Wits City Institute / JIAS Seminar and Exhibition

What Does Spatial Transformation Mean?

Wits City Institute Honorary Research Fellow Melissa Myambo convened a seminar to bring scholars from the humanities and spatial disciplines into conversation with urban developers and local government officials to address issues related to the City of Johannesburg’s historically-conditioned spatial politics.

2 June 2017 / JIAS Univeristy of Johannesburg 

Words: Elizabeth Pienaar

Image: Nocebo Bucibo Shisa Nyama, Alex Hostel, Johannesburg, 2016.

Speakers offered robust and varied perspectives on Johannesburg. The objective was to consider the critical concerns as they existed, and to posit potential solutions. The programme was divided into four parts, with a photographic exhibition Invisible Borders: Cultural Time Zones in Johannesburg and New Delhi to open proceedings, and a round table discussion, moderated by Melissa Myambo, to close.

Critical concerns dealt with chronic structural problems, historically conditioned spatial politics, and the way in which inequitable global forces influence the city. Much focus was given to Maboneng, a gentrified part of the old industrial edge of Johannesburg. Laura Burocco reviewed the major property developer in Maboneng’s approach to urban regeneration as an engine for economic development and social progress. The promises of collaboration with the poor that were displaced in the regeneration process – and the supposed improvement of their circumstances, were not satisfactory. Burocco proposed that gentrification was merely a new form of middle class colonialism. She noted that the lifestyle that is sold in these gentrified areas ‘has no dialogue with the reality of the people who originally lived in the area’. She saw no inherent benefit in the gentrification of Maboneng except to insert Johannesburg into the ‘global economic creative circuit’. Economic inequality, she suggested, was aggravated.

Brittany Birbeck presented her study of a family who have held their ground literally, in the inner-city neighbourhood of Jeppestown, for close to 90 years, enduring through the apartheid legislation by miraculously obtaining a permit that allowed them to ‘occupy’ their stand. The family used the ambiguous wording in its broadest definition, running a shop on the land, and living behind the shop. In enduring, the family has become a significant owner and developer of Jeppestown, and also an important employer of extended family members, South Africans, and migrants. Through the lens of this family, Birbeck focused specifically on the tension between work and housing, and the perpetual shortage of both, in a city that has drawn migrants for 130 years and more. In doing so she honed in on a third way of development, neither driven by government nor large business, but by the quiet determination of residents.

Noëleen Murray talked about ‘new geographies of exclusion’ and ‘landscapes of wealth’ in the context of the contests over land belonging to Rand Mines Properties, to the south of Johannesburg. She discussed the merits of unplanned envelopes within the greater urban environment, and suggested that enclaves could be richer and more representative of a community than an imposed master plan, the example being the ‘dream’ development planned in the late 1960s and early 1970s for Rand Mines in Ormonde. This development framework remains an important example of large-scale planning undertaken by private capital. However, as most of the plan was never executed, except in Ormonde, Murray suggested the real impact of the project was felt in the subsequent work of the principal architects and planners involved. What actually unfolded in the area earmarked for the grand plan, was a series of unplanned, ad-hoc private developments, pockets of mixed zoning, and still, a fairly unfinished landscape. The area is home to a concrete factory, an extensive bargain shopping mall, an entertainment venue (Gold Reef City) that has become a much-loved a Johannesburg institution, and an iconic museum (The Apartheid Museum), but remains plagued by what Murray terms ‘architectural depthlessness’. Murray further addressed how contemporary notions of ‘urban transformation’ might relate to what actually is, and how contemporary visions of the future enable or disable the concept of a plan.

Ndangwa Noyoo and Mzwandile Sobantu brought the perspective of social development and social work respectively, to the discussion. They suggested that ‘voluntary housing’ would be the legitimate way to approach a true decolonisation of the city. The practical aspects of such a solution were not addressed.

Jonathan Cane contributed a lighter view of ideology in his paper on nostalgia in Braamfontein, a gentrifying enclave on the edge of central Johannesburg, close to the University of the Witwatersrand. He looked at the intentional way in which design romanticised the past. While one might argue that this is the nature of all nostalgia. The example of Kitchener’s Carvery Bar was an interesting one, in which the restoration asks us to reference a notorious British Army officer and colonial administrator who was universally loathed and brought profound suffering to large segments of the southern African population. In this example, Cane drew attention to what we in reality reference when we restore and reconstruct supposedly historically accurate bits of the past: while we see decorative wrought iron, he suggested instead ‘extractive Victorian capitalism, cultural and economic imperialism’ and worse.

Romain Dittgen posited a reading of Johannesburg through its Chinese urban spaces. These enclaves of Chinese capital suggested the direction of urban economies in general, and the interplay between local and global, formal and informal. While immigrants the world over sometimes live in enclaves, Chinese immigrants in Johannesburg have often chosen to enclose their entire neighbourhoods, reflecting a high level of fear.

Melissa Myambo returned us to Maboneng with her study of hipsters/millennials as the new frontier of gentrification globally. She playfully indexed certain ‘global’ foods such as red velvet cupcakes and quinoa, in areas of gentrification, as markers of a certain globalised 21st century lifestyle. She suggested these gentrified urban areas are part of a set of global ‘cultural times zones’ inserted into vastly different urban spaces throughout the world. It is possible therefore, for travelling millennials to place themselves all over the globe but never be displaced, as they hop from one cultural zone to another. Myambo explored the permeability of the borders between these ‘global’ cultural time zones and the ‘local’ zones, whether in Jeppestown, Johannesburg, or in Khirkee Village in New Delhi.

Jill Weintroub discussed her battle to prevent a ‘security closure’ – the gating-in of an existing suburb to prevent ‘undesirable’ through-flow of pedestrians and traffic, supposedly to make the suburb safer. The upmarket ghetto-isation by choice, has numerous unintended ramifications, not only at practical planning level but also for notions of neighbourliness, the sense of community, and increasing feelings of disconnectedness. Nonetheless, it was also a reflection of the times, where even nations believe that building a wall to keep out ‘the other’ can make them safer.

The second part of the seminar challenged participants to explore potential solutions for Johannesburg urban sprawl, including transport initiatives, the City’s Corridors of Freedom redevelopment initiative, efforts to green the economy, the provision of social housing, and public-private partnerships.

Alexandra Applebaum discussed geographies of inclusion as envisioned through the Corridors of Freedom plan – and the resistance that has been encountered from middle class residents to the ‘renegotiation of the social contract’. Resistance to the city implanting a social housing development in the midst of middle class areas, has been fierce. The City claims to be facilitating better access and newly-improved transport nodes for poorer residents, through such densification. While the City claimed to be creating ‘mixed use’ areas, and rectifying ‘spatial injustice’, it had clearly been caught off guard by the militant and negative reaction from the middle class residents involved. Applebaum discussed how affected residents of Norwood viewed the City of Johannesburg’s plans – as an attack on their vision for the suburb. She discussed the methods these residents have used to fight the City – such as formal objection processes, ‘threatening’ the state, and individual crusaders. She acknowledged that the city had underestimated the organising power of these residents, and would need to ‘engage with middle class residents’ and bring them into a ‘shared vision’ if solutions to Johannesburg’s ‘geographies of exclusion’ were to be successful.

Luvuyo Dondolo looked at apartheid-era urban areas, and the spatial development framework created by racialised capitalism in the form of satellite townships – the prime example being Soweto and Johannesburg. He examined how this form of planning was used as a tool of suppression and control, including curtailing the free movement of people. Nonetheless, such separation inadvertently created a strong sense of political identity and unity. He discussed the re-conceptualisation of Soweto through the ‘heritagisation and muesumification’ of the ‘usable’ past – how the same apartheid-era planning could be given a new meaning by the historiography of the liberation struggle. Sites such as Vilakazi Street and the Hector Pieterson Museum have become heritage sites and part of heritage routes memorialising significant events. He cautioned, however, that such ‘heritagisation’ is deeply trapped in partisan politics.

Margot Rubin discussed ‘Conceptual versus Daily Practices in Spatial Transformation’, in the Corridors of Freedom project. She gave a brief history back to 2013, when then-mayor Parks Tau announced the enormously ambitious project as a way to ‘restitch’ Johannesburg using transit-oriented development. This was to be the primary tool to transform the city into a much more ‘efficient urban form’. Extensive corridors of public transport would link urban infill of greater density and offer improved public amenities in which to walk and cycle. The hope was that a physical transformation would enable greater social cohesion. Rubin discussed ‘continuities’ and ‘disconnections’ between the vision of Corridors of Freedom and the implementation thereof, and aimed to track the factors that were both enabling and disabling to the birthing of this ambitious plan. She noted the complex interests and agendas of the many stakeholders who were part of the implementation process: the various departments within the Johannesburg City Council, civil society, and private property developers. She suggested that the uneven implementation of the project had roots in the failure of the City to embed the project, and create consensus across the various constituencies; the lack of clear detailed planning; a legacy of mistrust between the City and various urban players; and the institutionalised structure of the City of Johannesburg itself, which hindered holistic and coordinated planning. She drew on studies, interviews and surveys over the past 18 months, using four case studies along the Corridors: Marlborough South, Westbury, Park Station, and Louis Botha Avenue, assessing the project in an international context, and in the regulatory environment.

Aidan Mosselman talked about urban regeneration underway in the inner city of Johannesburg. In nine months and 57 interviews with tenants living in social housing in the city, he explored the experience of lower income families living in the post-apartheid city. In one word, their experiences were ambiguous, and this was due to the complicated regeneration process itself. These tenants are benefiting from their proximity to transport and employment opportunities, unequivocally confirming the importance of affordable inner-city housing to improving the lives of the city’s poorer inhabitants. Despite this, inner-city life is hard and seen as a last resort. He talked of ‘severely restricted geographies’ resulting from a fragmented planning process. The regeneration process is private sector-led, and therefore did not form part of an integrated vision and spatial restructuring plan for the city. This posed harsh questions about the effectiveness of the Corridors of Freedom project. Private sector-led regeneration, Mosselman suggested, has limited capacity to effect deeper spatial change because its main concern remained profit. He pointed to the way many of these developments are run – with stringent security and access controls which may make tenants ‘feel safe’ but are also used to ensure rental collection. In summary, tenants in the inner city have changed a previously segregated city. But as new forms of belonging emerge, so too do new forms of alienation and marginalisation, thus leaving the process, at best, an ambiguous and contradictory experience.