How does Globalisation impact on a city like Johannesburg? Part 1/2


In the global circuit of capitalism, the cities that often feature are London, New York, Tokyo and Shanghai. But how does globalisation shape a city like Johannesburg? This two-part article unpacks Johannesburg’s roles in globalised city networks, and how these powerful forces have impacted on the city. 

Academics have described Johannesburg as a city deeply divided and troubled; an untamed city of fragments and a city of extremes (Murray 2008, 2011), an elusive Metropolis (Mbembe & Nuthall 2009), and a tortured city (Turok 2014). And others see Johannesburg as an important link in the ‘World City Network’ (Sassen 2010, Taylor 2004). The tug of war between addressing the imbalances of the past and aspirations for world-class city status is evident in what overarching policies the City has adopted. But first, to understand the future we need to look to the past.

Johannesburg from the M1 highway. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Johannesburg from the M1 highway. Source: Wikimedia Commons

That Johannesburg has undergone a fundamental transformation in the past two decades following the oppressive apartheid rule is undisputed. Urbanisation and the making of Johannesburg city was intricately linked with industrialisation during the 18th and 19th century, and significantly spurred by the mineral revolution following discovery of gold along the Witwatersrand in 1884.

The Witwatersrand, or ‘Ridge of White Waters’ in Afrikaans, stretches 300km long and 150km wide and is said to be the largest gold producing region in the world, contributing to more than 50% of all global gold output. The city grew along alongside public investments in, for example, three railways lines connecting Johannesburg to the commercial port cities of Cape Town, Durban and Maputo.

The gold industry was highly dependent on the assembly of a massive cheap labour force, recruited both locally and regionally. Labour was housed racial- and gender-based separate complexes, often in conditions characterised by poor infrastructure, public health, and accessibility.

By 1910, South Africa produced a third of world gold output, rising to more than half by 1930 and peaked at 78% of global output in 1970. The impact of the mining boom on Johannesburg’s emerging urban form followed a divergent path: the inner city was characterised by high-density property developments in grid-like street patterns, while the increasingly large African migrant labour force were housed in peripheral industrial workers quarters, and newly created ‘townships’ such as Sophiatown, Orlando, Alexandra and Soweto.

Johannesburg City plan, 1897. Source:  Newtown Heritage Trail . 

Johannesburg City plan, 1897. Source: Newtown Heritage Trail

 “After 1950 urban apartheid emerged as a new and powerful, though ultimately massively oppressive, way of approaching the problems of the cities,” writes Parnell & Mabin (1995:59). Robinson’s (1996) instructive work on the Power of Apartheid shows how the apartheid state maintained its minority rule by deploying urban planning strategies that resulted in highly segregated and inefficient cities.

 So given this historical legacy of an urban industrial complex linked to the gold mines, and purposefully ingrained through apartheid rule, Johannesburg’s development priorities were cut out, right? Yes, and no. But this is understandable. Parnell and Robinson (2006:339) observed that “for local governments, the attractions of global competitiveness are multiple [… but] in poor cities the severe inequalities mean that promoting globalising urban development strategies can provoke majority discontent.”

The preface to City of Johannesburg’s urban policy Joburg 2040 makes no apology for its global city aspirations:  “Johannesburg – a World Class African City of the Future – a vibrant, equitable African city, strengthened through its diversity”. Joburg 2040 is in a sense the evolution of prior urban policies with similar global aspirations such as Gateway to Africa, Golden Heartbeat, and iGoli 2010

Becoming a World City does not necessarily require perfect conditions. “Even a highly imperfect global city is better for a global firm or exchange than no such city”, writes Saskia Sassen, the doyen of World City studies. This explains why such diverse cities make up the World City Network; each adding particular strengths coalescing in global platforms for the operations of firms and markets.  

The World City Network mapped out by Peter Taylor and colleagues provide insights into the flows of resources in global capitalism. Source:  GAWC

The World City Network mapped out by Peter Taylor and colleagues provide insights into the flows of resources in global capitalism. Source: GAWC

Peter Taylor and colleagues, who elaborated on Sassen’s work by proposing a ‘world city network’ – a framework to measure the interconnectivity of global firms and city service locations –, established the Globalisation and World Cities Research Network. According to their 2012 ranking of the World City Network, Johannesburg features in the first tier, or Alpha-minus World Cities, alongside cities such as Seoul, Buenos Aires, Istanbul, Melbourne and Atlanta. Alpha-minus level World Cities play and important role in linking major economic regions into the world economy, which is coordinated by the first league World Cities like London, New York and Hong Kong.

Johannesburg is part of the world city network, even if it is only a minor node. The city is the administrative centre that facilitates the efficient resource extraction for much of Southern Africa. Whereas considerable degree of ownership of the resource industry is concentrated in Johannesburg, the city also functions as a node through which surplus is channelled to distant shareholders.
— Surborg 2011, cited in Rogerson & Rogerson 2015: 350

So, what are Johannesburg’s unique features in the World City Network? Johannesburg’s world city status has been positively reinforced through the growth of the global service centre in banking, finances and related services financial services, rising from 24.8% in 1996 to 33.4% in 2009 in terms of Gross Value Added (Harrison & Zack 2012:565).

Sassen (2009) argues that wholesale trade in metal places Johannesburg on the map, and ranks as the 22nd most influential city in the world in the ‘financial dimension’. Johannesburg is 8th most influential for ‘derivatives contracts’ and 10th for ‘commodities contracts’. A major element of this success is the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, the 19th largest in the world, with a market capitalisation of US$ 1 trillion.

Johannesburg’s emergence as a world city has had contradictory outcomes, which we will explore in the second part of this article. No one can dispute that Joburg has successfully transitioned from an urban-industrial complex to a competitive services location, drawing international companies and seeing investment confidence in the JSE grow. But there are worrying trends of continuing exclusionary development, and deeper fragmentation, and much of this can also be attributed to the same global economic forces.

Note: This article was amended on 27/04/2016 to reflect updated 2012 GaWC ranking, following comments by a reader. 

Articles referenced: 

  • Harrison, P. & Zack, T. 2012. The power of mining: the fall of gold and rise of Johannesburg. Journal of Contemporary African Studies 30.4: 551-570.
  • Murray, M. 2008. Taming the disorderly city: the spatial landscape of Johannesburg after apartheid. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
  • Murray, M. 2011. City of extremes: The spatial politics of Johannesburg. Durham: Duke University Press.
  • Nuttall, S., & Mbembe, J. A. (Eds.). 2008. Johannesburg: the elusive metropolis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  • Parnell, S. & Robinson, J. 2006. Development and Urban Policy: Johannesburg's City Development Strategy, Urban Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, pp. 337.
  • Parnell, S., & Mabin, A. 1995. Rethinking urban South Africa. Journal of Southern African Studies21(1), 39-61.
  • Robinson, J. 1996. The Power of Apartheid: state, power, and space in South African cities. Butterworth-Heinemann.
  • Rogerson, C.M. & Rogerson, J.M. 2015. Johannesburg 2030: The Economic Contours of a “Linking Global City”, American Behavioral Scientist, vol. 59, no. 3, pp. 347-368.
  • Sassen, S. 2009. Cities in Today’s Global Age, SAIS Review, Vol. XXIX, no.1, pp. 3 – 32  
  • Taylor, P. J. 2004. World city network: a global urban analysis. New York: Psychology Press.
  • Turok, I. 2014. South Africa’s Tortured Urbanisation and the Complications of Reconstruction. In McGranahan, G., & Martine, G. (eds). Urban growth in emerging economies: lessons from the BRICS. New York: Routledge