/AP

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In recent decades, downtown Johan­nesburg achieved near-mythical status as being one of the most dangerous places in the world. Its spiraling crime rate and rapid urban decay drove white business and residents out. Foreign visitors were warned to stay away for fear of their lives, and investment in the city ground to a near halt.

But in the last few years a remarkable turnaround has gathered momentum. A number of city blocks have been reclaimed, where middle-class people of all races sip coffee and type on laptops at sidewalk cafes.

Buildings that only a few years ago were derelict shells partitioned into slum quarters where people lived without water, sewer systems, or electricity are now gleaming office buildings with marble floors and brand-new elevators. A growing number of quality, affordable residential apartment buildings have been built or are being renovated.

Private security guards are visible on many street corners and the authorities have mounted high-tech security cameras that cover the entire downtown area.

"The city is much safer than it used to be," says Edna Mamonyane, spokeswoman for the Johannesburg Metro Police Department. "We are very happy at the way things are turning."

Private-public partners kept the faith

Statistics from Johannesburg Central Police station show murder and attempted murder down by more than 60 percent since 2003. Theft and carjacking have dropped similarly. In the rejuvenated areas there is very little crime.

"The success of the inner-city rejuvenation was spawned by a group of private- and public-sector leaders who sustained their activities and faith during the lean times," says Gaynor Mashamaite-Noyce, deputy director of communications for the City of Johannesburg.

One of the earliest investors was Gerald Olitzki. "I've been called crazy more times than you can imagine," he says. "But this city never died. At least 1 million people came through here every day, even though it was increasingly decaying."

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