Johannesburg is home, not just the place where I happen to find myself. Like millions of others here, I am a migrant, having arrived here less than a decade ago. I’ve lived in several other cities in South Africa, one of which was really a provincial town which used a Tudor custom to call itself a city. But it was not until I returned to Johannesburg after a fifteen year absence in 2011 that I realised it was, for all its flaws, home.
South Africans are urbanising at a rapid pace. Partly this is the completion of a process which was interrupted for Black South Africans by late colonial and apartheid policies around ‘influx control’ and reserve labour pools. Now, of course, it’s not just Black South Africans who are flocking to the cities, gathering in their thousands on the peripheries in informal settlements. There are also new arrivals from across the rest of the continent from which South Africans have so long thought themselves exceptional.
New arrivals are ignoring the borders set up just over a century ago by the imperial powers in Berlin. The interruption of the last century in the long sweep of human history going back two thousand centuries at least is negligible, really. It has been two hundred centuries since the Ice Age, and human beings have been civilizing for the last one hundred centuries. Yesterday, so long ago on a planet over four billion years old.
Johannesburg, the place and the habits it inspires in people, may seem old in some senses, but in other respects it is a baby, really. Think of Alexandra, Kano, Tangier, Luxor, Zanzibar, Ife, and Timbuktu. But probably precisely because of its relative youth, Johannesburg is possessed of a dynamism that can be both admirable and infuriating. For as long as it has existed, which is about four human generations, people have been coming here for economic and other reasons. Two of my grandparents were born before the city came into existence, and I’m forty-five.
When I moved to Johannesburg I made a deliberate decision to live close enough to the university campus I was employed at to be able to walk to and from work. I also chose the particular part of the city because it was along a major public transport corridor, and close to parks, bookshops, and the suburb seemed to have significant pedestrian traffic. I rediscovered that thousands of other people walk Johannesburg’s streets, and not for leisure.
Security staff became familiar, and when the personnel changes, it was slightly jarring. In my own neighbourhood I got to know the street traders, men and women eking out a living from selling fruit, vegetables, sweets, cold drinks, mielies, or offering services to passers-by. Walking even gets you into a nodding acquaintance with the homeless and those who begged at the traffic lights, and the sex workers along the main arterial road, named for an English university city, but leading nowhere near it.
A few years ago I was invited to write an essay about Johannesburg for a Paris based journal. I had to look at the city with new eyes. I noticed, as if for the first time, the various barriers which were not as obvious as the high walls, electrified fences, locked security gates, and privatised streets. As a middle class subjects, I had no qualms about entering public spaces, walking across vacant lots of land, down embankments: my mien and my garb were like invisibility cloaks. But I noticed that for many this was not the case. Lately, I have had to add to my observations from that period four years ago when I wrote that essay.
The vans of private security firms, marked as ‘tactical response vehicles’, cruised the streets of the suburbs like sharks. The men inside these vehicles sometimes picked up the homeless and the insane, and did not understand when some of us objected and would not let them take people minding their own business away, essentially kidnapping them. We cited the Constitution and its guarantee of freedom of movement, and they cited by-laws. Many of our neighbours sided with the security men, having sometimes called them. They were keeping us safe. It always felt like a post-millennial version of an earlier practice, when neighbours would report influx control violations.
Some of that control over the movement of people was more subtle. At first little tin huts appeared on street corners in my neighbourhood, named for an Irish town. Men were stationed at these guard posts, all in the name of protection. At one point they even erected a guard tower in the public park where working class people took their leisure over weekends alongside parents bringing their toddlers to the ‘jungle gym’ (sic), young professionals taking their toy breed dogs for walks, and women catching up on stokvel business and playing fafi numbers. It was where ANC and EFF representatives tried to canvass my vote, while the DA representative worked a stall in the local shopping centre. Then large orange traffic cones appeared across streets, and the men in the guard huts began directing traffic after dark.
The latest move by the residents’ association whose name seems an odd combination of the NRA and the KKK, is to have the informal vendors removed from the public spaces. They want a different kind of trader to operate in the area. The shoe shine vendor had his equipment confiscated, for reasons not entirely clear. Who knows who will be next: the woman selling sweets right outside the park, or the man selling sweets opposite the sign directing you to the public library, or the woman who sells woven grass bags from eSwatini on the opposite corner? Or will it be the woman who sells mielies, or the man on the same corner who offers rival prices and goods to the informal tuck shop opposite the eSwatini swag trader?
Whichever it is, the new breed of trader has arrived, sponsored by an estate agency. A three-wheeled truck set up a mobile coffee shop at one of the park, offering aluminium bar stools and tables for those who want a quick brew while out walking the dog. What do the fafi players make of this, one wonders? The coffee is certainly not priced for them, those thousands of working class people who live on top of the high rise flats in what used to be apartheid’s servants’ quarters. And those who trade their snacks seem to be disappearing. Free enterprise, it seems, has its limitations to the bourgeois. Whatever visual pollution street vendors may have brought, as some critics maintained, paled in comparison with the tat brought by the estate agency and the coffee trader: banners transforming a beautiful public park and the roads leading to it into the worst of Johannesburg’s far northern suburbs.
This latest change in my suburb of Johannesburg happened in the period leading up to the twenty-fourth ‘Freedom Day’, and Workers’ Day. Old habits of influx control in new guise. I recall standing at a taxi rank in KaNyamazane outside Nelspruit in 2014, ahead of the general elections, as a colleague of mine asked a woman trader there how her life had changed in the twenty years since the first democratic elections in South Africa. Standing on the edge of a donga she outlined how she values her right to trade there, since she was prevented from doing so during apartheid; she could eke out a living because of the implementation of her right to freedom of movement. How ironic that in this northern Johannesburg suburb she would have that freedom taken away from her because of the width of the pavement. It would be Kafkaesque if it weren't happening in such ugly South African suburban vowels and consonants.
How ironic that in the economic heartland of the country, in a suburb of artists and NGO workers, academics and human rights lawyers, people who profess to be ‘liberal’ and whose voting patterns attest to this, old habits of control and social engineering to make the world appear different from what it is, persist. In a different part of Johannesburg there was outrage about giving domestic workers and gardeners access passes to enter specific streets; it was too reminiscent of the dompas (mute pass; it spoke for the Black carrier whose voice could not be trusted to deliver the truth about its presence) of old. In my Johannesburg suburb, just north of the ridge, in which an old mining family still owns a substantial property, the residents’ association seems to have found ingenious new ways to exclude poor Black people.
I sometimes think about the Constitution when taking my constitutional through my neighbourhood. Now, I must find ways to resist the creep of fascism’s return twenty-four years into what we insist on calling freedom. This is home, after all, for all of us, not just those who think their rates payments entitle them to exclude the majority of us. One thinks of Phaswane Mpe's Welcome to Our Hillbrow (2001), which examines how people walking and trading across Hillbrow and Braamfontein reveal senses of belonging to a space from which they are meant to be alienated even when ownership of property in that space is impossible. Gentrification excludes, and it does so deliberately, in the name of aesthetics or security at its most well-intentioned but misguided, in the name of reclamation at its worst. South Africa belongs to all who live in it. Using by-laws to trample on people's human rights is obscene. We should belong, all of us, equally; anything else is a hangover from the past, or a return to its worst dehumanisation.
Freedom? For whom? Never, never, and never again.