Notes from the South (Part 1): A Johannesburg diary

taxi rank from above

by Ares Kalandides

Walking down the streets of Johannesburg in a conspicuously large group will of course attract stares. Here we are, a crowd of 22 with different backgrounds and skin colours (Africans, Europeans, Latin Americans) diving into taxi ranks, climbing up roofs and emerging out of oriental markets. Yet, we are not in Jo’burg to consume images: Our transdisciplinary team is here to look at spatial practices between formality and informality. On the one hand we are trying to understand the meaning of the terms (if there is any to begin with) and on the other to see how they can be operationalized in our own practical work or activism. The project, The (In)formal City, was initiated by the Goethe-Institut  and Inpolis in Berlin and is financed by the Robert-Bosch-Stiftung. Anne Graupner (26’10 SOUTH ARCHITECTS) and Alex Opper (University of Johannesburg) are the cooperation partners and hosts in South Africa.

The (in)formal city team

The (in)formal city team

“There is very little interaction in the streets, people just seem to be on a mission” is Hanna’s first reaction to Braamfontein. Hanna Niklasz is a student of geography at the Humboldt University in Berlin who, in the context of this project, has been researching different forms of appropriation of public space.  Indeed the area is dead on the Sunday evening the group first arrives. The only people around seem to be those who, loaded with bags and parcels, are getting on busses that will cross the border to neighbouring African countries later in the same evening. Tebogo Ramatlo, a student of architecture, in Johannesburg, recommends that we do the same: “Walk fast, with a purpose. Don’t linger on corners looking around like tourists. You will become easy targets”. I must admit that the feeling of insecurity has been very strong for me since my first visit to Johannesburg a year ago. It is hard to tell whether it is because of the numerous warnings we have received or whether I sense real threat around me. It is probably a combination of both. But for anybody coming from a foreign culture, reading the codes and norms behaviour in public space is a very difficult matter.  Our tools of interpretation come from our own experience and may be totally inadequate to explain what we see. It is probably correct to say that our behavioural common sense becomes less reliable the more foreign the other culture is. As Malve Jacobsen, another project participant from Berlin put it, “I feel very safe, although everybody tells me I shouldn’t.”

A former cinema, now converted into shops

A former cinema, now converted into shops

It was obvious from the beginning that we had arrived with clichéd images about what formality and informality meant – and where we should expect to find what. For example, both of the senior participants from Berlin, Dorothea Kolland and myself, were struck by the high level of sophistication in the organisation of the Maddulammoho Housing Association, which provides affordable housing in the Hillbrow area. Besides their obvious role as a landlord, Maddulammoho has put together intricate structures of interaction with its tenants. Following a “no eviction” policy the Association needs to ensure that it will receive rents in the long term. To that end, a dialogue begins before tenants even move in: in a series of workshops, Maddulammoho makes sure that potential tenants know exactly what they are committing themselves to.

Hillbrow and Hillbrow tower

Hillbrow and Hillbrow tower

In the same area, in the notorious no-go high-rise Hillbrow,  the Ekhaya Neighbourhood Association was founded with the slogan “Making Hillbrow your home”. The aim was to create a network of building owners (not-for-profit and for-profit), building managers, cleaning and security service providers, residents and commercial tenants, resident volunteers, public services as well as the local councillors. The association has created a series of social services that support and assist tenants with a vast array of challenges – childcare, substance abuse, professional skills or job seeking. Sport facilities (sponsored by the Dutch national football team) and the care for public space in the Association’s premises adds to an overall feeling of safety and good maintenance in a territory otherwise notorious for high crime. Ekhaya Neighbourhood Association (Ekhaya means “at home”) includes 22 buildings with approximately 12 000 inhabitants.

Arts on Main in the "Mabongeng" district in Jeppestown

Arts on Main in the “Mabongeng” district in Jeppestown

Saying that the city is full of contrasts would be a commonplace understatement. A visit to the “Maboneng” district in Jeppestown catapults the visitor into a completely different universe. In the heart of the area, in a former warehouse lies the multi-discipline arts centre Arts on Main. It combines studio, commercial, residential and retail spaces with several galleries. Around it, a developer that goes with the name of Propertuity has been acquiring and developing property since 2008 and by now owns 38 buildings. Alice Cabernet, strategic operations manager, describes their activities: “Propertuity develops mixed-use buildings that offer progressive, distinctive urban spaces for residents and businesses. Founded by 30 year old developer, Jonathan Liebmann, the company has contributed substantially to regeneration efforts around Johannesburg’s inner city”. Propertuity sells a distinctive, creative lifestyle pocket in the midst of a run-down and generally poor area, which functions as the “authenticity backdrop” for the project.  The above of course raises questions about displacement and the responsibility of different stakeholders (private developers, state, architects) whenever there is intervention at such scale. As many urban intervention projects, this too – although admittedly very interesting – feels strangely out of place. The way that different actors deal with a city’s past and its internal contradictions is very telling. How these will be treated in this district, branded by the developer as “Maboneng” (=place of light), remains to be seen.

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1 Response to Notes from the South (Part 1): A Johannesburg diary

  1. Pingback: Pick of the Day: African Cities and the Evil of Global City Development Paradigms « Places.

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