M&G: Rich City, Poor City

Rich City, Poor City
Contrasts abound as the wealthy wall themselves in and the poor do everything possible to survive

Marie Huchzermeyer

(Jo’burg in Fact, Literary Festival 2012 Supplement, Mail & Guardian August 24 to 30 2012)

City of Extremes, the title of Martin Murray’s compelling analysis of contradictions in Johannesburg’s city building process, suggests a condition nearing its limit.

From a basis of well cemented, segregated minority privilege, the past 18 years have propelled Johannesburg into an intensifying display of wealth and desperation.

Gated or exclusive residential living goes hand in hand with public life limited to branded spaces. This, along with its substantial per capita footprint on the environment, has become the norm at one extreme. The environment is further strained by the mining industry on which the city’s wealth is built.

At the other extreme is the humbling display of an ability to come by on very little. Unbranded innovation, largely outside of the mainstream capitalist circuit, recycles anything from street signage and advertisements to roof sheeting or pressed ceilings. This produces precarious settlements abuzz with sound and public life.

Anton Harber’s Diepsloot captures the intensity of political and other interests embedded in the so-called reception area on Johannesburg’s north eastern outskirt, largely housing people evicted and relocated from informal settlements elsewhere in the city. Harber opens his narrative with a description of the drive to Diepsloot, past gated luxury estates, including the ‘most extravagant’ Dainfern.

Increasingly, these two extremes exist side-by-side. Johannesburg’s fastest growing informal settlements are in close proximity to rapidly expanding, gated luxury estates with growing demand for domestic workers.

A further contrast: at one extreme is the permanent, at the other extreme the ephemeral. While developers in the post 2008 economic climate must have an appetite for risk, their investments are not insecure. Informal settlements in turn are marked by uncertainty.

The Zevenfontein informal settlement, located for over two decades on privately owned land adjacent to Dainfern, today displays only the light footprints left behind by shacks. While it is commonly thought that Zevenfontein was relocated to Cosmo City, many of its residents were displaced into back yard rental or have found other precarious footholds in the city.

The threat of being uprooted and displaced, coupled with broken promises for a permanent home in the city, trigger street protests and blockades. These threaten to disrupt the seamless functioning of the city for its elites. Violent and repressive state intervention deepens the antagonism of the excluded.

One may ask: Can Johannesburg sustain growing disparity coupled with environmental degradation, or will the grand narrative of the next decades be one of the imploding city? Can the City Council’s strategies of growth and development stem the tide of discontent? Can it stabilize, if not reduce, the growing inequality?

Johannesburg’s future is in suspense. The uncertain anticipation adds to many layers of tension that capture another dimension of a city of extremes.

Tension marks everyday life in the city. Some experience this as thrilling and are attracted to the city by this very quality.

Innovative architect and urban designer Thiresh Govender has an intense curiosity for what makes this tense city work. Having travelled widely, he has chosen Braamfontein as a base from which to work, walk and attempt to find pragmatic solutions to some of the city’s problems.

Although tension may inspire the creative class, for most elites it reinforces a retreat to the secured enclaves. Ivan Vladislavic’s The Exploded View skillfully captures life behind these confines. The city is experienced from the motorway, and the near suicidal act of parking alongside a motorway and walking in the veld leads to the inevitable.

Yet the majority of Johannesburg’s residents do not own a car. They navigate the city with its tensions and contradictions on a daily basis. Through them, Johannesburg is experienced at a different pace. Public life on the city’s pavements and chance encounters in mini-bus taxies shape their daily reflections.

What attempts has the post-apartheid state made to provide public spaces where the motorcar owning elite could interact with those more accustomed with walking the city? Who designs these spaces, and whose culture and identity are reflected in this design?

Jonathan Noble’s African Identity in Post-Apartheid Public Architecture examines two iconic public spaces created in post-apartheid Johannesburg: Constitutional Hill adjacent to Hilbrow, and Freedom Square in Kliptown, Soweto. Analysing the processes involved in the making of these spaces, Noble draws on Frantz Fanon’s ideas of racialised identities and colonial subjectivities through the metaphors of masks and skin.

In the bigger narrative of a city of extremes, there is something that informal settlements, sensitive, creative and explorative inner city activities and public urban places have in common – they defy the productive demands on a capitalist city. But what are their roles in shaping the future of the city?

Govender and Noble are the panelists at the discussion of Cities of Extremes. Together with the audience, we will discuss recent books on Johannesburg and explore, debate and test the boundaries of understanding and representation of the city, its challenges and its prospects.

Marie Huchzermeyer is a professor in the School of Architecture and Planning, and author of Cities with ‘Slums’: From Informal Settlement Eradication to a Right to the City in Africa (UCT Press, 2011), Tenement Cities: From 19th Century Berlin to 21st Century Nairobi (AWP, 2011) and Unlawful Occupation: Informal Settlements and Urban Policy and South Africa and Brazil (AWP, 2004). She chairs the festival panel J’burg: Citry of Extremes. Session 6, Saturday September 1, 11.30 to 1pm, Market Theatre

Books mentioned above:

City of Extremes: The Spatial Politics of Johannesburg by Martin Murray (Wits University Press/Duke University Press, 2011)
Diepsloot, by Anton Harber (Wits University Press, 2011)
African Identity in Post-Apartheid Public Architecture: White Skin, Black Masks, by Jonathan Noble (Ashgate, 2011)
The Exploded View, by Ivan Vladislavic (Random House, 2004)