Making do in a Crowded City: Infrastructure facing up to In-migration in Johannesburg’s Inner City
A photo essay by Tanya Zack, PhD and Mark Lewis
From her bed in a small Hillbrow apartment, Birthial Gxaleka runs an NGO and shelter. Her tenants all share her one-bedroomed space, sleeping and living on a large raft of beds that leaves only a narrow corridor of standing room. At any one time, there are up to thirty-four residents, because it is rare for Birthial to turn anyone away. Tenants can come and go and they pay R200 per month, if they can afford it…
Johannesburg’s modernist infrastructure was built to last and is highly flexible. Buildings and spaces in many parts of the city have been informalised, and appropriated for uses and densities that exceed the limits of official plans and policies. These are the spaces where people are making do for themselves. Sometimes these ways of living and of making a living are survivalist. It’s a place where life happens under extreme and hazardous circumstances and survival is chanced and carved from inadequate, stressed infrastructure. And often they are entrepreneurial. And they are the places where innovation and learning emerge. In-migrants extract from the city, exploit its infrastructure, but they also adapt it and, in this way, may lay the foundation of a new city form.
Johannesburg’s inner city is a place of possibility. It has hosted migrants for all of its existence and is well steeped in transience. Since the 1990s it has been transformed, not only by the forces that challenge apartheid geography, but also by the risk-taking and expediency of private developers, landlords, migrant populations and globalisation. And it is host to many economic migrants from rural South Africa and from the rest of the continent, and to political asylum seekers. They live in varying circumstances in a city that at once embraces immigration and that simultaneously offers limited response to accommodation and infrastructural resources for its poorest residents.
In a host city where liberal immigration policy shares a platform with coercive and contradictory policy and where high levels of poverty are present, legal and undocumented migrants and asylum seekers find individual, often innovative practices to housing and to livelihood creation.
Ethiopian political asylum seekers and refugees have over two decades created a secret shopping hub in underutilised office buildings. Now the area they appropriated and transformed into the ‘Dubai of Africa’ hosts over 3000 shops, servicing a trade from sub Saharan Africa, and accounting for a turnover – unrecognised by the City or national economy- of over R10billion. No formal political, financial or infrastructural support has accompanied this endeavor by these economic and political refugees.
Based on ethnographic work in Johannesburg’s inner city, this paper interrogates how poor residents and users of Johannesburg’s inner-city use, adapt and generate infrastructure for living and working – often in the very gaps the state’s negligence has created.
The photo essay will combine documentary visuals with narrative, relying on combination of sensitive observational narrative and first person insights to provide an intimate view into the particular intersection of people with infrastructures in the inner city. These are contextualised views, grounded in ethnographic documentary work that has formed the basis of the photo book series 'Wake Up This is Joburg'.
About the Speaker
Dr Tanya Zack is a South African urban planner, writer and reflective practitioner who straddles the worlds of planning practice, policy, academia and creative writing. holds a PhD from University of Witwatersrand for her work on Critical Pragmatism in Planning. Her planning experience over 25 years in Johannesburg has included academic writing and research, policy and the development of frameworks plans as well as participatory and activist planning in a scope of work that includes informal settlement upgrading, community participation processes, the informal economy, migrant entrepreneurialism, policy development around ‘bad’ and ‘hijacked’ buildings in the inner city, inner city policy for transformation and a host of housing related work. In addition to her professional work in the inner city Tanya’s curiosity and compulsion to collect stories have broadened the scope of her intrigue to personalities who inhabit the spaces not often exposed in literature about Johannesburg. She is the author of the series of ten photo books ‘Wake Up This is Joburg’. Tanya is also currently writing a manuscript on the so-called Ethiopian quarter of inner city Johannesburg. Tanya grew up on the edge of inner city Johannesburg.
The seminar is open to all. You are requested to RSVP at email@example.com.
CORP Seminar Series
This is the 17th in a series of the Community of Research and Practice (CORP) seminar planned by the Scaling City Institution for India: Sanitation (SCI-FI: Sanitation) initiative. This seminar series seeks to provide a platform for discussing the experiences of the researchers and practitioners on urban sanitation.
Scaling City Institutions for India (SCI-FI) is a research programme at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) on inclusive and sustainable urban development. In the programme, we seek to understand the reasons for poor services, and to examine how these might be related to technology and service delivery models, institutions, governance and financial issues, and socio-economic dimensions. The programme seeks to support national, state and city authorities develop policies and programmes for intervention with the goal of increasing access to safe and sustainable services in urban areas.