South African urban imaginaries: cases from Johannesburg

How do government officials, elected politicians, powerful economic actors and ordinary people think and talk about the urban geography of South Africa? How do they describe and represent change that is happening in cities, towns and villages? Do they consider these changes to be good or bad? How do they think such places should change? What do they do to try to bring about the changes they desire?

Competing answers to these questions have been at the centre of South Africa’s urban development. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, white minority governments straddled quite contradictory imaginaries about who could build lives for themselves in urban areas and on what terms. Ordinary people held their own urban imaginaries that were quite different to those of white minority governments, and were core to the fight for democracy. In the democratic era, a range of official and popular imaginaries offer diverse visions on how South Africans should be transformed.

In an earlier collection produced under the GCRO Spatial Imaginaries project, we explored the sometimes contradictory nature of post-apartheid urban visions with, for example, with some promoting the creation of new urban settlements on greenfield sites, and others attempting to densify and diversify long urbanised spaces. Research Report 13, South African urban imaginaries: Cases from Johannesburg, is a second edited collection under the Spatial Imaginaries project, and it uses a series of cases from Johannesburg that illustrate the interactions between urban imaginaries and the material city. These cases include: the depiction of central business districts in film as spaces of aspiration; the way in which the imaginaries of developers in Hillbrow were shaped by the lives of those living there; the imaginaries of Alexandra Renewal Project practitioners; the way in which residents of Brixton understand diversity; and the construction of two new bridges across the M1 to better connect Sandton and Alexandra.


Chapter 1. Introduction: The urbanisation of imagination in South Africa, RICHARD BALLARD AND SANDISWA MAPUKATA

Abstract: As the introduction to this volume, this chapter argues that imaginaries are useful objects of study, connecting ideals, agency and the material world. It offers an itemisation of urban imaginaries in South Africa, juxtaposing diverse ways of thinking by white minority governments, the various imaginaries of those who rejected the racist premise that informed white minority governments, and post-apartheid urban imaginaries.

Chapter 2. Imagining South Africa: A conceptual framework, RICHARD BALLARD

Abstract: This chapter reviews conceptual and theoretical aspects of spatial imaginaries in order to establish a framework for this research report. The first section of the chapter examines the nature of the imagination in general and spatial imaginaries in particular. It considers the complex relationships between ‘imaginaries’ as mental constructs and the material world around us, showing how spatial imaginaries can correspond to the world accurately in some cases and differ entirely from the world as it actually is in others. The second section examines influences on our imaginations, showing that our imaginaries are informed by our sensory intakes of and experiences in the world on one hand, and also by our engagement with other people’s representations of the world through pictures, texts and film, on the other. The third section reviews three key effects of spatial imaginaries: that they inform our understandings and evaluations of space; that they inform how and why people try to produce new buildings, infrastructure and other elements of the built environment; and that they shape the way in which ordinary people use space.

Chapter 3. Places of gold: Imaginaries of aspiration in Johannesburg films, ALEXANDRA PARKER

Abstract: South African films have long captured the imaginations of residents through images of the high-rise towers and skyscrapers of Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD). These images of the city have projected the imaginaries and aspirations of residents of the city and the country onto the urban form. In the early films, the meaning of aspiration embodied in the bustling metropolis was in tune with the reality of Johannesburg’s inner city functioning as the economic powerhouse. However, since the 1990s, the Sandton business node has functioned as the country’s commercial and retail centre, surrounded by some of the wealthiest suburbs in the country. Over the last decade, Sandton has seen intense and continued construction that has produced glass-clad and iconic skyscrapers to stand alongside the original Sandton City Tower of the 1970s. Exploiting this new skyline is a recent film, ‘Happiness is a four letter word’ (Moleya, 2016), set in the Sandton CBD. The film explores the spaces of aspiration and affluence, and connects visual references of Sandton’s urban form to the meaning of aspiration and modernity. This chapter traces the representations of Johannesburg’s two principal business districts, their skylines and the associated meanings of aspiration, consumption and modernity in South Africa’s largest city to reflect how imaginations are embedded in the built landscape.

Chapter 4. Vernacular imaginaries: Regenerating Johannesburg’s inner city, AIDAN MOSSELSON

Abstract: We are accustomed to thinking about the ways in which planners and developers shape urban space. However, a close analysis of their practices also shows that they are equally influenced by the spaces in which they act. This study considers a set of developers who, since the 2000s, have established and run residential properties in Johannesburg’s inner city. It shows how these investors have been shaped by the difficult conditions in the inner city. They reject a model of up-market gentrification which would render the space unaffordable to many of those who currently live there. They are also pragmatic in response to the various constraints they confront, and rather than trying to reorder the environment, they adapt their imaginaries and practices to it.

Chapter 5. (Re)Imagining Alex: Reflections of ‘technocrats’ on the Alexandra Renewal Project, SANDISWA MAPUKATA

Abstract: Initiated in 2001, the Alexandra Renewal Project (ARP) was an effort to upgrade the township of Alexandra (‘Alex’) in Johannesburg, South Africa, and was part of a broader national programme of urban renewal in eight central urban nodes. The focus of this chapter is on the views of the officials and professionals (‘technocrats’) involved in the project. In-depth interviews with 15 key actors sought to gauge how their individually and collectively held ideas about Alex affected their material practices. These ‘spatial imaginaries’ are grouped into three themes. First, respondents had detailed imaginaries about the way in which Alex’s complex and unique history has generated a series of important legacies affect the township in the post-apartheid era, including that it was segregated, internally differentiated and overly dense – but also well located. Second, respondents expressed imaginaries on the possibilities of intervening positively in Alex by de-densifying certain sections of the township and integrating it into surrounding parts of Johannesburg. Third, respondents’ imaginaries addressed the inherent limitations of the project, arguing that Alex’s social problems are complex and somewhat intractable, and that some of the upgrading interventions were themselves counterproductive.

Chapter 6. Imagining diversity in Brixton, Johannesburg, SALLY CROMPTON

Abstract: Brixton is a small suburb 4 km west of downtown Johannesburg. It was established in the first years of the 20th century and designated for white residential occupation. Since the 1980s, it has transformed more than many ‘formerly white suburbs’, accommodating residents with a range of income levels and many who would once have been excluded on the basis of race. The purpose of this chapter is to identify different imaginaries of social diversity in Brixton. It outlines six imaginaries that exist alongside one another, and that all reflect aspects of the social history of Brixton and its present status. The first imaginary is Brixton’s history as a once racially exclusive suburb. The second relates to Brixton’s transformation since the 1980s and the reasons for this transformation. Third, Brixton is imagined as a bifurcated suburb, with two distinct sections: relatively affluent and working-class. Fourth, Brixton is nevertheless also understood and experienced as a space where neighbours trust one another, and where encounters and relationships across difference are possible. Fifth, Brixton is one of a number of suburbs targeted by the municipality as part of a grand imaginary of spatial transformation in which transit-oriented development is meant to drive densification and diversification. Sixth, this official vision is engaged critically by residents whose imaginary of Brixton claims that the neighbourhood is not – in this grand narrative – given enough credit for the transformation it has already undergone.

Chapter 7. Linking Alexandra and Sandton: Bridging the divide? ROSA SULLEY

Abstract: Using the literature on urban imaginaries, this chapter explores how new urban spaces are conceived through planning and design. By focusing on post-apartheid urban development in Johannesburg, it examines the challenges of overcoming entrenched apartheid spatial legacies through the use of infrastructure. Based on primary research in 2015 on the Great Walk bridge (now renamed the Kopanang Bridge) between affluent Sandton and working class Alexandra (Alex), this chapter investigates how urban spaces are produced and re-imagined through city planning and how these imaginaries are perceived, experienced and altered by people on the ground. The bridge forms part of the City of Johannesburg’s Corridors of Freedom initiative and was completed as part of the bus rapid transit (BRT) project in 2017. It aims to physically, symbolically and socio-economically connect the once segregated spaces of Alex and Sandton. However, the chapter concludes that this large, symbolic infrastructure project is struggling to address the socio-economic barriers which limit the quality of life for poor residents or to overcome entrenched social attitudes.

Recommended citation: Ballard, R. & S. Mapukata (Eds) (2022). South African Urban Imaginaries: Cases from Johannesburg Gauteng. GCRO Research Report #13. Gauteng City-Region Observatory, June 2022


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