‘World-class city’ is a nightmare for workers

Over the past three weeks, New Frame has looked at the impact of the privatised redevelopment of Johannesburg’s inner city. In this last story, we look to the future.

Two dreams clash in plans for the future of Johannesburg. The dream of the City – one endorsed by the national government – is for the country’s economic capital to be acknowledged as a “world-class city”. The dream of residents is, in the words of Inner City Federation secretary Siyabonga Mahlangu: “Poor people still residing in the inner city and freely enjoying their rights, and equal treatment for all classes living there.”

Development and urbanism scholar Ananya Roy has highlighted one universally agreed feature of the “world-class city” fantasy: “It has no slums.” There are two roads to this goal: ending poverty or simply pushing impoverished people out. Around the world, city authorities and capitalist developers have overwhelmingly opted for the second. “Poor,” in the words of Ed Molopi from the Socio-Economic Rights Institute (Seri), “becomes equated with ‘undesirable’.” 

Cities let private capital lead urban regeneration, because it seems an opportunity to redevelop on the cheap. Of Johannesburg’s five inner-city improvement areas, four are privately managed and led. Inner-city redevelopment becomes a strategy for capital accumulation and increasing rentier revenue for those who live on the income earned from such properties, not for social change. If national governments have progressive plans and regulations for inclusion and equality, the developers – often with global loyalties – see themselves as free to ignore and subvert these. Instead, the new city developments favour and reinforce existing inequalities.

History repeats itself

Though the specifics change over time, the process isn’t new. Nearly 150 years ago, one father of Marxism, Friedrich Engels, wrote an essay on The Housing Question that describes it like this: “No matter how different the reasons may be, the result is everywhere the same: the scandalous alleys and lanes disappear to the accompaniment of lavish self-praise from the bourgeoisie on account of this tremendous success – but they appear again immediately somewhere else, and often in the immediate neighbourhood.”

Amos Masondo, Joburg mayor between 2000 and 2011, was the first advocate of the world-class city “vision” that his successors, from the ANC to the DA and now the ANC again, have continued. The current mayor of Johannesburg, Geoffrey Makhubo, has only been in office for three months. In his first press conference on 5 December 2019, he declared: “Johannesburg is one of the prominent cities in the world.” 

Makhubo promised to “rebuild a cohesive community … unify Johannesburg … put citizens first … restore the social fabric.” So far, procedural wrangles with the previous ruling party, the DA, have blocked the presentation of a new city budget and State of the City address that could add concrete detail to his rhetorical vision.

Organic networks

Achieving a truly unified Johannesburg implies creating space for the city’s informal as well as formal economy. Many urban theorists see that informal economy as the organic development of networks and processes that suit the people who live there: as normal city life. Abdoumaliq Simone, a scholar of African cities, ascribes resistance to it to a Western-world “fear of things falling apart” that actually blocks “certain potentialities … that draw people into collaborative possibilities we simply don’t recognise”. 

The rich networks of communal support and friendship described by people New Frame talked to at Janie Street and in Linatex House, and the self-management committees and campaign groups with which the Inner City Federation and Seri work, enact such possibilities. They aren’t “anarchy” as popularly understood, but the abundant social capital of living communities already working.

That, reflects Blk Jks guitarist and one-time Maboneng resident Mpumelelo Mcata, could form one foundation of the inner city’s positive future. “Look at Soweto. People made it their own despite what it was intended to be. That can happen in Maboneng, too. At the end, whatever the developers want, the people will still be there.”

Related article:

But he can foresee other futures, too. “Eventually, if the developers have their way, it’ll be just another suburb, and they’ll bore each other and put up walls and build a Pick n Pay [grocery store] … Or, if poor people keep on really being squeezed out, then that morning can come, that morning when people go out on to the streets to claim what they need.”  

Seri attorney Khululiwe Bhengu sees that kind of desperation growing. “I’m pessimistic. To my knowledge, the city has only one building currently being refurbished for social housing … that may have the capacity to rehouse about three of the many buildings facing eviction. Once that reaches capacity, people are back to waiting again … It’s eight years since the judgment [about alternative accommodation] and the City is still dealing with this on an ad hoc basis.”

Possible futures

There is another way. Molopi describes it like this: “A start would be public rental, where the state and the municipality hold buildings, and people rent at what must be genuinely affordable prices. The private developers are in it for profit and have no obligation to house low-income people. The state has a constitutional obligation to do that.” 

His colleague Bhengu adds: “The city should have a plan, and it should not be to chase poor people out of the city. Social housing at genuinely affordable rents doesn’t currently exist, so the City must look at real earnings and create a solution for city dwellers who live in the informal economy.” 

Inner City Federation treasurer Sifiso Zuma concludes: “People don’t oppose Maboneng as such. Everybody would like to live in a ‘cool’ place. And everybody is willing to pay what they can afford. But is the inner city only Doornfontein or Jeppestown? If you want to make the whole inner city a ‘cool’ place, let’s renovate buildings and give out title deeds and do a proper city RDP in collaboration with national [government].” 

Related article:

That’s resident Freda Motshwane’s dream, too: “If the City can build us RDP flats, so we can stay in the inner city, rather than throw us away. There are opportunities to work here in the city … When we get old, we might go home to our rural area, but then it could be a place for our children to make their start, because they were born in the city.” 

Motshwane and her neighbours would like to see new developments and their job opportunities prominently publicised to low-income residents. “And where expert workers must be brought in,” opines Linatex House security guard Themba (who didn’t want his surname used), “they should teach the jobs and go, and leave us who live here to do that work.” 

In such a context, art could achieve far more than “artwash”. To help recover from the 1930s Depression in the United States, the WPA Federal Art Project provided government funding for public art and performance, with a percentage of funding allocated to training and involving community members. It created around three million jobs.

Realising dreams like these will demand a change of perspective. The inner city isn’t “empty” but already vibrant with community life and informal business. It’s not “dilapidated”, but deliberately starved of resources and support to squeeze people out. Residents don’t need “clean sweeps” and “crackdowns”, they are already proactive, organised and feeding their families. A sterile, globalised, commoditised inner city with impoverished people swept out of sight is not a dream, but a nightmare. To avoid that, “we’ll continue,” says Mahlangu, “to struggle for our rights to be recognised and respected. We’re still fighting.”

Update, 13 March 2020: Mpumelelo Mcata was previously referred to as Mpumi Mcata.

If you want to republish this article please read our guidelines.