Time warp estate battles to hold clock back

Fierce rules, tough fines and a ferocious code of conduct keep the residents of this Gauteng paradise in order, while their tranquil way of life is under threat from all sides.

Joburg’s best-kept secret lies with only the N3 and the teeming township of Alexandra separating it from the hustle and bustle of Sandton City. Yet in the rarified time warp that is the “virtually crime free” Thornhill Estate the clock is kept firmly back: old tin-roofed houses set solidly on enormous tree-laden stands, numerous parks and public gardens, a stream and ponds with tadpoles and frogs, lakes and 1,600 open hectares along the boundary.

But from outside the wire, this bygone way of life is under threat. Nevada Group razed 290 pine trees from the wood around the Chapel of St Francis in the Wood to make way for its Flamingo Shopping Centre; there’s Balwin’s Eco Estate with its hundreds of upmarket apartments; property mogul Irene Tsai’s M&T Development has secret plans to pepper those 1,600 empty hectares with 30,000 high density homes; development has decimated the 900ha Modderfontein nature reserve, with its 280 species of birdlife, to just 230ha.

For some of the 513 households on beleaguered Thornhill Estate it’s all doom and gloom; for others the exciting march of progress. Either way, all the fuss and development outside has made it boom time in the old estate. Most of the 123-year-old houses have been revamped, in some cases razed and replaced – like the ponderous old 1940s arrival, a semi that’s going for an unbelievable R8.5m.

Thornhill stands are more than generous – 929m², 1,335m², 1,641m² are just some. And, you immediately notice, everything is immaculate – no unsightly washing hanging out to dry; no barking dogs or noisy kids; no pellet guns or quad bikes. That’s because it’s not allowed. There are a lot of Rules. You’ve got to behave yourself, or the homeowners’ trustees will be on to you.

Thornhill Estate goes back to 1895, when it was known as Hamburg Village, a collection of tin houses knocked up by the explosives giant now known as AECI to house workers it imported from Europe to work at their dynamite factory, in what was to become the small East Rand town of Modderfontein. The explosives were for the gold mines of the Rand, then two days’ journey away by cart. A 1,600ha safety buffer of empty land lay between plant and village.

13 Provan Road sold for R2.6m

Hamburg was for the German-speaking contingent. Tactfully renamed Antwerp Village during the Great War of 1914-18, it bears Belgian street names to this day: Brussels, Louvain, Bruges and Provan. Now it’s Thornhill and some of its residents, like 76-year-old retired accountant Keith Martin, grew up here. Martin’s father, a mechanical engineer from the UK, arrived in 1936. The family paid rent of £7/month to the company for tin-roofed 13 Provan Road.

Martin went to nursery school in the village’s church hall, later taking the school bus daily to Highlands North High School. “It was a very tight, nice little community with a very strong social club,” he recalls. “I learnt to swim in dam no 3 (now renamed Fish Eagle Dam) till they decided the dams were too toxic from the factory for swimming.”

In 1994 eight workers died when a massive explosion rocked the nitroglycerine plant in the dynamite factory. AECI moved to safer water-based products, reducing the need for the 1,600ha land buffer.

Thornhill, had become rundown. Wrecked cars littering neglected gardens and Heartland, AECI’s property wing, was hard pushed to get R150,000 for the old tin houses. But as the Joburg footprint expanded and families searched for new safe havens to rear their young, Thornhill began to revive. Keith Martin, for one, returned in 2002 and he and his wife Wendy built a new house on a stand by the stream that runs through the estate. A leading light in the Modderfontein Conservation Society, Martin bemoans the “massive” development now taking place all around, such as the eyesore of Fish Eagle View, now going up around dam number 3, “all three-to-four-storey high-density apartment units, cheek by jowl, with very little space.”

In retirement – he’s 76 – Martin keeps the books for the family’s school uniform business. He says most residents deplore the all-enveloping development. “Generally people are not empathetic. We bought here for the ambiance of the village and the estate with the dams and streams. The surrounding area has been drastically eroded.”

Martin marvels at the soaring house prices on Thornhill. The other day his old childhood home, 13 Provan, changed hands for R2.6m. “Quite amazing what houses are going for here,” he says.

Another returnee is Allan Bartram. His father was workshop supervisor in the AECI dynamite factory. Bartram grew up at 14 Thornhill Road and returned in 2005 after 36 years away, buying number 27. Cash-flush after selling his hydraulics company to Germany’s Hansa-Flex, when his old family home (number 14), with its 2,000m² grounds came on the market eight years ago, he picked it up for R1.35m. Now his daughter Moni and her husband Gerrit Caldo, who looks after Thornhill’s parks and public gardens, live there and Bartram reckons that even with no material improvements number 14 is worth around R6m. Last year, for good measure, he snapped up number 29, next door to his own, for R3.9m as an investment.

The story of Thornhill Estate came to Noseweek from Allan Bartram with a complaint that he and 32 others were being double charged by Joburg City Council for their electricity, with notices of termination if they didn’t cough up. Seems that when prepaid electric meters were installed inside everyone’s houses years ago the old conventional meters out in the street were left still ticking.

Recently the council decided to start reading them and sent bemused residents – all of whom were dutifully buying prepaid units – the bills. For numbers 14 and 27 Thornhill Road, Bartram faced demands totalling R48,178. The 32 others have been billed between R3,000 and R169,000, plus one luckless individual who’s been hit for R1,457,000. The dispute was unresolved as we went to press.

Now 67, Bartram admits his heart “almost skips a beat” when he looks back to the delights of growing up in what he calls “Modder Village”: learning to swim at dam number 1, the changing rooms there that became the Dynamite Café, with its “raucous” parties accompanied by Procol Harum, the Hollies and the Beatles. The café, he recalls, was the venue for “our first kiss and first drink taken within its safe walls”.

It’s really thanks to Allan Bartram that the Thornhill Estate is what it is today. Soon after his return he became a trustee of the then bankrupt Thornhill Homeowners’ Association (THOA) and ploughed his own money into revitalizing and reshaping the derelict open spaces.

Allan Bartram

Unhappy with the way things were being run by the board of trustees, he ousted the lot of them and took over as chairman, assisted by three fellow residents including Armour Gittings, who in office hours is the gimlet-eyed head of a special investigations unit tracking down stolen fleet cars at Avis SA.

Although no longer a trustee, Bartram’s name still adorns, as author, Thornhill Homeowners Association’s updated 23-page Code of Conduct, Rules and Regulations. There’s a six- page addendum listing 18 specific wrongdoings, with a schedule of fines and penalties. Not forgetting 20 more offences and their penalties for residents’ building contractors.

At times, it must seem to the sternly-administered estate residents that they’re living under house arrest, with only an ankle bracelet missing. The trustees are unrepentant. You will be required to “forego certain freedoms” if you want to be part of this “unique community” warns the Code of Conduct.

Here’s a taste of THOA’s sins and their penalties (fines are calculated as a multiple of the monthly levy, which is currently R1,474.10 for everyone). Dogs off the leash in public areas and excessive canine disturbance both carry a factor of 0.40, or R589 per incident; maltreatment of Estate wild and domesticated geese and ducks: up to R1,105; exceeding the 40kph speed limit: R442; malicious damage to fauna and flora: R1,105; illegal buildings or walls: R1,474/month until compliance.

Penalties are added to the levy, with interest for late payers at prime plus 9% – ie a hefty 19%. Those who don’t pay up, or who otherwise contravene Estate Rules, risk being denied entry at the gatehouse and having their biometric fingerprint access suspended. THOA relies mainly on the levy for its R8.9m annual income. In his financial report present chairman Stephen Burrow records only three serious arrears, “all of which are currently under legal process”.

As for residents’ building contractors, their daunting list of penalties includes a fine of R5,896 for every worker caught sleeping on site. For “undisciplined workers” it’s R1,105/worker. A note says the onus for payment of contractors’ fines rests ultimately with the property owner.

Under all-embracing Breach of General Estate Rules (fine of R589/breach), what really gets up the trustees’ noses are “Unsightly Objects” such as washing and mats draped over walls, garden furniture or fences. Such items must not be visible from the road or a neighbour’s garden, it is decreed. No person may keep more than two dogs and/or two cats without written permission. Pets found without ownership tags will be immediately “removed”. THOA may also demand the “removal” of a particular pet that becomes a nuisance.

Anyone wishing to repaint their house must ensure that the selected colour complies with the Estate’s official colour palette. No quad bikes or the discharge of pellet guns on any part of the estate. And there will be “NO tolerance or abuse (verbal or physical) of security employees.

Most residents, it seems, toe the line without complaint. “The rules and constitution I believe have been excellently designed with qualified lawyers for everyone’s benefit,” says an unrepentant Allan Bartram. “When I was chairman, the few who rebelled or complained are by far in the minority and often included the people who do bugger all, but when the fan is struck they are the first wanting help.

“In 2004 I arranged a reunion of old Modder residents. We had nearly 500 people from all parts of the world arrive – even my Grade 1 teacher. It was the most wonderful experience and to this day I keep the survivors of that time informed of events and deaths. That’s why I don’t really care for anyone who has an issue with me.”

Residents of the Thornhill Estate are mostly white. Bartram puts it at 95%. “Very few black people own houses here,” he says.

One of the few is Lindiwe Hani, daughter of assassinated South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani. “I think affluent blacks prefer places like Sandton and Bryanston where you get more modernity. Thornhill still has an old village feel about it.”

Residents were alarmed by a Chinese plan to build a mega-city nearby that would become 'the capital of Africa' - but it didn't get off the ground

The trustees’ biggest scare came five years ago, when AECI sold off that 1,600ha buffer between Thornhill and the old Modderfontein dynamite factory for R1billion to a Chinese development company. Hong Kong-listed Shanghai Zendai announced they were going to build an R84bn smart city along the valley linking dams number 2 and 3 that would eclipse nearby Sandton City and become the future capital “for the whole of Africa”.

But it never got off the ground. Zendai SA ran out of funds and with net liabilities running at R216m abandoned its lofty project, citing SA’s economic conditions, the uncertain future of the real estate market and fluctuations of the rand. But now the Thornhill Estate trustees are wondering whether they’ve tumbled from the frying pan into the fire. Last year the Competition Tribunal approved Zendai SA’s R1.8bn sale of the development asset to JR 2098 Investments, an entity controlled by M&T Holdings (owned by property mogul Irene Tsai and her family).

Part of this empire is M&T Development, responsible for swathes of high density apartments in Centurion frequently featured in HelloPeter for water bubbles in the walls, sagging ceilings, cracked walls and leaking showers.

M&T Development is believed to have plans for 30,000 high density residential units on those 1,600 Modderfontein hectares, though project head Leticia Potts says “It’s quite a big area and we haven’t finished all those numbers”. Relations between M&T and the apprehensive Thornhill Estate trustees have been strained and Potts takes our call reluctantly. How many units (starting price R699,000) have you built at Fish Eagle View? “I’m not sure,” replies Potts, who knows perfectly well.

Stephen Burrow, the bluff 57-year-old Scot and present chairman of the Thornhill Homeowners’ Association, eyes all this, as well as the emergence of Nevada’s Flamingo Shopping Centre with its strip mall and flagship Checkers at the estate’s entrance, with trepidation. He says the estate itself is “virtually crime-free” but hijackings and “horrendous” crime in the area is a worry. Burrow is particularly upset (“steam comes flowing out of my ears”) when he sees the multiplying piles of rubble dumped along the road as he drives to his offices in Craighall, where he works as a financial adviser. He appeals to residents for video footage evidence to catch the culprits – “but please don’t do anything that puts you at risk”.

The chairman’s still licking his wounds after losing a battle with Nevada to retain the old roundabout at Thornhill’s entrance, now replaced by – horrors – traffic lights. “So, traffic lights will be the order of the day as progress sweeps our suburb out of the backwater we have loved so much into a new, busy neighbourhood,” Burrow sighs in the estate’s newsletter.

His remaining hope is that along with all this unseemly progress, Thornhill will be “promoted by the powers that be as the heritage centre of Modderfontein”.

In the meantime, to bolster defences inside the wire, trustee and chairman of Thornhill’s security committee, Armour Gittings, has overseen the purchase of two new security vehicles, and the installation of high-beam lights along the 4.1km perimeter fence that encircles the estate.

In a massive operation, this entire perimeter fence has also been plinthed – great quantities of concrete poured under it to prevent outsiders from tunnelling their way into the strange world of the time warp estate.


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