Photo: In Johannesburg, one street separates an informal settlement from the middle class suburb of Bloubosrand. Credit: Johnny Miller.

By Amy Zavitz, MAGG Graduate (2017)

“Welcome to the real world”, I was told by a man walking by during an informal visit to the South African township of Soweto.

Earlier this year, when I told friends and family that I was planning on moving to Johannesburg, South Africa, for an internship, the responses were almost always focused around two things: crime and safety. These two topics were at the forefront of many people’s minds about this place, but rarely did the conversation extend to the social, political or economic factors that may underlie the crime we are so quick to speak of. Rarely did these conversations extend to the vast systemic inequalities that I’ve seen during my time here.

In the two months I’ve spent living in Johannesburg, where I’ve been interning for CIVICUS, I’ve heard this place described as “Africa’s hippest city” or “the vibrant heart of South Africa”, which in some neighbourhoods it is, but in others one can see the lasting effects of apartheid and the deep-rooted and vastly prevalent social inequalities that continue to exist.

In my experience, Johannesburg is a city of extremes. In some places, the city feels glamorous, filled with beautiful shops, modern infrastructure and lively nightlife. But, these places exist in a bubble, marginalizing the experiences and realities of those not fitting into the image the city strives to project.

Driving into any of the marginal spaces, one cannot miss the desolation of those in the streets, performing acrobatic tricks or dances in desperate hope of earning a few rand. Nor can one forget the many people that have been expelled out of the ‘up and coming’ or ‘developing’ neighbourhoods, those that have been erased by a quickly gentrifying city. Lastly, one cannot forget what is truly meant when people speak of ‘areas getting safer’, for what they are really saying is that the gentrification of space has removed those who, although most vulnerable, are deemed a ‘threat’. This illusion overlooks the complex and nuanced history of those rendered invisible.

For clarity sake, allow me to emphasise that I regard Johannesburg as an exciting and wonderful city. However, I also think it is a place that encompasses polarities of economic and social situations that can unfortunately be easily overlooked when one focuses one-sidedly on the ‘potential’ of the city at the expense of more substantive realities. The city isn’t developing as a whole. It is widening the already extreme disparities between people. For each space that has been made ‘safer’, or ‘developed’, the forced exodus of entire communities has had to occur.

I’ve heard many people speak of a spatial apartheid that continues to exist in South Africa. As one drives through Johannesburg, it is clear what is meant by this term. From my experience, spatial apartheid is clearly present in the urban context, but it also extends beyond this, encompassing the gap between the urban and rural. This extended gap of spatial inequality is invisible to most onlookers, including myself, this despite its profound relevance for the ongoing development of South Africa as a country.

This predicament brings to mind analogous dilemmas experienced by Indigenous communities back in Canada – excluded from the national narrative of progress, historically neglected by significant portions of civil society and the state, and thrust to the spatial periphery of society.

As I will explore in my next blog post, I’ve encountered a history here that sounds all too familiar.