Johannesburg: Transient City

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Janine Adank introduces her piece on the changing nature of Joburg.

 “As a general rule, cities are always experienced in space but studied in time. In other words, cities historicize space. As sites where the duration and depredation of objects, persons and memories take place in time, cities are haunted by their own histories. In this way, they not only stretch across time but also extend through space.”

(Murray. M, 2008 quotes Patke. R, 2000)

During the height of Apartheid, Johannesburg’s CBD, once the preferred location for corporate offices, retail commerce and high-end entertainment, began to lose its affluent audience. In the late 1970s the larger scale corporations relocated their offices out of the city centre in search of “highest profitability” (Murray. M, 2008). This spatial relocation hastened during the 1980s and ultimately reached a crisis point in the 1990s. Alongside the deterioration of the inner city came the growth of the greater Johannesburg region namely, the “edge cities” Sandton, Rosebank, Randburg, Fourways and Kempton Park. White-owned businesses in the CBD joined the haste to relocate their industries to new facilities on the periphery seeking greater access to “the lion’s share of fresh capital investments” (ibid.) The production of this spatial reshuffling resulted in “a sprawling, polycentric landscape consisting of a galaxy of (these) rival ‘edge cities’ and rapidly urbanising cluster points arrayed around a historic urban core and connected by a vast traffic grid of multilaned freeways, corridor highways, and arterial roadways.” (ibid.).

The inner city was left in a state of stagnant decay, depriving it of the vibrancy that was once the “premier business centre of the nation.”(ibid.) The result of this left the CBD with an array of abandoned buildings, diminishing property values and a great deal of vacant space.

The changing inner city gave way to an abundance of enterprising newcomers and a chaotic urban landscape, described as a “volatile spatial configuration consisting of unstable boundaries, sharp and sometimes violent edges, colliding interests and widely dissimilar spaces.” (ibid.) The once shunned, marginalised people of Apartheid, soon took advantage of the shifting conditions and established themselves in the CBD, filling the uninhabited voids and “carving out tenuous shelter in the (…) decaying apartment blocks scattered in pockets around the central city.” (Rutheiser, 1999)

The legislation and policies of Apartheid restricted access into the city, reinforcing racial segregation and denying black people the right to live, own property or run businesses within the city. When the Apartheid system crumbled, the authorities were ill-equipped to handle the influx of the migrants pouring in from the surrounding rural areas, townships and bordering countries in search of economic freedom and housing close to work. Due to ‘white flight’ and its resulting lack of reinvestment in the inner city, property values waned. What ensued, however, were opportunities for the marginalised, allowing room in the city for small scale business initiatives, empowering traders, hawkers and self-made entrepreneurs to earn their keep and create a space for themselves.

Murray (2008) reinforces this, in his book ‘Taming the Disorderly City,’ suggesting that the urban space is utilised “in ways that facilitate their immediate survival needs” and that the “urban poor have transformed the cityscape-not through significant alteration of the physical environment but (rather) through a redefinition of it.”

This “steady encroachment of ordinary people on the officially sanctioned prerogatives of the propertied, privileged and powerful constitutes a formidable social force in its own right.” (ibid.)

Although a great deal of time has been spent focussing on why the city has fallen to ruin and analysing the causes of the secular failure of Johannesburg’s heart, effort must and is being directed to understanding the city’s contemporary context and the modelling of its future.

This post has been written by a Contributor to Urban Joburg. The views expressed in this post do necessarily reflect those of Urban Joburg. If you would like to contribute to Urban Joburg, view their guidelines:

Photo: a view of Sandton, Joburg’s new financial district. See full photo slideshow at urbanjoburg.

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