How identity shapes Joburg


by Thomas Coggin of Urban Joburg

Our presentation from the Spatial Transformation of Cities Conference, 2014

Last week, we were invited by Designing South Africa to be part of a panel on how urban identity has shaped us as a city, a nation, and a democracy. Below you may find essentially what we had to say about this.

For us, democracy is ‘made’ in the city. If we accept that democracy is fundamentally about facilitating difference (whether this be opinions, ideologies, claims), then the city becomes the space in which that difference is exposed, challenged and fought over. It is also never finite – it is constantly contested.

Now, the celebration of difference has not always been so in Johannesburg, of course. If we were to start at its modern inception – when it was declared a city by a white settler – you see a rapid rise in population, and a rapid rise in various identities claiming various aspects of the city – whether this be the white gold prospectors of various nationalities panning the Witwatersrand, or the sex worker servicing a predominantly male city, or a Mozambican man navigating the particularities of a circumscribed mining hostel system, or a Chinese labourer visiting a Cantonenese eating house. As the city grew, so too did these various communities.


Then, fast forward to apartheid, and the various Group Areas Acts in the 1950s, which sought to specifically prescribe certain urban areas for certain groups. This often involved the destruction of urban areas, such as the famous Sophiatown that valued and embraced diversity, and the creation of forced townships and white-only suburbs that cemented Johannesburg as a fundamentally fragmented city.

It is the legacy of this fragmentation that remains today, and in fact is often implemented due to society’s continued fear of the other.Steyn City, for example, is the ultimate gated community that subconsciously, if not consciously, seeks to wall off poor South Africans, and create a “European-style” oasis on the edge of the city, replete with piazzas and ‘urban’ environments that are free of cars and where, as a result, children can apparently play freely. This does nothing for urban identity in the post-apartheid South African city, but instead continues the fragmentation of identity because it closes one identity to others.

It is puzzling why cities within the Gauteng city-region continue to approve walled-off communities. Aside from the damage it does to the city’s urban fabric, and in fact, vision, it continues to separate Joburg into segregated areas of urban identity. Alex and Diepsloot are the place for the poor; Dainfern and Steyn City are the place for the rich: while one often services the other, there is seldom true social interaction. The result is that the identity of the urban poor continues to be maligned as dirty, criminal and a blight on a city’s development.


The formation of this exclusive society also sees itself manifest through wealthy residential associations that are vociferous in their opposition to measures such as public transport – not because this may be bad urban planning, but because public transport is perceived as public transport for the poor which, as a result, would ostensibly have a negative effect on property values.

Perhaps, though it is the fragmentation of our past – not our current – which  could give rise to a new urban identity, one which celebrates difference in the city and where they are becoming increasingly blurred.

For example – and these are examples, there are more and perhaps even better examples – this takes place in areas such as Braamfontein, which has the potential of becoming a melting pot of various classes, races, cultures, sexualities and nationalities. This is the result, perhaps, of private investment and development, but more so it’s about people embracing the space because it has been designed for the public.  It takes place in areas like Hillbrow, where multiple nationalities find a relatively safe space when South African xenophobia rears its ugly head. It takes place in Ferreirasdorp, where residents from other parts of Joburg congregate once a year to celebrate Chinese new year – and then one week later, move to Cyrildene to celebrate it again in the ‘second’ Chinatown.


But it also takes place on individual, otherwise plain suburban streets. Our Joburg Streets series aims to cover this. One such street we have looked at is Queen Street in Kensington. It is at once a haven for wealthy antique lovers in Joburg as it is a growing node for the Ethiopian community in the city – and, in the middle of the street, has stood both a shop where one can pawn your goods, as well as Eric’s Transvestite Club.

The lesson to learn is that we as Joburgers are gradually understanding that our urban identity should be one that embraces difference, because this is what contributes to not only a just and inclusive city, but also a democratic city. In the positive examples I highlighted in my presentation, the common thread running throughout is a connection to difference. This is both a physical – in the form of public transport – but also is a deeply social connection in which traditional binaries and prejudices are transcended by truly natural, everyday interactions.

The role of the city, then, is to facilitate the connections between Joburg’s multiple identities – not necessarily through forced interactions (because these often are superficial), but through measures that facilitate movement across the spatially fragmented nature of the city.

In this way, Joburg can shed its preoccupation with being a ‘world class African city,’ and instead become one that is, quite simply, Joburg in all its contradictions, divergences and new terrains of urban identity.

This article originally appeared on Urban Joburg on 19 March 2014


Thomas Coggin is a Jozi blogger. Attorney. Lecturer/academic. Freelance researcher/writer. Love subway maps, airplanes & airports, traveling, & urban photography.