Changing Space, Changing City: Johannesburg after Apartheid

Editor(s) Alison Todes, Chris Wray, Graeme Gotz, Philip Harrison
Publisher Wits University Press
Year 2014

This book gets any resident or visitor of Johannesburg to perceive and re-perceive the city as we know, or don’t know, it. Once the reader gets past the initial intimidation of the 600-paged, 38mm thick book which weighs in at almost 1kg, they will find a worthwhile treasure. Well-timed for its reflective approach and intentions, 20 years post-apartheid, the collection forces the reader to think deeply and widely about parts of the city – both the familiar as well as those that one may never have been (or may no longer go) to, to consider data and trends that may not be self-evident, or to imagine the experiences of others in this complex and dynamic conurbation that over 4.6 million call home.

In summarising what the book does, an analogy that comes to mind is that of an orchestra. Imagine all the components of an orchestra being assembled into one space. This in itself is an extremely interesting and necessary first undertaking. One gets to behold the range and intricacy of the various instruments, sections, talents, sounds and emotions that go with each discrete part as well as with the various combinations of the orchestral parts. However, this particular orchestra (Johannesburg) never quite gets to play its grand city opus – full of the melodies, harmonies and concordant pleasures that transcend the parts. Instead one gets to behold complex and sometimes cacophonous unfoldings as the components try to find each other. Of course the question, at least for an orchestra, becomes “who is conducting?” This, however, is not something that the book seeks to resolve. The point here is that the ambition in pursuing the first important step of convening the parts is a laudable achievement.

The book clearly sets out the five contributions that it aims to make – i) a composite focus on the physicality, the materiality and the subjectivities of the city; ii) a presentation of new and robust empirical evidence and analysis of urban change; iii) a traversal across geographical scales from the macro, to meso and micro; iv) a focus on the role of spatial planning in restructuring the city; and v) advocating a more nuanced understanding of the processes of change and continuity in the dynamic evolutions of Johannesburg.

As an academic collection, the editors of the volume have achieved their ambitious objectives in a form that will certainly add value and efficiency to further scholarship on the subject. The three sections that present Johannesburg in terms of macro trends, its area-based transformations, and its complex spatial identities are informative and insightful. The scope of topics and authorship is vast and impressive, if a bit closed.

The book opens with a cartographic section presenting 52 plates of GIS maps and visualisations representing various data and trends in Johannesburg over time and space. The section, which one could spend hours poring over, is a treasure-trove for carto-philes and an important contribution in the context of scarce spatial analysis and monitoring. The Gauteng-City Regional Observatory, which has become prolific in delivering innovative and informative visualisations through their “maps of the month” and other analyses, shows its skills here, as do the capable spatial analysts at Wits University and the City of Johannesburg. One hopes that consideration and extension of this kind of focused spatial analysis of the city might help to further enrich and normalise the visual lexicon over time which will assist with ease of interpretation and sense making. This is important in the face of the “complex and bewildering transformations” (p. vii) of the city; otherwise the range of maps and styles can quickly become puzzling and overwhelming.

The lead-in section presents a strong rationale for the focus on Johannesburg and the volume’s approach in seeking to engage with Johannesburg in scalar, temporal, dimensional, and context-specific terms. The section reviews Johannesburg’s historical data and spatial trends, revisits key scholarly analyses and assumptions, and comments on the city’s qualitative shifts. It builds up a picture of complexity and nuance appropriately reflective of Johannesburg’s “unpredictability and heterogeneity” (p. 15) leading into the case chapters. One shortcoming here might be that although the book’s approach explicitly acknowledges the limitations of empiricism in understanding the city (p.20) and thus argues the importance of the qualitative and ethnographic work of Section C, for example, it does not seem to acknowledge other voices and knowledge forms in its survey of preceding works, and the only non-traditional academic sources referenced appear to be those of the editing authors themselves. Recognition of documented works and insights coming from other disciplines, political discourses, NGOs and CBOs, and so forth would probably have enriched the background.

The book has some notable strengths, in particular the insightful and knowledgeable analyses in the first sections by arguably some of the foremost experts in formal analysis of Johannesburg. The third section on identities is powerful and promising, but also the most difficult. The contributions in this section range from very personal to descriptive. It reflects the relative diversity of voices and styles, for example the refreshingly human perspective in the brief contribution by Caroline Kihato. Nqobile Malaza’s chapter on “Black urban, black research” raises important questions about the urban identity of Johannesburg’s majority black population and really seems to come too late. The author’s use of people’s voices and their experiences are valuable contributions to the current conversation about black urban identity. Why people feel they don’t belong in the city, or how they may feel that they are forced to conform to a particular, imposed form of city-ness.

If we are to get to a more human governance approach to the city, an even deeper understanding and introspection on these issues of urban identities told through rich ethnographies would be valuable. Without denigrating the work done, the scholarship of Archie Mafeje on urban epistemologies comes to mind, with his arguments about the importance of developing “authentic interlocutors” — for Africans to start producing their own ethnographic monographs. We need the diverse city actors to start telling their own stories, and evolve beyond always having others writing about them, which Mafeje argues limits depth of understanding and perhaps capacity to resolution (in this collection, the depth of insight in the Somali and Islam chapters, for example, is notable).

Some chapters make valuable contributions to important contemporary themes and discourses. The realities and complexities of the townships redevelopment conundrum, from expectations to interventions is an example. There have been mixed experiences, but generally the outcomes have been partial or untransformative at best. This explains the heightened levels of dissatisfaction and volatility in these spaces. A gap, however, seems to be in linking the realities of different areas across the city and to reflect on how this informs identity. Instead, the reader is left with the sense of distinct areas within the city, each with their own spatial identities. This separation of the spatial transformations and the spatial identities sections is probably not as distinct as intended. After all, the discussion for example in Harrison and Zack’s chapter on the Old South, which tells a compelling story about placement and replacement of immigrant sub-cultures, also relates to issues of identity. Yet several of the cases presented in Section C do not adequately engage with the spatial aspects of the identity question.

Further valuable contributions in the book include the chapter by Venter and Vaz about the impact of the BRT system in extending public transport access to underserved communities in SA as well as those by Dinath and Benit-Gbaffou which discuss the complex roles and interactions of key urban actors towards the prospects for effecting positive transformation. Mabin’s discussion of the northern suburbs which reflect how societal aspirations play a critical role in transforming the city is important for acknowledging pockets of integration in middle-class suburbs. However, he provides an important caution that we need to reflect on what this means for broader transformation across the entire apartheid city – which hopefully counters some perspectives that seek to presume that broader transformation is inevitable.

In this diversity is also perhaps a diversity of perspectives, as for example the chapter on informal settlements is preceded by Maryna Storie’s controversial comment of lifestyle, golf and security estates on the periphery of the city that “Although characterised by exclusive access to social and ecological spaces, these estates should not be discouraged outright as they present increased ecosystem service provision – in contrast to former township areas, which remain ecosystem-service poor” (p. 148-149)

An interesting potential for rethinking urban things and lexicons, for example Charlton’s chapter on the invisible waste pickers, challenges the meanings of concepts like “residence,” “commuter,” and categories like formal / informal in a context where waste-pickers earn honest livelihoods and provide an important service, while living under city bridges during the week, and travelling to more peripheral settlements to be with their families on the weekends.

There are inevitably also weaknesses and gaps identifiable, though many of these possibly speak to the usual limitations of an ambitious project such as this. The first of these is the limited number of ‘other voices’ outside of the academic context as highlighted earlier. Including the voices of other city actors may have strengthened the insights and perspectives of the book. Another weakness is the more descriptive and technical offerings by some authors which may appear sterile compared to others. For example, the contribution by Mokonyama and Mubiwa promises a discussion of the role of transport in the making of space but doesn’t actually engage with that. Instead it provides a narrow land-use and town-planning discussion that is very technical and difficult to understand; does not engage with the role of transport in transforming space, or the institutional dynamics around the sector. A similar critique is levelled at Makhetha and Rubin who pick up on the issue of shades of legality and their consequences in the inner-city trade scene, but barely begin to scratch the surface in a too-short piece.

A final critique is that the complex institutional, legislative and structural dynamics and challenges in urban governance are not fully engaged with in the sectoral discussions (on transport and settlements issues), although there is a general introduction in Todes’ chapter. The chapter by Ahmad and Pienaar is one of the few that reflects on institutional mechanisms and the role of other actors, such as the private sector and private individuals, in shaping the city and how it functions. They also highlight a critical component often missing from discussions about the urban — the issue of urban land and its complexities. Additional reflection on these realities would present another important layer to the complexity of understanding (and addressing) spatial change and continuity in South Africa’s cities.

The editors beautifully describe a purpose of the book as contributing towards “understanding contemporary processes of change (post-1994)… rooted in an understanding of historical processes, of how the past continues to shape the future, of how the past both lingers and is erased”(p.23). It also aspires to being a book that “will be used by those who are working towards better futures for the residents of the city.”

The book’s considered and structured presentation of explicit and subtle layers of information, representations and understandings about Johannesburg is indeed an important and valuable contribution to scholarship, to literature, and to Johannesburg. As illustrated through the orchestra analogy, however, a more pragmatic audience should be aware that the book neither seeks nor accomplishes any resolution of the “complex and bewildering” (p.vii) tapestry of Johannesburg that it lays out. Readers concerned with implementation or activism may therefore get to the end of the book feeling quite exhausted, excited and informed, but perhaps also puzzled about what it all means.


Geci Karuri-Sebina has been Executive Manager at SA Cities Network (SACN) since 2011. Prior to that she worked at the National Treasury, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the UCLA Advanced Policy Institute. She holds Master’s degrees in Urban Planning and in Architecture & Urban Design, both from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and a PhD (planning and innovation systems) from Wits University. Geci is a founding director of the SA Node of the Millenium Project, an Associate Editor for the African Journal for Science, Technology, Innovation and Development, and Foresight journal.

Stacey-Leigh Joseph is the Built Environment Programme Manager at the SACN. Before joining the SACN, she worked as a senior researcher at the National Department of Human Settlements. She has also worked for Isandla Institute, an urban policy think tank and the Public Service Accountability Monitor in Grahamstown.  She holds a Master’s degree in International Relations from Rhodes University.

Read older posts from this section

Leave a Reply