LISTEN | From 'hijacked' to 'hope': How Jozi building of death has been given new life for students

21 February 2020 - 06:00 By Nonkululeko Njilo and Sisanda Aluta Mbolekwa
What was once a crime-ridden, hijacked building has now been refurbished and turned into luxurious student accommodation.
What was once a crime-ridden, hijacked building has now been refurbished and turned into luxurious student accommodation.
Image: Scott Peter Smith

It was once widely known for death, crime and deadly fires — but a once hijacked downtown Johannesburg building is shaking off that dark image.

It is now a home for students, and comes with luxurious finishes its previous occupants could only dream of.

Focus 1 student accommodation, located in the heart of the Johannesburg inner city, was launched on Thursday.

The building — formerly known as “Cape York” — has in the past made headlines for all the wrong reasons. The incidents ranged from fires, deaths, criminal activity to name a few.  

In a deadly fire in 2017, TimesLIVE reported that one man had died after leaping from a window on the third floor, landing on the dirty cement floor below, while six others died inside, some from smoke inhalation and others from the flames.

LISTEN to the buildings story of renewal:

Project managers said the nine-storey block of flats had reached its full capacity of accommodating 528 students — with others on the waiting list.

Samuel Beyin, the director of Mark Divine Investments, which owns the building, said the project was met with a string of challenges. In total, 190 jobs were created during the construction phase.

“The main challenges we faced included clearing of the dirt accumulated for years in the property, no supply of water and electricity to the building and the difficulty of raising funds for the development,” he said.

The surrounding buildings, mostly hijacked, are nothing to speak of. Many have broken windows, mouldy walls, and rats roaming around freely — and the stench of urine and piles of rubbish could be smelt outside the premises.

MMC for housing in the city, Mlungisi Mabaso, attended the launch. He said the city was committed to getting rid of hijacked buildings and turning them into investment opportunities — just as had happened in this case.

 “One of the apex priorities of the government of local unity especially in the housing department is the provision of better, safe and conducive student accommodation and the Cape York is a clear demonstration that with clear vision and determination all hijacked buildings can be turned into a beacon of hope and prosperity,” he said.

“The investment into the city brought by this development cannot go unnoticed and I wish to pledge that my department’s doors will forever be opened for initiatives such as this. We need more of this,” added Mabaso.   

Among other services, the accommodation offers fully furnished units, free Wi-Fi, laundry services, a shuttle service, a computer lab and a library.

First year BA student Mohapi Klaas said he had no complaints about the building.

“I can’t complain. I am funded by NSFAS and because this place is accredited and reasonable, I can afford to live here. There is also a shuttle that picks us up from outside the building and drops us off on campus. There are a lot of students here, but I am yet to meet and interact with them,” he said.

Meanwhile a spaza shop owner across the road from the building hailed the initiative, saying it would boost his business.

“This building was a mess for a long time now. I am happy because students are already coming in to buy things. I may have to buy lots of stock when the year progresses,” said Amir Mossaim.

Beyin said the project was a way of giving back to the community and changing the face of the CBD.

He added that students would not have to grapple with constant power blackouts as a result of load-shedding, because generators had already been installed.