Staking a claim: mining Johannesburg’s new resources

Johannesburg is a space of intense paradox. It is a city where fortunes have been made, lost and made again; a place where lives are lived in glittering luxury and/or dire poverty. The state is both absent and present; residents are visible and invisible, profoundly connected to each other and in states of intense disconnection, leading parallel lives.

Kim Gurney’s series of articles (see end of post for links) on Johannesburg touches on a number of these issues, providing a set of vignettes around the city’s culture, public space, inequities and governance. Furthermore, and most interestingly for me, Gurney examines the governance of Johannesburg through the lens of the capital city debate, highlighted by Bekker and Therborn[i], where it is shown to be a site of the manifestation of symbolic importance as well as a landscape signifying the national government’s power “over” rather than “power to”. She also discusses the Gauteng City-Region Observatory’s (GCRO) findings around the dissatisfaction that so many residents feel towards the state and the importance of inequity and inequality.

My aim in this piece is to extend and push the boundaries of Gurney’s articulate observations by suggesting a way of understanding some of the issues that she notes. I suggest that key to understanding how Johannesburg “works” is by using the mining analogy of “staking a claim”, a pun I could not resist given Johannesburg’s gold rush origins. I also want to “speak back” to Partha Chatterjee’s notions of political and civil society[ii]  to piece together these disparate themes and to try and start to make a case for understanding Johannesburg, as not just a fragmented, post-Apartheid city, caught in a “neo-liberal” trap, but as a highly desirable space. A space in which residents constantly contest, battle and push to mine the resources, and make lives for themselves in the city.

This piece is divided into four sections: a reaction against some of the existing writing on Johannesburg and cities of the global south more generally; an observation of current statistics arguing for the continued desirability of Johannesburg; a provocation arguing that to live in Johannesburg is to live in a set of paradoxes; and lastly, an articulation of the modes of mobilisation and claim-making and claim-staking in Johannesburg that are required to live in a site of such paradox. This is not to argue for a Johannesburg exceptionalism. Much of what is picked out about Johannesburg could be equally apparent in many other cities in the global south and increasingly in the global north. Rather, the aim is to explore and understand what is happening in Johannesburg, how it is being understood, and how that resonates with some international writing on similar urban contexts.

A reaction: Pirates, predators and prostitutes

Much of what has been written about Johannesburg seems to locate the city and its residents in a dim and wallowing light of “deception”, piracy and nihilism. Nuttall and Mbembe see the cityscape of urban Africa as ‘fractured, colliding, and splintered orders of urban life’[iii]. Furthermore, Simone describes cities like Johannesburg as what he calls ‘sites of evacuation’, in which everyone “wants to be elsewhere”.[iv]  Thus there is no planning and no long-term agenda setting because everyone wants to be somewhere and someone else. In such circumstances social relationships become instrumentalist, fleeting, and deceptive. However, Roy[v] goes on to question Johannesburg and South African cities in general, asking: “Is it not a contradictory and yet beautiful thing that the splintered (post)apartheid city allows a space, a fragment, for the hyper-mobile, the outsider, the pirate, the urbanite?” I would argue that many of these portrayals fail to capture some of the key aspects of Johannesburg and I am unconvinced that they typify the daily experience of most Johannesburg residents.

An observation: Desiring Johannesburg

The characterisations mentioned above seem to ignore the desirability of Johannesburg. To put it in perspective, Johannesburg has grown by more than 1.2 million people over the last decade, which indicates an annual growth rate of 3.18%[vi] . In real terms it means that the equivalent of more than the entire population of the Northern Cape has moved to Johannesburg in ten years. The growth is a result of both large-scale internal migration and cross border migrants evidenced by the fact that Gauteng has the largest percentage of non-citizens in the country (over 7% – the next closest is the north-west with half that number).[vii] The Census has not released data by main place yet and thus it is uncertain as to exactly how long people are staying in Johannesburg, although the fact that there is a net increase and net migration increase seems to indicate that not only are people coming but they are also staying. Thus the idea of a hyper-mobile group wishing to be elsewhere does not seem to be the case. In fact, the majority seem to be exactly where they want to be, and evidence suggests that many Johannesburg residents want to stay. The real question, to echo Therborn and Bekker and Mabin, is how are people living in this large and growing space within a situation of limited resources and state capacity?

A provocation: to be a resident of Johannesburg is to be caught in a paradox

Although the authors referenced above note that to live in these situations is to live in a paradox, I think we need to extend the understanding of what that means in terms of everyday practise. Gurney usefully signals a number of moments of paradox. The Spines exhibition pointed to the precise issue of disconnect/disjuncture and simultaneously intense intimacy that is so much a feature of the city, whereby the existing inequality mentioned in Gurney’s piece on the GCRO’s quality of life survey is made manifest. And, as Sassen[viii] and Scott et al.[ix] point out, world-class cities and global city-regions become the sites of an unequal symbiosis in which there is enormous dependence of low income workers on high income professionals and vice versa.

The dependence is in domestic work, care-taking, cleaning and unskilled labour, without which the city would not be able to function; in turn, lower income earners rely on the tertiary sector and its workers for their livelihoods. However, the moments of connection do not extend to the social and public realms, and the inequality is expressed as a set of parallel life experiences, where spaces are not shared and where there is little engagement outside of fragmented moments of economic exchange. How exactly this is manifested in Johannesburg and the moments of intersection and disconnection is a rich vein of work that still needs to be adequately mined.

What is clear from current research is that spaces that could be sites of engagement (i.e. those in the public realm) are set further and further apart as public space becomes privatised through Improvement Districts[x], gatings[xi], and modes of securitisation[xii]. Simultaneously, and in a further paradox, the private becomes public as shopping centres, privately owned, managed and controlled, become the new sites of public performance.

The last paradox is perhaps also the most significant, and relates to the nature of the state in Johannesburg. In this case, the state is highly present and consistently absent, which also speaks to the fact that the “state” everywhere but specifically in Johannesburg is not homogenous and is itself fragmented and contradictory. Thus my own work[xiii], as well as the forthcoming study of Perneggar[xiv] and others, points to a situation where in the very same space, the City can be overly controlling and virtually non-existent.

An example has been that of the inner city of Johannesburg, which has attempted to evict and relocate inner city residents through a number of units such as Departments of Economic Development and the Johannesburg Development Agency’s (JDA) Inner City Task Force, but the City’s Housing department has yet to develop a housing strategy which can house the very same residents. Thus the inner city dwellers of what Wilhelm-Solomon calls “Dark Buildings”[xv] are both the objects of an intense gaze and the subjects of none. There are multiple examples across the city. Such a situation then begs the question: how does one live in such a paradoxical space? There are many answers, but the one that will be addressed here briefly examines the multiple strategies that households undertake to live in a city of state paradox.

An articulation: Modes of mobilisation in Johannesburg – speaking back to Chatterjee

Thinking of the state as heterogeneous and as present and absent is to then consider the multiple ways in which Johannesburg residents behave in order to stake their claims and access resources to live in the city. A useful place to start is the work of Partha Chatterjee[xvi], who suggests that poor people who live in situations of informality, illegality and extra-legality are denied access to the formal instruments of the state, such as the court, city officials and bureaucracies, which he terms “civil society”. As a consequence they are forced to utilise intermediaries such as local community leaders, party political workers and community organisations as a way of accessing the resources of the state. He terms these activities as “political society,” access to which is leveraged through favours, nepotism, corruption or votebanking. Since these groups are “illegal” or “informal” the rules are then “broken or bent” to accommodate their needs. Furthermore, the needs of these groups are not seen as rights-based claims but rather as welfare and entitlements.

Evidence from Johannesburg around the manner in which residents access resources both resonates with Chatterjee’s work and contradicts it. The moments of resonance become clear through the nuanced works of Winkler[xvii] and Benit-Gbaffou[xviii], which indicate that many poorer households in Johannesburg have little if any access to the formal mechanisms of the state, and are excluded from many of the participatory planning processes which are entrenched in policy. Thus there are clearly exclusionary practises that are disallowing poorer residents from entering civil society. Furthermore, evidence suggests that corruption and access through networks is rife in accessing resources, such as housing, from city government. Sinwell’s[xix] and Meny-Gibert’s[xx] clear narratives of housing allocation in Alexandra, Lehae and Chief Mogale, and Bawa’s[xxi] lovely ethnographies of water access in Soweto provide insightful accounts of how access to councillors provides the necessary pathways to gain resources. However, there are two trends in Johannesburg around access and provision which do not fit with the duality that Chatterjee points to.

Both of the cases revolve around the point that poorer South Africans and, in particular, Johannesburg residents are making clear rights-based claims on the state, either through public action and social movement or through litigation, both of which are embedded in the rights-based discourse. A great deal has been written on social movements in Johannesburg and will not be repeated here; rather the rights-based litigation, which has become a clear feature of Johannesburg’s claim-staking modalities, will be briefly explored.

The case of litigation provides a clear example of a situation in which the poor, illegal and informal communities of Johannesburg are able to access “civil society”. Wilson, Dugard, Ray and Tissington write about socio-economic rights litigation in various fora[xxii] and expertly describe the processes of exclusion from formal political processes and the rights-based claims that have consistently been used especially around housing rights and evictions. My own work and that of the aforementioned authors, suggests that litigation has had a profound impact on the ability of Johannesburg’s poorer residents to access the state, make claims and in its most positive incarnation aid in city-shaping and making processes.

However, what needs to be further unpacked are the moments of articulation between the various strategies as social movements move between and betwixt different strategies, responding to the responses of the state.

Journeys through staking claims

Gurney’s journey through some of Johannesburg’s key issues and concerns provides a starting point for beginning to understand what it means to live in a city that is at once desirable but difficult, problematic and paradoxical. Her observations lead us to begin to think about how we can understand the different modes of provisioning that residents use to be able to live in such a space and where Johannesburg is located theoretically, as well as how it conforms in many ways to international theories of governance but still offers profound new insights into the nature of claim-making and stake-claiming in the global South.

Margot Rubin is an urban geographer with a particular interest in urban governance, housing policy and implementation and human socio-economic rights. She is currently completing her PhD in the Schools of Political Studies and Architecture and Planning  at Wits University on the role of the apex courts in urban governance, comparing Delhi and Johannesburg.

Read Kim Gurney’s series of articles on Johannesburg, written for Urban Africa‘s reporting project.

The real issue is not poverty, it is inequality

The changing and challenging face of African capital cities

Transport routing the spine of city culture

Art and the Public Interest: A view from Joburg’s Premier Public Art Gathering

Image via wikipedia.


[i] Bekker, Simon, and Therborn, Göran, 2011. <
i>Capital Cities in Africa: Power and powerlessness. HSRC Press.

[ii] Chatterjee, Partha, 2004. The Politics of the Governed: Popular Politics in Most of the World. Columbia University Press.

[iii] Nuttal, Sarah and Mbembe, Achille, 2005. A blase´ attitude: a response to Michael Watts. Public Culture, 17(1): 193–201 and Mbembe, Sarah and Nuttal, Sarah, 2004. Writing the world from an African metropolis. Public Culture, 16(3): 347–72.

[iv] Simone, AbdouMaliq, 2006. Pirate towns: reworking social and symbolic infrastructures in Johannesburg and Douala. Urban Studies, 43(2): 357–70.

[v] Roy, Ananya, 2007: The location of practice: a response to John Forester’s ‘Exploring urban practice in a democratising society: opportunities, techniques and challenges’, Development Southern Africa, 24(4): 623-628.

[vii] StatSA, 2012: Statistical Release, StatSA, Pretoria,

[viii] Sassen, Saskia, 2005. The global city: introducing a concept. Brown Journal of World Affairs, 11 (2). pp. 27-43

[ix]  Scott, Allen J. John Agnew, Edward W. Soja, and Michael Storper. 2001. “Global City-Regions.” Pp. 11-30 in Global City-Regions: Trends, Theory, and Policy, edited by Allen J. Scott, John Agnew, Edward W. Soja, and Michael Storper. New York: Oxford University Press.

[x] Peyroux, Elisabeth, 2008. City Improvement Districts in Johannesburg: An examination of the local variations of the BID model. In R. Putz, ed. Business Improvment Districts. Passau, pp. 139–162. Available at:; Peyroux, Elisabeth, 2006. City Improvement Districts in Johannesburg: Assessing the political and socio-spatial implications of private-led urban regeneration. Trialog: A Journal for Planning and Building in the Third World., 89: 9–14. Available at:; Peyroux, Elisabeth, 2012. Legitimating Business Improvement Districts in Johannesburg: a discursive perspective on urban regeneration and policy transfer. European Urban and Regional Studies, 19(2): 181–194. Available at:

[xi] Landman, Karina, 2008. “Editorial – Special issue: gated communities, Urban Design International, 13: 211-212; Landman, Karina, 2008. “Gated neighbourhoods in South Africa: an appropriate urban design approach?”, Urban Design International, 13: 227-240; Landman, Karina, 2007. “Defensive architecture: the story behind the gates and walls”, Architecture South Africa, May/June:14-15.

[xii] Katsaura, O., 2012. Community Governance in Urban South Africa: Spaces of Political Contestation and Coalition. Urban Forum, 23(3): 319–342. Available at:

[xiii] Rubin, Margot., forthcoming: The role of the apex courts in urban governance: a Delhi-Johannesburg comparison, Unpublished PhD thesis (Urban Politics), Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg;

[xiv] Pernegger, Li. 2012. City of Strife: Early insights about agonistic service delivery in Johannesburg. Planning Africa 2012 (Growth, Democracy and Inclusion: Navigating Contested Futures), 17-19 September. Durban.

[xv] Wilhelm-Solomon, M., 2010. ‘Humanitarian crisis close to Home’. Mail & Guardian [online], 14 December 2010.

[xvi] Chatterjee, Partha, 2004. The Politics of the Governed: Popular Politics in Most of the World, Columbia University Press.

[xvii] Winkler, Tanja, 2006. Kwere Kwere journeys into strangeness: reimagining inner-city regeneration in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. University of British Columbia. Available at:; Winkler, Tanja, 2011. Retracking Johannesburg: Spaces for Participation and Policy Making, Journal of Planning Education and Research, 31(3) 258–271

[xviii] Bénit-Gbaffou, Claire, 2007. Local councillors: scapegoats for a dysfunctional participatory democratic system?: lessons from practices of local participation in Johannesburg. Critical Dialogue: Public Participation in Review. 3(2), 26-33; Bénit-Gbaffou, Claire, 2008. Are practices of local participation sidelining the institutional participatory channels? Reflections from Johannesburg, Transformation, Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa, 66/67, 1-33; Bénit-Gbaffou, Claire, and Tawa Lama Rewal, Stephanie., 2011. Local Democracy in Indian and South African Cities: A Comparative Literature Review, in I. Hofmeyer, and M., Williams (eds.), Rethinking the South: South Africa and India in the 21st Century. Wits University Press, Johannesburg, 176-196.

[xix] Sinwell Luke, 2009. Participation as popular agency: The limitations and possibilities for transforming development in the Alexandra Renewal Project. Unpublished PhD thesis (Development Studies), Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; Sinwell, Luke, 2010: The Alexandra Development Forum (ADF): the tyranny of invited participatory spaces?,  Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa,74:  23-46

[xx] Meny-Gibert, Sarah, 2012: ‘Living together separately in the new South Africa’: the case of integrated housing in Mogale City and Lehae, Public Affairs Research Institute and the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, Johannesburg

[xxi] Bawa, Zainab, 2011. Where is the State? How is the State? Accessing Water and the State in Mumbai and Johannesburg, Journal of Asian and African Studies, 46: 491-503.

[xxii] Wilson, Stuart, 2009. Breaking the tie: Evictions from private land, homelessness and a new normality, South African Law Journal, 1974(3),270-290. accessed 20.06. 2012
; Wilson, Stuart, 2011. Litigating Housing Rights in Johannesburg’s Inner City: 2004-2008. South African Journal on Human Rights on Public Interest Litigation, 27,127-151; Wilson, Stuart, 2011. Planning for Inclusion in South Africa: The state’s duty to prevent homelessness and the potential of meaningful engagement, Urban Forum, 22 (3),265-282; Wilson, Stuart, and Dugard, Jackie, 2011. Taking Poverty Seriously: The South African Constitutional Court and Socio-Economic Rights, Stellenbosch Law Review, 22(3), 664-682; Wilson, Stuart, and Dugard, Jackie, forthcoming: Constitutional Jurisprudence: the first and second waves, in M Langford, B Cousins, J Dugard and T Madlingozi (eds.) Symbols and Substance: The Role and Impact of Socio-Economic Rights Strategies in South Africa, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge; Ray, Brian, 2008. Occupiers of 51 Olivia Road v City of Johannesburg: enforcing the right to adequate housing through ‘engagement’, Human Rights Law Review, Advanced Access, 1-11; Ray, Brian, 2009. “Engagement’s Possibilities and Limits as a Socioeconomic Rights Remedy” accessed 20.12.2012; Tissington, Kate, 2008. Challenging inner city evictions before the Constitutional Court of South Africa: The Occupiers of 51 Olivia Road case. Housing and ESC Housing Rights Law Quarterly, 5(2). Available at: accessed 20.12.2012.




Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply