Conference themes

Post-apartheid Johannesburg contends with glaring disparities in close physical proximity- gated and electrified suburban residential affluence stands within ten minute driving distance of dense inner-city neighbourhoods teeming with street life, informal commerce, and movement but still largely regarded as no-go zones by suburban residents. Late-model luxury sedans zoom through ribbons of freeways and bypass roads while the majority of city residents face an unsafe and inefficient commute in minivan communal taxis. Huge shopping complexes dot the urban landscape and offer an insular, patrolled, luxury-brand-espousing reprieve from the uncertainty of both perceptions and realities of Johannesburg crime and chaos.

Both formal and informal business leaders seek out new markets and search for riches in the City of Gold. While bankers and representatives of the world’s most profitable and known multinational corporations have a strong and visible presence in Johannesburg’s glittering northern suburbs, enterprising street vendors hawk fruit and counterfeit brand-name accessories at suburban intersections. Building projects balloon at an intense pace, while hard infrastructure in electricity and water struggle and stretch at the limits of capacity.

Understanding Johannesburg’s particularities and potential requires an exploration of urban identity-making after the demise of an infamous political system that by definition, excluded and marginalized the majority of city residents through law, isolation, and racially defined housing and labour policies. Thus, the new crafters of Johannesburg’s identity- city politicians, architects, skilled and unskilled migrants, and residents from a huge diversity of ethnic, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds- are continually confronted with apartheid’s legacy in the face of largely segregated residential neighbourhoods, the fear of communal and non-commercialized public space, a lack of means to safely and effectively traverse suburban neighbourhoods and sprawl by foot, and new patterns of migration injecting a rich African cosmopolitanism into the Johannesburg mix. Traditionally, cities develop an inner ring of housing as accommodation close to the inner-city for lower-income workers. Apartheid planning reversed this norm, and contemporary Johannesburg features the spread outward of both impoverished informal settlements and middle-class frontier towns deep within suburbia.

Johannesburg’s push to acquire “world-class African” status is mired with controversy along the way. While the city and pockets of visionary private developers aggressively pursue inner-city re-development (after the dramatic near collapse of the inner-city Central Business District in the 1990s), suburban building projects, replete with pseudo-Tuscan moats and escapist Balinese themes, increase in velocity and geographic spread. Does the city require a re-developed inner core modelled after European urban centres or do Johannesburg residents prefer the overt capitalism, excess, covered car-parks and sprawl of Sandton and its northern satellite towns as an alternative suburban-urban centre? Does a world-class African city require an indigenous and authentic style of architecture or are copies of shimmering skyscrapers and resort-town gated housing complexes more fit for world-class status?

Even an attempt to track Johannesburg’s changing demography and population composition is a difficult and contentious task. Johannesburg, as South Africa’s largest and most dense city (containing 7.2% of the nation’s population with an average density of 1,962 people per squared kilometre), has been the recipient of ever-increasing numbers of migrants looking for labour opportunities in Africa’s financial powerhouse. While this large number of in-migrants raises Johannesburg’s youth population, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, at epidemic levels within Gauteng, threatens and is already proving to drastically reduce the working-age population now and in the long-term future. The city is both growing and shrinking.

Johannesburg’s communal life features attempts by the public to assert itself from within the private. Nelson Mandela Square, an offshoot of the most visible shopping mall on Johannesburg’s skyline, offers art exhibits and concerts in a private piazza ringed with restaurants and boutiques that are more widely attended than the concerts and galleries resident in the inner-city. Private security guards outnumber public police officers at a ratio of 2.58 to 1 (a quick and significant increase from 1.05 to 1 in 1997). The debate over the efficacy and legality of boomed and closed residential suburbs continues unabated.

The key paradox of the most utilized mode of “public” transport is the private ownership and control over minibus taxis. All other modes of public transport, except for minibus taxis, receive extensive public subsidies although minibus taxis carry 72% of all public transport passengers in the city on a daily basis. City efforts to re-conceptualize, regulate and create a truly public transport system are hampered by an affluent fear of losing control, wasting time and risking personal safety by trading in a private car for a bus or train ride. Still, the lack of a democratic and integrated public transport system reduces the potential for interaction between different socio-economic strata of Johannesburg on a daily basis. The great unifying potential of public transport, as in the underground system of Washington D.C. and the extensive integrated transport network of London, remains elusive in Johannesburg.

Johannesburg, city of extremes, is a continental hub of financial transaction and cultural innovation. The pull towards private control of movement and access is tempered by new patterns of migration and evidence of increased urbanization. While new signs of affluence amongst black Johannesburg residents superficially suggest a redressing of apartheid’s pernicious influence, outcomes of massive income inequality appear to be growing. 613,000 more individuals now occupy squatter shacks (6% of the total population) since 2000. 2% of households in the top quintile of income assessment acquire a third of all income earned in Johannesburg. Strikingly, 33% of households in the bottom 20% of income assessment hold only 1% of total city income. Still, the lure of financial success and the promise of exposure to new ideas, languages, cultures and levels of service, drive the flow of people and capital into Johannesburg.

Author: Ilana Ron