Under African Skies Coda: The White European

Diepsloot from above

Diepsloot from above

by Ares Kalandides

It is not without a certain degree of apprehension that I wrote the five short blog entries about my experiences in Johannesburg last week (see here for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th). Here am I, a white European male, observing and writing about a foreign (formerly colonial) culture with the tools of vivisection. I don’t think I was alone in my uneasiness. As one of my hosts said – and meant as a compliment – “you are not at all what we expected”. During my stay I heard horror stories about French architects who prepared their designs for the informal settlements in their Paris studios before coming down for a week or two to see them implemented; or about those Swedish students who were thinking of how they can make Johannesburg function a bit more like Stockholm. It is a wonder I was welcome at all in the first place.

A shop in Diepsloot

A shop in Diepsloot

I heard the word Eurocentrism several times during my stay as a thing to avoid. What is Eurocentrism, except of course for the obvious, i.e. taking Europe as the centre of the world? For me it means taking Europe as the best possible social system and projecting its (quite real) success to the rest of the world. First of all, which Europe are we talking about? That of the Scandinavian welfare state model? Of the British road to neo-liberalism? Of the Mediterranean South or of the peculiar post-(pseudo)socialist republics of the East? Already trying to impose the north paradigm to the south of Europe seems to be leading to a disaster, how bad can it get if we try to apply that to the rest of the world? If new geography has taught us one thing, it is that we need to take place specificity very seriously. Places have their own trajectories, and though these may be interlinked and co-dependent, it is important to remember that they remain, if not singular, certainly unique. In regard to South Africa, I lack the intellectual tools to really understand what is going on there. Using northern European sensibility to explain it is very limited. I’d rather start asking questions with the clear consciousness that even articulating the question is context specific. Keeping that constantly in mind let me try to finish this series of blog entries with some reflections.

(In)formal Settlements

A creche in Diepsloot

A creche in Diepsloot

What I found surprising was the high degree of organization in informal settlements, at such a level that the word “informality” loses its sense. This organization takes place at different levels. Physical space, which seems random to the naked eye, follows a particular kind of logic. What is built where fulfils particular functions for the inhabitant and the community. There are schools, shops and all kinds of facilities in the settlement, which an eagle’s flight (and the planner’s gaze) over the settlement will fail to reveal. Then, there is organization at a community level. There are several initiatives, some at grass-root level, some facilitated by NGOs or other external actors and some from the state, that try to improve people’s lives inside the settlement. The Diepsloot Arts & Culture Network is just one of these networks. It has been bringing together 170 artists from one of the largest settlements in Johannesburg (Diepsloot) since 2008. After starting a database to register local artistic talent, it has initiated cultural projects, has organized festivals and carnivals, facilitated school arts programmes and a lot more. In the settlement of Marlboro I was also astonished at the democratic organization of the community. With the risk of eviction dangling over their heads for decades, they have managed to elect twelve representatives who negotiate with the city – sometimes “by forcing themselves into officials’ offices”. After meeting some of the elected community leaders I realized how profound their knowledge of structures in the settlements and at the state level is. Of course, this does not mean that there were no reports (in every case I saw) of power abuse by the same leaders.

An art project in Diepsloot

An art project in Diepsloot

I will probably never use the term “slums” for these settlements, again (though I don’t think I ever did). Each one of the settlements I visited – Diepsloot, Marlboro, Innesfree, Ruimsig – was so different, as to even ask why they should be put in the same category. They differ in terms of age (some have been around for ever and some are newer), position (central or peripheral), ethnic mix (different cultural communities), gender relations (who does what and how gender power functions), active civil society (more or less organized), quality of public space, poverty, amenities etc. Even the degree of formalization and legality is very different from one to the other. Looking for the one answer that would solve all problems is arrogant and presumptuous. It can only be the deep and intense involvement on site that can yield any type of useful insight and I am not qualified to do that.

Life in Dieplsoot

Life in Dieplsoot

What I also found very interesting was the role of intermediaries or facilitators. These can have many different forms: NGOs such as Planact or CORC, artists such as Stephen Hobbs and Markus Neustetter of “The Trinity Sessions” or individual eterpreneurs such as Jennifer van den Bussche with her “Sticky Situations” initiative. Also, all architects I met, Alex Opper from the University of Johannesburg, Anne Graupner and Thorsten Deckler of “26’10 South architects”, Jhono Bennett and Sumayya Vally from “1:1” or Thireshen Govender from urban works see themselves in that position. None of them pretends to know “the Truth”, but all of them enter the field with open minds, creative attitudes and respect for those involved.

Formality vs. Informality

The taxi rank in Diepsloot

The taxi rank in Diepsloot

Most examples from this study trip show that the boundaries between formality and informality are very fuzzy. The organization of the Johannesburg taxis is one of the best examples I have found to illustrate this: Minibuses, or shared taxis, are the most popular means of transport in Johannesburg. They travel from taxi rank to taxi rank, following a more or less standard route, taking on and dropping off anybody on the way. A taxi rank (see my blog entry here) may be simply a meeting place for taxis on an empty plot or a city-built structure at several levels. The taxi businesses are organized in associations, some of which function in very opaque (some say mafia-like) ways. Outside peak-hours (early in the morning and again in the afternoon), especially in the more peripheral townships, the taxis just stand around doing nothing. During the busiest hours, they are full with a bustling crowd of hawkers selling drinks, fruit, detergent or toilet paper. There are no timetables and not always signs. If you want to know where to take a taxi you ask, you get in and the taxi will depart when it’s full. There is space for approximately 12 people in four rows, but I have experienced “full” also meaning 18. Nothing so surprising here, until you need to figure out how to stop a taxi in the street. There is an elaborate system of hand signs, depending on where you are and where you’re going. You need to stand on the side of the street, hold your fingers the right way and wait for the first taxi that has enough space to take you. You can download these hand signals here.

Some of the taxi hand signals

Some of the taxi hand signals

Payment is also well organized. You pay from the back to the front. Row by row passengers gather the fare and, mentioning the number of people that pay, hand it forth. You’re supposed to hand it on to the row in front of you repeating the same number, until it reaches the driver. Change will move in exactly the opposite direction. I did not experience the slightest problem in handing over the money or getting back change. The next thing you need to know is how to get off. Again there are codes that you shout to the driver from behind: “short left” the most common, means “drop me off anywhere on the left” or, more cryptic, “after robot” which simply means “after the traffic light”, etc. This would be a fantastic example of how the market manages to organize itself without regulation, if it weren’t for two things: the mafia-like organization of the associations and the rather inefficient way taxis have of standing around the whole day with nothing to do. As the architect Thireshen Govender says: “It would be great to think of other uses for them as they stand around. They could be shops, banks or post offices”.

Inside the taxt

Inside the taxi

The main story for me here is something quite different. Is the taxi system formal or informal? And what about the high degree of organization in the settlements? At such a level of sophistication, can we really use the term “informality”? I have the feeling that we have created a Fordist idea of “formal” as being a world standard, and anything that lags behind this ideal situation we consider “informal”. What if there is no such thing? What if every phenomenon we research had characteristics of both? Being a European who combines experiences from the North and the South of the continent, I am very sensitive to these clear-cut divisions. I cannot answer these questions here, but I would like to keep my mind open for varying possible answers.

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1 Response to Under African Skies Coda: The White European

  1. Carlos says:

    EXCELLENT!!..there are some similar urban behaviors in Colombia, but I wasn’t aware until I red this.

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