Notes from the South (Part 3): Crossing lines


by Ares Kalandides

(you can read part 1 here and part 2 here)

The instant you pass the turnstiles of the Rea Vaya you find yourself on the other side of the mirror. Rea Vaya, Johannesburg’s BRT (Bus Rapid Transportation system) is a parallel universe crossing the city from end to end; a glass world that engulfs the passenger in safety and order. The system was inaugurated in 2009, a few months before the Soccer World Cup in South Africa and its foremost aim was to transport visitors to the sports sites. In a city with serious mobility issues, the new BRT was a very ambitious undertaking that was supposed to help solve the transportation problems for all citizens and visitors in the long term. The system was already tried out in Latin America (Curitiba, Bogotá etc.) and was adopted in Johannesburg despite some serious criticism. It is very different from the Metrobus (the pre-existing bus system) and the mini-bus taxis. Both of the others are more popular and cheaper means of transportation that also cover a much larger territory, in particularly linking many of the peri-urban settlements (where people live) with the inner city (where people work).

There are physical and symbolic elements that mark the protected space of the BRT:  a rather pricey fair and of course the hard materiality of the turnstile on the one hand; high quality materials (glass, stainless steel, stone), select graphic art as well as a series of prohibitions (no eating, no begging, no music etc. s. image below) on the other.

Multiple prohibitions märk the symbolic entrance to safe space

Multiple prohibitions mark the symbolic entrance to safe space

Since the bus runs on a reserved lane, the feeling of the passenger is one of being hurried through a dangerous outer world. Quite on the contrary, a trip on the Metrobus (and even more on the mini-bus taxis) plunges you into the real world of the city, with its diversity, poverty, vibrancy and dangers.  And one more thing: we were the only whites in any of those means of transportations. Whites (and probably Indians)[1] use their private cars. “I find it shocking that everybody finds it normal that the city is unsafe”, comments Hanna Nicklasz, a geography student from Berlin who has joined The (In)formal City project. “ I feel safe in the BRT or in the Braamfontein area or in Mabongeng, but unsafe almost everywhere else.”

The clean space of Rea Vaya BRT

The clean space of Rea Vaya BRT

Maboneng (s. previous post here), as the area it is branded by the developer behind it, is indeed a very special case. The “precinct”[2] in the midst of popular Jeppestown is another well-protected space, albeit with softer borders. There are signs hanging over streets or painted on walls, marking every entrance – even from a distance. There are (private) guards placed in the street at the interface with the rest of the city. They’re supposed to stop criminals (and I suppose also beggars) from entering, but they are very real gatekeepers. The fact that private security is guarding public space seems to be just a legalistic detail.

Writing on the wall marks the entrance to Maboneng

Writing on the wall marks the entrance to Maboneng

Almost back to back with the guards a different kind of gatekeeper made sure we would know we’re entering another territory: no longer had we (a group of 5) passed the invisible line between Mabongeng and Jeppestown, two young men made their appearance out of a semi-ruined building full of trash asking us (in a friendly way) where we were going, only to let us pass with a wave of their hands. Only 15 minutes later we found ourselves into a situation where that transgression became almost dangerous.  Jhono Bennett (a local and part of our group) tried to avoid a beggar by saying that “we don’t have any money with us”, only to get the menacing answer “all white men have money”. Before we could walk faster a larger group started following us, forcing us to take a sharp turn back into “safer territory”, where they stopped tracking us.

equal_rightsShocking as the event was, it was another proof that frontiers, formal or informal, do exist and out intuition usually tells us when we are crossing them. There are multiple signs that our brain processes whether we are aware of it or not. In a city like Johannesburg, traumatised by its Apartheid history and the ensuing hatred, divided by extreme inequality and marked by abject poverty these territories are more than just abstract spaces: they become contested and protected areas where the “other” is excluded in much more than just subtle ways.  As an outsider, I cannot even begin to understand the mechanisms behind it.

[1] These racial contributions are official definitions in South Africa and not my choice

[2] I use the word precinct in quotation marks, because I have borrowed it from the developer who calls it so

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