Jozi City Feature

Building up the inner city

A grey building with high arches stands just across Beyers Naudé Square in downtown Johannesburg. Around the perimeter, there’s fencing and green netting. A makeshift gate has been erected on the side to let the construction workers in, clad in overalls of blue, white and sometimes red.

Once you get behind the fence you are on a construction site. Piles of bricks greet you before the security at the gate does.

This is the Johannesburg City Library and it’s been undergoing renovation for two years. Some of the workers at the site have been here from the start, while others have joined the project along the way. André Galland is a skilled worker who does specialised work at the site. He is friendly and polite as he makes his way through the scaffolding.

The library renovation is something he welcomes. “Believe me, it was much-needed work,” he says. “The building was a bit old so revamping it was overdue.”

Galland has a lot of experience in construction. “My father works in construction, so he got me into it. I worked my way up.” He has been working in this field since the age of 13 – which gives him more than eight years of additional knowledge in renovation and construction.

Like most of the other workers here, Galland is not originally from Johannesburg. He comes from the Eastern Cape and work brought him to the city. He has a 25-year-old brother who worked with him until he was injured.

“We mainly worked on Caesar’s Palace when I started,” Galland says. “And on Montecasino. It’s nothing fancy, but hard work – a lot of sweat.” He smiles.

Galland takes a 50 -minute walk to work from Fordsburg, west of the CBD, where he now lives with his mother and stepfather.


Andre Galland has been working in construction since the age of 13


Job Creation

Most of the construction workers live around the area because of the policy that general labourers needed for government projects should come from the locality.

“When it comes to general workers, we take 100% from the local area,” says Mathews Kgomokaboya, the community liaison officer at the renovation site. “For semi-skilled workers, we do what we call a database around the community –to see who’s qualified for what.”

It’s not surprising then that most of the workers are familiar with Kgomokaboya, as he recruited them. Albert Eldricks is a skilled worker who describes Kgomokaboya as his “connection” to getting a job at the library site.

Eldricks started doing construction in 2001, in Upington in the Northern Cape where he comes from. He has gained a lot of experience, despite his short and slight frame. “In 2008, I went to the Western Cape to work there,” he says.

He moved back to the Northern Cape in 2009 and worked at Anglo American. “I stay here in Germiston now. I came here to look for a job,” he says. The library is the first building he has worked on since coming to Gauteng.

Eldricks lives with his family – his mother, two sisters and a brother. “My baby sister has a baby now – it’s three months old,” he smiles.


A worker uses a grinder to saw into metal rods.


Women at work

Kgomokaboya is also responsible for employing “unskilled” workers at the site – workers who don’t have specialised skills. Most of the women fall into this category.

Ignatia Mbatsani is employed as a cleaner at the site. She’s wearing an old, oversized T-shirt. While talking she leans on her broom, and lowers the white dust mask from her face.

“Before this, I was working at Emergency Medical Services,” she says. She has done a course in counselling and was a volunteer there.

“We [taught] communities about how to prevent fire. We used to go to primary schools, high schools and churches,” she recalls. Mbatsani lost her job after the company terminated their contracts.

Other women here have had other vocations before coming to the library. Priscilla Mothlali worked at a printing company in Randburg until she lost her job. Mbatsani and Mothlali are mothers with a son of seven in grade two and twin boys in grade 10 respectively.

It is 1pm and work around the site stops for lunch. Most of the workers step outside of the building and form little groups around the piles of sand and rubble. They sit down on the ground or on planks stacked together, take off their hats and pull out lunch boxes.

Some go off to buy food. Their bright overalls and hard hats mix into the crowded CBD. The women sit just outside the enclosure, around the stone plaque which commemorates Beyers Naudé.

They eat their lunch and chat loudly in the sunshine. “We do this every day since we started here,” Mbatsani says smiling back at the group. “It’s very nice, we get along very well.”

Although they work around men, the women aren’t uncomfortable with their jobs. “We work here with people who understand that we are women,” Mbatsani says.

Mothlali agrees: “We are not working hard like [the men], do. We’re not working under pressure.”

Workers begin filing back into the gate. They put their gloves back on their hands, and replace their hard hats on their heads.

Safety on site

A hard hat is a standard piece of safety equipment that all workers are required to wear. Visitors at the site are given a hard hat too.

The workers also undergo a safety induction course, before construction begins and after it is completed. “We have talks – which we call toolbox talks,” says Masalaba. He is the safety officer at the library site.

“Induction means training people, telling them about risks and the work they are expected to do.”

Masalaba explains all workers are meant to disclose any medical conditions they might have, before they are employed. “Some of them are afraid,” he says. Most of them do not reveal all their illnesses.

“They think they are going to lose work,” says Masalaba. “But occupational health safety requires that all workers are medically examined.”

His job isn’t confined to building safety – Masalaba also interacts with the workers. “We have meetings every Friday, it’s a way of monitoring the workers.”

“They tell us if there were any problems they encountered this week, problems regarding work and external problems, like bosses giving them a hard time.” He began his job as a mediator between contractors and employees in 2008.

“People are able to tell me their problems. When you communicate with people, you can see which of them doesn’t work very well because they have problems.”

He walks around the site reminding workers to wear their hard hats. Sometimes he gives them a reprimand for walking through a “no entry” doorway or for working with earphones in their ears. Quintin Joordan is the contracts manager at the site, and he believes it’s natural for workers to deviate from the safety rules at times. “It’s something you have to enforce,” he says.


A worker wears a safety mask to protect himself from dust.


The induction process is a way of ensuring that everybody on the site is educated about safety. Even visitors are given a brief induction and an indemnity form to sign. As Kgomokaboya says: “Once you get into the entrance at the gate, you’re on site.”

Eldricks believes he is experienced enough to know about safety risks. “If I see something is unsafe, I tell my friend ‘Heita, don’t go this side’,” he gestures. The women are given similar instructions – Mothlali says she is told not to go near the theatre, for example, where the work is particularly heavy duty.

“It’s not safe for the ladies,” she warns. “Or even for the men!”

Induction is only part of the training workers receive when entering into construction. Sometimes other forms of training are given to provide them with more skills.

Skills for the future

“As a contractor you must provide training skills, you must train workers in certain jobs,” says Kgomokaboya. “Like here: some of them have been trained to operate certain machines or to be plasterers.”

There’s an allocation in place for these training procedures. “So that when the project finishes, most of these people have got skills. They can go forward and find more employment,” Kgomokaboya says.

Workers who have formal training, like Kevin Banda, are an asset to the site. “I finished plumbing school in 2001,” he says proudly. “But now my dream is to work in a government institution.” He points in the direction of Johannesburg Water on Harrison Street.

“It’s difficult to get that job,” Banda says. He believes this is because he is from Malawi and didn’t have formal schooling in South Africa.

Even those with formal schooling have to work hard, as Edward Ramorolo believes. He is studying construction management at the University of Johannesburg.

“My two older sisters did not go far in terms of schooling, so they are just looking for jobs. I’m the only one who went this far.” He is from Limpopo and, like so many others, he came with his family to Gauteng in search of work.

Ramorolo joined the renovation halfway through its completion. “But I can’t complain on how it looks compared to other buildings that I’ve seen being renovated.”

Mathews on the roof

Mathews Kgomokaboya on the newly renovated roof of the library.

Regenerating the CBD

Renovations of the library are not just a facelift for the outer building but also an upgrade for what goes on inside. “Technology is always developing,” Kgomokaboya says. “The library was using those old technologies. So I believe there was a need for the library to come up to standard.”

The library was built in 1935, and it stands on the corner of Fraser and Market streets. “It is the oldest and biggest library in Jo’burg,” says Joordan. “It’s a figurehead for the library department.”

The concept of renovation and upgrade isn’t new: inner city regeneration is happening all over the Johannesburg CBD.

The aim is to make the inner city liveable and accessible for workers and students, tourists and shoppers and all kinds of people.

“We’re only now starting to appreciate the enormity of it,” says Joordan. He believes there should be even more building renovation around the inner city.


Piles of bricks are piled at the bottom of the front steps of the library. The building has been undergoing renovation since 2009

The city of golden opportunity

For the workers the process of regeneration is in the background. The inner city has given them the opportunity to work and make a living to provide for their families. But they still have a part in the process, even if it isn’t noticed.

“Some of the work they do, not even I can do,” says Masalaba. “It doesn’t matter that they didn’t finish school. People on the ground – it’s them who do the job.”

Galland describes what he does after he finishes work for the day. “First and foremost – bath. You know how it is,” he laughs looking around at the muddy floors and holding up his sandy hands.

Eldricks insists that he doesn’t drink when he gets off from work. “I chill with my friends without drinking – because me I don’t drink. I only smoke cigarettes,” he admits. “That’s all I do.”

“I don’t have a lot of free time,” Galland says. “Quite frankly, I make a lot of free time.” He is modest about his abilities.

“Where we have to fit in we fit in,” he says. “Here [at the library] like a general worker, we have to fit in all over. So speaking of general work, we might have to fit in where most people can and cannot.”

“Work is work,” he smiles, disappearing through a newly erected glass door, back into the dust and noise.

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About Dhirta Jinabhai

Dhirta Jinabhai graduated with a BA in media studies and English literature from Wits University, before embarking on her honours in journalism. She has worked with online media and enjoys the production side of television. She has always been interested in the media and writing stories that highlight human interests.

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