by Ares Kalandides
Minibuses (taxis) are the main means of transportation in Johannesburg. Everyday, hundreds of thousands of people use them to move from the townships to the city centre and back. Many of them are domestic workers or employees in the inner city businesses. The so-called “taxi ranks” are no more than huge stations, where minibuses stop to collect people. It really is the principle of the taxi: as soon as the first in the row is full it moves on and it’s the next one’s turn.
Most of the taxi ranks were not planned, but were created over time, when minibuses met in the available inner city spaces to pick up their customers. Around these meeting-points a market flourished: it was an opportunity to sell goods. With a large number of people passing through them at peak time, there was space for tiny individual merchants to sell their fruit, vegetables and several small items for the daily need. People pick up what they need before they enter the bus to go home. Although most merchants sell almost identical stuff, there seems to be enough customers around, at least at peak hour, to be worth the time.
In an attempt to organize the taxi rank the city built a real station in three stories with facilities for taxis, with merchant stalls and even small kitchens. Trying to get sidewalk sellers out of the way and regulate their businesses has been a very central issue in many cities. But informal business move again next to the now formalized taxi rank. In an empty yard on the other side of the street, there is now a car-service for those who need it., including an open-air butcher who caters the market kitchens. All in all, the taxi ranks, with their mix of regulated and unregulated functions are buzzing hubs of everyday life in downtown Joburg.
My work in Johannesburg involves a research on different forms of informality in the townships of Johannesburg and examine what lessons can be learned from them for northern European, in particular German, cities. I am very grateful to the Goethe-Institute in Berlin and Johannesburg for organizing my trip and to the Robert Bosch Foundation for funding this research.
The concept of informality is not a very straightforward one. In its broader sense, which is the one used here, it refers to all practices that are not institutionalized at a state level. There is a general agreement that between informal and formal practices there is no clearly defined boundary, but that they are interconnected through complex relations. Informal practices may include:
- Not centrally planned urbanisation and housing: This may comprise slums, townships, “favelas” etc., but is not limited to them. It also refers to any projects to improve the living conditions in them
- Self-organized projects in public space: community-building through cultural projects, educational projects, urban gardening etc.
- Squats and occupation of public or private space
- Social urban movements: actions by groups of people who demand their “right to the city”
- Subsistence economy, i.e. producing goods for one’s own consumption; exchange economy, i.e. exchanging goods or services without money involved; spontaneous (non centrally planned) markets; etc.
The questions of the research include:
- How can we classify different forms of informality?
- What is the motivation behind them?
- Who are the players behind informal practices?
- How is the relation to space?
- How are informal and formal practices interlinked?
- How do institutions react to informal practices?
During the study week in Johannesburg I will visit various projects in the above fields and report on them on a daily basis here.