By Anton La Guardia in Johannesburg
THE Johannesburg Stock Exchange which was born in a tent amid the city's early gold rush, is joining the stampede out of the crime-ridden city centre.
The departure of the exchange is perhaps the loudest gasp in the slow death of Johannesburg's old business and shopping heart. Like many other organisations, it will move next year to the northern suburbs.
There are now two distinct skylines to South Africa's financial capital. The cluster of skyscrapers in the old centre are grimy and decaying amid railway lines and abandoned mine dumps while the new glass towers of Sandton City, in the northern suburbs, are like resplendent jewels set in an expanse of oak and jacaranda trees.
There is also a racial distinction. In the new South Africa, the old city centre is becoming poorer and black, while Sandton remains overwhelmingly wealthy and white. City centre landmarks like the five-star Carlton
Hotel have been closed. Office blocks on what used to be prime real estate are bricked up and solitary except for squatters. Theatres struggle to survive.
Ponte, a distinctive tower of once expensive flats, is occupied largely by Nigerian immigrants and drug dealers. Its large illuminated Coca-Cola sign has inspired its nick-name, the Coke Palace.
The pavements of Egoli, or the City of Gold as Johannesburg was known have been taken over by hawkers and gangsters. Muggings are routine.
South Africa's murder rate is roughly six times that of the United States. A police study released last week showed that car hijackings had increased by about 11 per cent in the Johannesburg region this year.
The departure of the stock exchange which attracted much foreign capital into South Africa and contributed to the growth of Johannesburg as the country's financial and industrial centre, is now likely to accelerate the spiral of decline.
Few white-collar workers will have any regrets. "The city has changed dramatically," said Michael Taylor, a partner at Fleming Martin, one of the last stockbroking firms still operating in the stock exchange building. "There are no shops or restaurants left. You drive into the basement car park and leave at the end of the day. You don't go out to meet friends in the pub any more.
"Firms have to move if they want to keep staff. The departure of the stock exchange is no surprise."
At a time of transition from apartheid the stock exchange is aware that its departure will be seen as a vote of no confidence in Johannesburg, even unpatriotic.
Russell Lowbser, executive president of the exchange, said the move to Sandton was a "business decision". Most of the stock-brokers and other financial institutions had already moved.