Johannesburg, South Africa’s gold rush city, is a city of arrival. As part of the largest and fastest growing urban region in the country it’s a place that people continue to migrate to in search of gold, and for a better life than the one left behind, says Zahira Asmal, editor of a series of books that explore the forces shaping the nation’s cities
One hundred and thirty years ago there was no city on the rolling grasslands of the Highveld. Johannesburg crashed into existence with the discovery of gold and saw massive movements of people into the city in a relatively short space of time. This young city churned by movement is almost always new, aspirational and ambitious. So many of its residents are either themselves recent migrants or from families who moved here not all that long ago.
The golden resource that ignited the birth of the city was all but depleted near Johannesburg as political tensions hardened during the 1970s and 80s. Democracy came to South Africa in 1994 and with it began the difficult process of rebuilding and reconnecting a socially and spatially fragmented society. According to the Gauteng City-Region Observatory’s Quality of Life Survey 2013, the majority of post-1994 arrivals to Johannesburg are South Africans, with almost half of Johannesburg’s population arriving from outside Gauteng, the small province in which Johannesburg is centrally located. This is a great indicator of the city’s allure and its multiple connections to other cities in the southern African region, the rest of the continent and across the globe. Despite Johannesburg’s complex social and spatial infrastructure, new arrivals nevertheless find a foothold in the city, often moving from social and urban peripheries to its multiple centres of opportunity.
Johannesburg is a city in transition and is a populated with people in transition. It can be defined not only by its various migrant populations, its often improvised appearance and flux, but also by its constant and fixed links it fosters in its widening sphere of urban influence. The city is constantly linked in an intensive way to those places where many of its residents originate. We see this in the perpetual movement of people, money and knowledge between the two, often laying the foundations for further migration from these places. This exchange facilitates the care of older generations and the education of younger ones. It also frequently finances the improvement of neighbourhoods, rural towns and even other cities.
Contemporary Johannesburg is the result of significant change. Its middle class has expanded substantially in terms of numbers and diversity, infrastructure rollout has ensured that many dislocated neighbourhoods connect better to the city, basic service provision has improved vastly, and the city’s economy has diversified and expanded rapidly.
Yet, in spite of all these efforts in reshaping the city, it remains significantly unequal. History has shown us how important migration to the city has been, yet today social divides and the stigmatisation of foreign nationals has led to xenophobic uprisings against cross-border migrants. Despite this, the city offers infrastructure, education, healthcare and other basic services to visitors that may far exceed those at their origins – particularly for people feeling war or poverty. Johannesburg is home to the JSE, the largest stock exchange in Africa, and head offices of multinationals including banks, investment companies, media, entertainment and mining companies, as well as local and global NGOs. It is a magnet in terms of urban culture, music, fashion, art and architecture. And a convenient first stop from other global cities for people en route to other parts of Africa and other South African cities.
In the midst of Johannesburg’s frenetic movement, I am curious about the future trajectory of this arrival city in our democractic age. Does Johannesburg, in its public and private capacities, both formal and informal, truly welcome its new arrivals? Is the city spatially planned for new possibilities? As a modern society, do we embrace the movement of ideas and cultures in innovative and compelling ways? Are we prepared for our urban identities to be challenged, renewed and reimagined?
I fear the answer is no, at least not sufficiently. The rapid change of the arrival city is often hampered by stasis, inaction and apathy. Despite its modern movements and improvements, Johannesburg is always tested by slow change, lingering spatial divisions, routine ways of doing things, exclusion and, in many scenarios, the constant reapplication of outdated colonial and apartheid thinking to contemporary challenges.
We must never forget that arrivals to Johannesburg will continue to claim and shape their own spaces – as is their right. They will discover and rediscover, use and re-use, claim and reinterpret. Its younger arrivals and activists will march with purpose and, in doing so, repurpose and rescript places and meaning, creating new opportunities and possibilities. This city is en route to being a productive mix of the planned and unfettered.
We need to view this continuous movement of people – this arrival to Johannesburg – not as a problem to be solved but rather as an opportunity to reimagine, dream and co-create. This city in constant motion needs to once more proudly assert, “I have arrived!”