Lindsay Bremner

The city of Johannesburg, South Africa, is a multilayered landscape of intersecting, overlapping, and conflicting geographies, places and identities. Until recently, these were shaped, almost exclusively, by geological and political conditions, replaced today, by the dynamic of unbridled economic forces.
This reading of a number of episodes from Johannesburg’s history and observation of contemporary practices reveals the logic of its past performance and theorises the strategies of the present.

The geology of place

Like Isaura, Italo Calvino’s city of a thousand wells (Calvino 1974:19), Johannesburg’s visible landscape is conditioned by an invisible one. Under the low, parallel, east-west running ridges which make up its visible topography, lie layer upon layer of sedimentary rock. These include pebbly layers or conglomerates containing gold in abnormally high concentrations (Mendelsohn and Potgieter 1986).
In 1886, while building a house for a friend, Mr George Harrison, a builder by trade, made the first discovery of gold, in an outcrop of conglomerate lying close to the surface. Within a matter of days, 9 farms were declared public diggings, prospectors flocked to the site and the mining of the world’s richest gold reserves began.
Early miners found gold containing ore close to the surface in long outcrops, known as reefs, running east west along the valley floor. Mined in shallow trenches, these outcrops were soon exhausted. It became necessary to get down to deeper strata of conglomerate which fell away sharply to the south west. Shafts were sunk to the south of the first reefs and deep level mining began. In the process, unexpected difficulties presented themselves - deep level mining needed vast amounts of capital. It required machinery, water, infrastructure. It was also labour intensive, requiring large reserves of unskilled labour. Ore brought to the surface required elaborate machinery and chemical processing to extract the gold (Department of Mines 1959).
These difficulties and the measures taken to overcome them constructed the early contours of the city of gold. Shafts were sunk and new mines opened. The subterranean landscape was surveyed and mapped. Mining headgear, ore dumps, battery stamps, reduction works, slimes dams, railway lines, traced this underground geography onto the surface of the earth. Ridges and valleys were translated into a churning metallurgical landscape. Syndicates, consolidations and new financial institutions sprang up to bankroll mining operations. The grid of the city was laid out on a triangular piece of land between farm portions. Mining compounds, municipal locations and slumyards spread around its edges. The city soon became one of the world’s richest and most rapidly growing centres, attracting a global network of interest and capital.
>From its inception, Johannesburg was constructed in the image of Western modernity. Its building boom prior to the turn of the century drew on the Fin de Siecle European style, while the boom following the Boer War (1989-1902) produced monumental Edwardian buildings, consolidating the relationship between the gold mining industry and the British homeland (Chipkin 1993). The 1930's depression, which saw the abandoning of the gold standard in 1932, resulted in foreign capital flooding into the country and transformed Johannesburg into a little New York, or if not New York, then at least Chicago or Saint Louis (de Kiewiet 1966 in Chipkin 1993). By 1936, at the time of the British Empire Exhibition in Johannesburg, the city was described as the "largest and most densely populated European city in Africa" with "fascinating shops and smartly dressed shoppers" (Times Weekly Edition January 1936 in Chipkin 1993:105). It claimed for itself the status of "the Empire’s great gold center " (Rogerson 1996:141).
Straddling the source of its wealth, the 130km long gold reef, lay its prosperous business district and industrial suburbs. To the south the black working class were housed, temporary residents in the urban system under apartheid’s grand scheme of things, while to the north stretched leafy, white’s only, residential suburbs.

The geography of race

Early Johannesburg lay on a saddle of land between two ridges. It stretched for 13kms in an east west direction, criss-crossed by small water courses, the biggest forming a swampy hollow on the west of the town. Here the poorest inhabitants had been forced to settle, in what were known as the Kaffir and Coolie locations. These city slum yards were not only crowded and unsanitary, they were also sites of racial co-habitation. W.C.Scully, a visitor to the city was struck by what he called "slum warrens", housing "Europeans of various nationalities, Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Japanese, Kaffirs, and miscellaneous coloured people of every hue " (In Van Onselen 1982:39). The world the mine owners made was not, initially, a racially constructed one.
On 18th March, 1904, pneumonic plague broke out in the Coolie location. With military precision, steps were taken to eradicate it. The area was cordoned off and patients removed to a temporary hospital set up 12kms to the east of the city. Every house from which a patient was taken was evacuated, disinfected and closed, all rats in the area were exterminated and a "special team of scavengers" were sent in to remove and burn rubbish (Carr 1904:75). The entire population was relocated to an area 20kms to the South of the city where tents and latrines were erected and 3100 people rehoused. The old location was burned to the ground - a corrugated iron fence was erected around it, all animals were killed, belongings removed and disinfected and the place was fired, from the outside in.
While I am sure that many cities are haunted by the memory of such events, in Johannesburg, it introduced into the geography of place, a complex discourse of race, space and hygiene. When disease broke out, the extent of racial mixing was revealed - of the 113 cases of the plague, 25 were white, 55 Indian, 4 coloured and 29 black. Eradicating this curse articulated a racially based administrative and political practice upon a therapeutic practice. Race was coupled to hygiene as the master narrative of social control. Disease opened up the dark, impenetrable space of the slum and scattered its inhabitants across a colour coded landscape.
The emergency hospital erected to deal with plague patients modeled future practice. An enclosed 200 x 300m space, it was divided into two - one half for plague patients, one half for plague suspects. Each of these divisions was subdivided into sections for whites, Asians and blacks, which were further subdivided into sections for each sex. Separate bathrooms were provided for each race and each sex. In the words of the Rand Plague Committee, " The difficulties attendant upon the equipment of an infectious hospital in the Transvaal are as great, if not greater than found elsewhere. Provision had to be made for the Whites, Asiatics and natives of each sex, so that there were 6 different camps, each separated either by barbed wire or corrugated iron. This fact made every detail of management more difficult and inter alia more expensive" (Carr 1905:78). <
The administrative absurdities and inefficiencies of this space nevertheless permitted a detailed and precise tabulation of and control over the burgeoning population. The slum yard, a great heterogeneous space, governed by threatening "creolised practices and imaginations (Nuttal and Michael 2000:22) was obliterated. In its place, an administratively useful landscape of fixed spaces and identities was created. The subsequent development of the city charts the penetration of, and resistance to, this logic, in all aspects of social space and life. Education, leisure, alcohol, occupation, home - these and many more were discriminated on the basis of race. Mixed marriages, friendships across colour lines, socialising in areas not for one’s designated racial group - thousands of civil liberties were criminalized. By 1933, the whole of the city of Johannesburg had been proclaimed white and by 1938, most of its former black population had been moved South (Carr 1990). Pockets remained, soon to be dismantled by the Nationalist Party Government in their efforts to permanently eradicate racial contamination from society. Black people were reduced to being temporary, labouring sojourners in a white world. Their presence was a constant reminder that a creolised, heterogeneous world was only an administrative slip away.

The landscape of desire

I now turn my attention to a former rural area just to the north of Johannesburg, whose biography has become increasingly relevant in the changing political economy of the new South Africa (Carruthers 1993:8).For it is here, in former suburban nodes, that Johannesburg is being re-centred and its socio-political economy re-articulated. As the former centre has been abandoned through dis-investment, the former periphery has attracted that investment, its peripheralness seeming to offer a buffer against the messiness of the creeping urban decay associated with de-racialisation. This has meant that the city has been turned inside out, centre and periphery are reversed, centre and margin everywhere.
Sandton (City of Sand) was inhabited by hunter gatherers as far back as 30 000 years ago. In modern times, it came into existence at the turn of the 20th Century as a site of country estates and recreational activity for wealthy Johannesburgers. Leisurely pursuits like Sunday picnics, afternoon teas, duck shooting, fishing, hunting or gentlemen’s farming transformed it into the playground of the monied classes. In keeping with this, a ‘Lido’ was planned for the area in 1936. While its restaurant, lake, beach, paddling pool and sporting facilities never left the drawing board, another scheme did - Sandton became the site of South Africa’s first Grand Prix when its circuit was opened at Kelvin in 1937 (Carruthers 1993). The particular mapping of wealth, pleasure, consumption and the images of country life and the romance of Italy which have subsequently been woven through the Sandton landscape were beginning to emerge.
Sandton was proclaimed a city in 1969. It promoted itself as offering a "relaxed open air lifestyle" to middle class citizens (Carruthers 1993:66). Associated with wealth and leisure, this lifestyle attracted property developers in unprecedented numbers to its large open spaces. In 1975, plans of R16,5 million were approved by the planning department; in 1993, not 20 years later, this had increased to R650 million in one year. Town houses and office parks displaced small holdings and large residential stands. By 1997, the Johannesburg city centre had lost 17 of the 65 top South African company headquarters to these northern developments or to other cities in the country. Most were clustered around the Sandton City Shopping Mall, built on a consolidation of suburban stands in 1973, and which inaugurated, in South Africa, a new kind of shopping and a new kind of city centre - the car dominated, enclosed suburban mall.
In this transient, rapidly transforming, commodified space, fantasy, meaning, memory and desire converge around two prevailing themes - nostalgia for a lost suburbia and desire for authentic citiness.
Suburbia, that idealised interface between city and country, eradicated through aggressive development, re-surfaces in Sandton in the walled residential precincts to which its citizens retreat from the fast moving, car-dominated, hijacking craziness of the world they have created. Within the security of these walls, images of a domesticated nature (neatly clipped lawns, picture book waterways, golfing greens) and a corporatised community (communing around tennis, biking, walking, golf), offer continuity between what Sandton was and what it is becoming.
"Dainfern: country-style living in a secure natural environment"; "Tanglewood Theme Village tucked away in a secret forest setting"; "High Meadow Grove: gather beneath the trees and the great blue sky - take a walk, ride as bike, play squash, swim or simply enjoy a lazy day with friends in the village estate"; "Needwood: paradise regained, tranquil country living, completely self contained".
In this marketing hype, the images of who people think they are and where they would like to be are portrayed and endorsed.
At the same time, the public realms of this new city are almost without exception invested with meaning by being configured as little bits of Italy. Whether one is sipping cocktails in the lounge of the Michelangelo Hotel, favourite haunt of South Africa’s new black bourgeoisie, eating pizza in the piazza of Sandton Square, gambling on the slot machines in the permanent twilight zone of the Monte Casino or arriving home to one’s Tuscan townhouse, images of Italy proliferate, allowing one to pretend to be somewhere else. Consumption mingles with phantasy, with the magic, the allure and the romance of Italy. It allows the reality of this place to be temporarily forgotten. It externalises the Europe in each one of us.
Sitting in Sandton Square’s Fact and Fiction bookshop one afternoon, I witnessed a couple pouring over a travel guide to Italy, discussing their forthcoming holiday. More interested in food and what their Rand would buy than in architecture, art or history, the young woman expressed reservations about going to Italy in summer because the cities "smelled" at this time of the year - "I tell you," she said to her partner, "I smelled some pretty rich smells when I was there last summer". The Italy of Johannesburg’s northern suburbs does not affront in this way. Reduced to a visual metaphor, it allows people to live in their phantasy, to be in Italy, without the intrusion of smells, Italian traffic, real Italians or a falling Rand. The romance of Italy is constructed and experienced as an idealised cultural icon in the comfort and the luxury of home. It is infinitely preferable to the real thing.
Why Italy one might ask ? In a city with very little past and an uncertain future, investing in images of Italy achieves a number of things. Firstly, it confers a sense of history on this place. Never mind that it is not our history, it is probably a history we wish we’d had and one which distances us from the real history going on around us. The imported landscapes of Italy allow us to locate ourselves in an illusion of the historical while freeing us from the burden of having to be agents in it. We can simply act out an eternal present. Secondly, Italy is invoked as a representation of all that is civilised, urbane and cultured in the western world. By living our lives in Italianate spaces, they take on the qualities those spaces represent to us. We become civilised, urbane and cultured. Our nagging cultural insecurities, our anxieties about being or being thought to be uncivilised, parochial, barbaric or wild are silenced. Thirdly, in a city which, despite increased densities and corporate investment still maintains its suburban character, in a suburb desperately trying to become a real city, Italy represents all that is authentically urban. By borrowing its image, our city becomes a real city, it gains an urban heart, it is authenticated.

The architecture of fear

During the apartheid years, crime in South Africa was defined as crime against apartheid and criminality was confined largely to black townships. The state security system was designed almost exclusively to protect white South Africans. Horrific forms of violence were justified and not considered criminal by those waging the war on both sides of the apartheid divide. As this system has been dismantled and a new society reshaped, this violence has not disappeared. It has found new outlets in a widespread increase in all forms of criminal activity. Petty crime, organised crime, drug dealing, burglary, house breaking, armed robbery, assault, hijacking, rape and murder lace the Johannesburg landscape. Exacerbated by unprecedented levels of unemployment, it has become an intense network of violations, attacks, counter attacks, incisions and manoeuvres.
In 1986, while Soweto burned to the south, the first ever walled estate in South Africa was opened in the northern reaches of Sandton. Named Fourways Gardens, it comprised a walled precinct of 420 stands set in generous public gardens and incorporating a small game farm, home to African birds and buck. Its roads, lighting, water and sewer reticulation, garden maintenance, refuse removal and other services were managed by a home-owners association, through which collective control over each other, the use of public space and, most importantly, who could lawfully enter and exit the precinct, was exercised. In this innocuous civic-mindedness, discrimination was about to be re-enacted.
Buying into this precinct was not just buying a piece of land or a house. It was buying into a closed, homogenous lifestyle, a fortified space. In it, one could ensure that those with whom one came into daily contact would be more or less the same as oneself and that anyone unknown or different could be shut out. Accessing such an precinct required familiarity and identification; strangeness was criminalized and the terrifying possibility of casual encounter eradicated.
This set the pattern for things to come. The closed, homogenous, fortified space of Fourways Gardens has become the way of life for most middle class Johannesburgers. All over the city, walls, booms and security personnel transform parks, offices, shops, suburbs and entertainments areas into closed enclaves with controlled access. Citizens close off streets, wall off suburbs, incising whole neighbourhoods from the public realm. For those living inside these barriers, an either triumphant or regretful sense of security and communality is regained. Gates are left open, children play in the streets again, crime levels fall.
Those not so fortunate fortify their homes and businesses with walls, razor wire, electrified fencing, security gates, intercoms, concealed cameras and the human shield offered by private security companies. Low walls are raised and topped with spikes or glass chips. Razor wire ( a particularly cruel form of barbed with developed in South Africa for counter insurgency purposes ) unfurls around perimeter fencing. Designed to shock when touched, live electrical wires are mounted on garden walls; security gates transform home into prisons. Fortified against crime, their fear of the other contained, residents reconfigure their lost Eden through the logic of exclusion.
These new frontiers, woven through and carving the city into a myriad of enclaves, have constructed a new spatiality of fixed identities and logics of discrimination. Attitudes are hardening as experience of crime causes a retreat into the known and new rigidities in the definition of self and the other. While race is no longer privileged as the "master signifier" in these definitions (Nuttal and Michael 2000:12), increasingly homogeneous enclaves operationalise and render productive the fear of the other which haunts the South African psyche. Just as fear of disease opened up the creolised space of the slum and operationalised a racially based administrative apparatus, so fear of crime negates the potential spatiality of the newly democratised city, creating new separations and exclusions through the technologies of defence. Haunted by a fear of the heterogeneous, a new social landscape of fixed spaces and identities is being formed.


While in Johannesburg the operations of mining have long ceased and the geography of race been superceded, both are deeply embedded in Johannesburg’s psyche. Mining headgear, mine dumps and slimes dams loom over the city’s skyline, cutting a swathe through its heart. Silent, unused and sinister, their poisoned earth contains and absorbs the most rabid of the city’s crimes, the most cynical of its secrets . While apartheid’s spaces and identities have crumbled and race no longer provides the primary reading of the city, racial prejudices are embedded in the ‘market forces’ which are re-centering it. New practices have fixed memory and desire in old certainties.
In between these fixed encampments of desire and paranoia - the shopping centres, security suburbs, walled estates, office parks and the sealed capsules in which people move between them - lie ambiguous and ill defined public spaces whose very fluidity and a-territoriality is providing opportunity for other practices to emerge. These spaces - streets, roads, parks, highways - released from the strictures of apartheid are becoming spaces where new livelihood are being made and new experiences of the city lived. Individuals or groups are trying out, inventing new social or economic roles for themselves, trying to make the city work for them. Some of these are brutal and terrifying - car hijackings and cash in transit heists turn roads and traffic intersections into places of violent contestation. Others make visible the highly complex networks of small scale, informal, fluid social and economic associations and dependencies upon which an increasing number peoples’ lives depend. The very exclusivity of suburban enclaves, with their homogenous, sanitised reconstructions of idealised citiness, operationalises a metropolis without. Here people’s survival depends on the ability to move, select a location, network, group, regroup, on the anonymity and chance encounter which metropolitan life offers.
For instance, on the highway adjacent to Woodmead, a rapidly expanding retail centre in the north of the city, a woman has set up an outdoor restaurant, next to the spot where taxis stop to transport workers in the formal retail sector to and from nearby Alexandra township. She lives in an inner city suburb but commutes every day to this site she has identified as productive. Two or three other women work for her, preparing food at home or alternating with her on the pavement. Slightly to the west, snaking along both sides of a major arterial road, traders market their wares to passing traffic. Large scale curios, mirrors, furniture, garden umbrellas, instant lawn transform the road into a drive-bye showroom for casino visitors or executives returning home from work. Makeshift enterprises trace the paths of ambulant people looking for opportunities or travelling to and from work at almost every intersection in the northern suburban landscape. Small tables are set up under trees or awnings; from them, (usually) women sell cigarettes, sweets, bananas or tomatoes to passers by, engaging, at the same time, in child care, gossip, or a game of cards. Streets and roadsides serve as gathering places for domestic workers, where, instead of being trapped in isolated lives on their employers properties, they are able to engage in informal lotteries, supplement their meagre incomes with informal trade or simply share stories about their employers’ craziness. Church groups visibly occupy inner city parks on Sundays; wedding photography is a thriving business the day before.
None of these activities rely on fixed infrastructure, fixed locales or fixed investment for their survival. They simply claim space for a while and, if necessary, move on. A fine balance between stasis - staying in one place for long enough to be recognised, and mobility - the ability to pack up and move on, between necessity and contingency, between structure and event, constructs peoples’ relationship to the urban landscape.
Practices unfamiliar in the urban world have been introduced into this space. For instance, the intricate web of the maize trade on the streets of down-town Johannesburg overlays its quintessential colonial, modern urban grid with traditionally rural patterns of food consumption - women make fires in braziers, lay out raw maize on pavements, cook for passers bye, their colourful garments a contrast to the grey suits and ties of executives and government bureaucrats. Livestock is sold and chickens are slaughtered on the streets or in the apartment blocks of inner city suburbs. In a recent novel, Mphe (2001) describes the hold of witchcraft over the lives of recent arrivals in these suburbs, tying their lives in the city inescapably to the values and traditions of rural life. People in Johannesburg and other cities in Africa often live their lives in multiple locations. Their movements are increasingly cross-border, cross continent or even global (Simone 1998). Children move between parents, grandparents or friends. Sophisticated urban dwellers return to their tribal homes to undergo initiation rites, living as hunter-gatherers for weeks in the African bush before returning to ‘civilisation’. The idea of belonging in one location is foreign in a continent where the sense of being-in-the world is tied to the maintenance of links between multiple sites. The city in Africa, while arguably initially foreign (Adebajo 2000), has thus not disengaged people from their roots. It is simply another figure in the rich landscape of overlayed economic, social and cultural practices which constitute home.
These activities and others like them are transforming the city, remaking it, reinterpreting its found landscapes in new ways. Ordinary, everyday lives and practices of people excluded from the city by western urban management practices, town planning codes, the legal and administrative systems of apartheid or market forces, are, through their presence, transforming it into an increasingly complex multiplicity of overlapping and intersecting social, cultural and economic transactions. It is in the tracing and mapping of these, in the narration of their intersections, the telling of their stories, that new, provisional images of the future and new conceptions of a different politics are emerging.


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