Johannesburg: shanty city, instant city

John Matshikiza
13 December 2002

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day – but Johannesburg was. One day, supposedly, there was naked veld, and the next there was a shanty town of tin and canvas shacks full of white men looking for gold. And round the back of the shacks there was another, even poorer shanty town, full of black men recruited to help the white men sift the nuggets out of the earth, and women of all colours who drifted in to serve the unpredictable needs of these men of different colours.

There must have been something here before the gold rush, but it was never recorded in history. So Johannesburg became, and remained, an instant city, growing and being pulled down periodically as the course of the gold seams shifted in one direction or the other, and as the needs of its fickle citizens changed. Beer halls, brothels and bioscopes rapidly outnumbered places of worship. And speaking of places of worship – in the early days, each cathedral, when it was built, was granted a full block of the city’s infrastructure to stand on, but Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal Republic, permitted the Jewish synagogue only half a block, arguing that the Jews only read half of the Bible.

So it has always been a politically and racially charged city. It is said that Johannesburg has been built up and torn down no less than five times since it first appeared on the highveld in 1886. And each time, it has re-emerged even more ugly than it was before.

It has its charms. They say that Johannesburg has the most extensive green belts of any city in the world – grassy parks with swimming pools and jacaranda trees. But returning to that political theme, we have to remind ourselves that it is only in relatively recent times that these beautiful amenities have been available for the recreation of all its citizens, regardless of colour.

Most of the parks have turned into brownish wildernesses now, particularly those around the centre of the city, where the former inhabitants have abandoned their green pastures and moved on to armed townhouse complexes and shopping malls in the north. It is a wealthy city indeed that can simply abandon its tallest buildings and move onwards when the imminent arrival of the Barbarians is announced. It is also a mark of a culture that accepts that its very existence is purely temporary, and the day will always come when it is time for the tribe to move on.

I pity the current generation of Johannesburg architects, a cheerful, youthful, blissfully multiracial crowd, for having inherited the most temporary of cities in which to ply their trade. There is no Venetian Rialto to attach their dreams to. There is no romantic and eminently practical series of canals like those of Amsterdam, which define what is possible and what is not, and give an aesthetic framework for the profile of the city. There are no bold and imaginative New York skyscrapers to compete with, no broody masterpieces like the Prado in Madrid or the sculptured, colourful interventions of a Gaudi in the midst of the serious, maritime boulevards of Barcelona, nor the classical, granite grandeur of the Champs Élysées in Paris.

Johannesburg is not even a sprawling, haphazard African village like Lagos or Bamako, nor does it have the tropical, semi-oriental French charm of a Dakar or an Abidjan, or the fascinating combination of Arab, German and ultra-modern architecture of Dar-es-Salaam.

Johannesburg’s young architects don’t have a sea, a great river, or a mountain to bow down to in their search for inspiration. They only have what has been left, in haste, by their predecessors, who did not have posterity in mind when they raised and ultimately abandoned this mish-mash of monstrous, decaying buildings.

The creators of Johannesburg’s future skylines have to look the issues of a post-apartheid urban South African culture squarely in the eye. Are they going to make intelligent choices, or are they going to follow the trend that has been set in the past, and simply add to Johannesburg’s post-industrial chaos. As I have said, I pity them.

We still take for granted, for example, that in South African culture there is black and white, and very few grey areas in between. Hillbrow was white. It is now distinctly black, as is the city centre. The northern suburbs, marginally integrated as they might now be, remain white in their outlook. Go to any upmarket restaurant in Rosebank or Sandton and you will see what I mean.

Soweto and the rest of the city’s impoverished satellite townships remain resolutely black, although you will occasionally find the odd Swedish tourist spending a couple of nights there, just for the experience – but decidedly not to stay. The architecture and planning of the South African township were conceived at a time when it was felt that the separation of the races was ordained by God. And now that God has spoken otherwise, what are we to do with this further legacy of our divided past?

The townships are not shrinking or being dissolved into the greater reality of South African urban culture of the Third Millennium. On the contrary, they are growing. A million new township houses have been added to the existing stock by our new Rainbow Government since 1994. Each unit seems to be even tinier than the housing units we grew up in – attracting to themselves the colloquial name of ‘vez’inyau, meaning ‘show your feet’ – meaning that the dwelling is so small that when you sit with your back to the wall at one end of the house, your feet will be sticking out at the other.

Is this an acceptable way of dealing with our urban crisis? What are the alternatives? Should we compound the high-rise nightmare of Hillbrow, which was never designed to contain its present, multicultural, intra-African population, by making this a city of even more inherently dysfunctional ‘projects’ or ‘housing estates’ on the New York or London model? Or do we decide to ‘de-urbanise’ and construct interactive living units in our vast rural hinterland, linked to the all too vitally-needed agricultural revolution that Africa still awaits, in order to be able to get on with its promised industrial and post-industrial revolution?

I suspect that there are vast, and probably overwhelmingly emotional challenges awaiting the architects of a future living environment of a South Africa that most of us will not live to see. The task is not simply to paper over the cracks of an imperfect past. It is rather to conceive and bring into concrete being the living and working environments that will make our dreams of a better future a living possibility.

Whoever is going to take on this challenge, I wish them all the best.

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