Change is afoot, but not for all

Words by The Editors | 21 Sep, 2013

Winter has a way of clarifying Johannesburg’s urban landscape, especially those interstitial spaces—the abandoned mining projects, dumpsites for suburban building waste, fenced-off grasslands and fragile wetlands—that typically insert themselves between the city’s many labour ghettoes and saw-tooth-roofed industrial townships. Walking paths cut across these open spaces like etchings on a copperplate. Best viewed from the air, these “desire lines” upend the logic of linear planning. The product of hard luck and urban suss, they trace the quickest route between here and there. Search them out. Walk southwest out of Johannesburg, through Riverlea and the poisoned mining landscape there, towards Diepkloof and the dense cluster of domesticity beyond, Soweto. This issue tackles Soweto. Is it a viable model of what happens after informality?

The question does not propose a simple answer. Soweto’s redevelopment is uneven. There are malls, loft developments, a theatre. More significantly, there are roads and basic services. Change is afoot, but not for all. Which brings us back to those ephemeral footpaths. Modesty is not part of Johannesburg’s DNA. Roads are not simply roads: they are politics. In May, the city announced a ten-year plan to invest R100 billion in infrastructure projects—“corridors of freedom” they have been officially dubbed—that will challenge the hegemony of the private car. The historical moment should allow for some concessions, but as Soweto’s burgeoning car-wash shops and unmapped footpaths suggest, the city’s big plans are awkwardly positioned between two diverging realities. In a city of endless sprawl a car matters, big time. But while some Sowetans now drive, many still walk—oftentimes to bus stops, taxi ranks and train stations, but also along gravel tracks that connect basic need with unknown possibility. The roving logic of the walker pervades this issue. A grouped series of reports, essays and interviews trace a zigzag path connecting Tel Aviv to Naples to Berlin to Guangzhou, all cities where African migrants are a feature of the urban matrix. It is not simply an exercise in aggregation. There is a speculative logic at work. In her conversation with Gautam Bhan in this issue, Ananya Roy conjectures, “what does it mean for us to think relationally about the north and south, recognising that these are connected geographies in all sorts of ways?” The question informs this issue’s contributions by Iain Chambers, Laura Gottesdiener and Garth Myers. “The tangible outcomes from rethinking a rust belt US city from African perspectives might seem at first to be ephemeral,” writes Myers. City learning is a two-way street, he offers. Right on.