Joburg: A city with migrant heritage and culture

Capitalist platitudes rise to the surface in South Africa’s Heritage Month. In the wake of the xenophobic attacks, as citizens we must have conversations about our migrant culture.

It’s Heritage Month again. Monumentally ugly and costly statues bearing no resemblance to their subjects will be unveiled. Capitalist Big Food will cajole us into buying kilometres of sausage casing stuffed with minced gristle and carcinogenic nitrites. The narrow, unchanging “tribalism” invented by colonialism will be nostalgically invoked. And Johannesburg’s true cultural heritage – the uniquely vibrant child of nearly 150 years of migration – will continue to be trashed, burned and slaughtered.

The wealth of this city was built on the sweat and often the blood of migrants, from across what today is the South African Development Community (SADC) region, but also in huge numbers from the impoverished parts of our own country. Before apartheid, capitalism carved out colonial borders how and when it pleased, for exploitation and control, and operated across them likewise. Regimented by the state and the mine bosses, migrant workers were easy to discipline, punish – and discard when they got too sick to work. The 1913 Land Act made African South Africans foreigners in most of their own country.

More borders were drawn under apartheid, none of them by or for the people. The creation of the bantustans from 1951 added fantasy world-building to dispossession. The cruel Pass Laws were precisely about migration, denying Africans the right to settle freely and establish homes with their families. The retribalisation policies of the regime allowed Afrikaner ideologues to construct fake histories and demarcate cultural differences between communities, as tools for divide and rule. The Cold War rooi gevaar (communist danger) myth fomented fear and hatred of Africans from other, newly independent African states.

History’s residues: cosmopolitan culture

The residues of that hostility and paranoia remain. So do the patterns of the migrant labour system: migration still reflects around 75% from the countries of the SADC region, and huge numbers of internal migrants from the still-desolate rural areas and former “homelands”. Most “migrants” in Johannesburg are South Africans.

But that legacy has also shaped an electrifying and cosmopolitan city culture, particularly in music. As Wits University scholar and community organiser Rangoato Hlasane told me, for my Johannesburg chapter in the forthcoming book Sounds and the City: “Johannesburg jazz has been multivocal, right from the start. It has to do with Johannesburg being a space that became the centre of migration at a particular time – and continues to be so. Jazz has no choice but to be like that here, because the city is like that. Even marabi, the earliest form, always used more than one language.”

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The people’s languages of the city (tsotsitaal, ’scamtho and more) draw words from everywhere people come from. Joburg dress styles are a promiscuous mix of Western consumer brands and fabrics, hairstyles and adornments from across the African continent. These are the fruits of migrancy too.

It’s ahistorical and false to reject that migrants are who we are, including the hostel dwellers with roots in KwaZulu-Natal who seem to have been prominent in the riots. They’ve been left stranded by changes in city employment patterns and marginalised by rapacious property “development” policies.

Towards action

Instead of empty actions honouring Heritage Month, let’s consider how Joburg’s cultural history as a black, migrant city is being erased, and how simply being poor in the central business district – wherever you come from – is being criminalised by gentrification (of which this is not the first wave).

In other cities worldwide, we’ve seen how property developers shed at most crocodile tears (and sometimes none) when properties in areas ripe for redevelopment are burned out and trashed. The riots may hurt short term, but they clear away impoverished people, homes and small productive businesses such as panel beaters and barbers to make way for high-profit complexes and global goods and services accessible only to the rich.

So what can we do? We can stand with the current generation of migrants to honour, in this Heritage Month, that earlier generation who made our city what it is, and our political heritage of protest against the colonial and apartheid imposition of fake borders. We can offer active support and protection to migrants, as the women of Coronationville have done. And we can truly consider the meaning of Stimela, as Hugh Masekela sings: “There’s a train that comes from Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe …” as we contemplate our heritage, to start the vital conversations about Joburg: our migrant city.

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