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

Part 1 of this two-part feature on the impacts of globalisation on Johannesburg established that Joburg has undergone a monumental transformation from an urban industrial complex linked to the gold mines of the Witwatersrand to a service economy. In terms of the World City Network, Joburg is an established node, and has done a pretty good job about attracting international investment and regional offices of major companies. But this is only one side of a complex story of a city in transition. The same globalisation forces has also entrenched many of the exclusionary features ingrained in Joburg’s history. 

Today, Joburg’s core economic sectors are finance and business services, manufacturing, trade, community services (collectively 82% of economic activity) and contributes 17% to South Africa’s Gross Domestic Product and 47% of the Gauteng province. Between 2001 and 2011, the city’s population grew 37%, and continues to grow by 3.8% per annum to an expected 6.1 million residents by 2030. This growth is mostly spurred by migration from the rural provinces of Eastern Cape, Kwa-Zulu Natal and Limpopo.  

The spatial relationship between informal settlements, urban areas and gold mines. Source: Dorothy Tang and Andrew Watkins, Places Journal

The spatial relationship between informal settlements, urban areas and gold mines. Source: Dorothy Tang and Andrew Watkins, Places Journal

On the other side of this success story, another face of the ‘elusive metropolis’ can be seen. Official statistics pegs the unemployment rate at 25%, and youth unemployment at 31%, although these figures have been disputed. The city has a dependency rate (on government support) of 37.6/ 100 adults. 49% of the urban population live in racially segregated ‘townships,’ and in addition, 17% live in informal dwellings in 157 informal settlements. The Gauteng city-region has a housing backlog of between 400,000 – 600,000 units. 

As mentioned before, many of the same forces that brought about the remarkable transformation of Johannesburg can also be traced in the exclusionary nature of these changes. Let me revisit the theory of globalisation quickly, before talking through the impacts on the city. 

One of the main characteristics of globalisation as a development epoch is the erosion of national state boundaries and the increasing importance of cities in the circuits and flows of global capitalism (Castells 2005). Cities compete to attract global capital and increasingly offer reduction of costs due to proximity to markets, pool skill and labour in dense urban environments, and incentivises production specialisation due to interrelated industries (Amin and Thrift 2002). Observers of the impacts of globalisation on cities have shown that development is not distributed evenly, and often entrenches existing patterns of social and spatial segregation and fragmentation (Harrison et al 2003). 

Many scholars, including the brain power of UCT and Wits Universities, are challenging how globalisation plays out on cities, because the rules of globalisation do not always hold true for cities in Developing Countries. These cities need to deal with issues such as rapid urbanisation, crumbling infrastructure, income inequality, fragmented cities, and weak institutional capacity. Two counter arguments are worth explaining as a way of re-reading the globalisation and World City hypothesis.

Johannesburg skyline. Source: Rckr88 Flickr stream (CC)

Johannesburg skyline. Source: Rckr88 Flickr stream (CC)

Firstly, Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong (2011) hypothesised that many Asian cities entering the global economy can be described as ‘Worlding Cities’. Ambitious visions and speculative experiments are understood as “worlding practices, those that pursue world recognition in the midst of inter-city rivalry and globalised contingency” (2011:ii). Secondly, Jennifer Robinson (2006) theorised ‘Ordinary Cities’, a condition that describes the phase of development between modernisation and development. “Ordinary cities emerge from a post-colonial critique of urban studies and signal a new era for urban studies research characterised by a more cosmopolitan approach to understanding cityness and city futures”. These two theories of cities and globalisation give us another lens through which to assess the impacts of globalisation, and perhaps create better and more policies more in-touch with the realities of a larger group of city residents.

So perhaps, rather than seeing Joburg as a “World City”, as its overarching policies insist, we can argue that it is actually a “worlding” or an “ordinary” city. And this becomes more apparent in how the city is dealing with real issues. Joburg, like other cities, are pursuing economic infrastructure projects above other priorities. There is a tendency towards what is called ‘splintering urbanism’, and becomes an acute problem when economic growth projects are prioritised above poverty reduction, inclusive growth, inclusivity and equity. 

The modern integrated infrastructure ideal is collapsing with a drive to construct ubiquitous, normalized and standardized infrastructure networks, and infrastructure networks are being “unbundled” in ways that help sustain the fragmentation of the social and material fabric of cities.
— Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition (2001), by Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin

Let’s consider some of the projects, aimed at achieving “World City” status, that have had a contradictory outcome of the experience of city residents. 

Example 1: Gautrain. We all love to zip from the airport to Sandton in 35min, but have we thought about the deepening exclusion in transport and mobility. David Thomas argued the Gautrain “prioritises wealthy, as opposed to poor, citizens in the allocation of public funds […] and other options for a more effective and integrated transportation plan were not sufficiently considered”. Hence, while there were many projects aimed at improving transport and connectivity between the city centre and the outlaying suburbs and ‘townships’, the Gautrain exclusively caters to the business class, zipping between the airport and the business districts. 

Example 2: City Centre. It seems that we are able to attract international investors but not able to give the poor a chance to take advantage of the benefits of inner city trading. Joburg used a policy called City Development Strategy (CDS) to attract global capital, and has privatised service provision programmes targeting crime, urban decay, congestion, homelessness and poor quality public sector services. However, instead of seeing the dilapidation of the city centre as a problem, we could have supported the rich diversity of informal street trading, transport operations, and living arrangements were an inseparable part of urban life in inner-city Johannesburg. These contributed to the livelihoods strategies of the poor, and built social capital. We missed that opportunity, and are increasingly using violence of ‘blitz’ raids to intimidate and destroy the precarious livelihoods of the poor, as the work of Socio-Economic Research Institute (SERI) demonstrates. 

Louis Botha corridor. Source: City of Joburg

Louis Botha corridor. Source: City of Joburg

As a potential counter-current to the missed opportunities to create a pro-poor city, the new Rae Vaya (meaning “we are going” in vernacular slang) bus routes, or ‘corridors of freedom’, now link many of these neighborhoods previously excluded from urban improvements. The ‘Corridors of Freedom’ have been lauded as prime examples of best practice in curbing urban sprawl, aligning transport and land use planning, enhancing institutional capacity of transport authorities, and densifying and mixing up land uses. 

The challenge for the Corridors of Freedom is the stubborn neighbourhood-level segregation, which remains pervasive. But there are promising signs that the tide of exclusionary development can be curtailed through initiatives like the Corridors of Freedom, and that Joburg can cater to the needs and aspirations of all its citizens. 

Related articles:

Articles referenced: 

  • Amin, A. & Thrift, N. 2002. Cities: Reimagining the Urban. Malden: Polity Books
  • Castells, M. 2005. Space of flows, space of places: Materials for a theory of urbanism in the information age. Comparative planning cultures, 45-63.
  • Harrison, P.; Huchzermeyer, M.; Mayekiso, M. (eds). 2003. Confronting Fragmentation: Housing and Urban Policy in a Democratising Society. Cape Town: UCT Press
  • Roy, A., & Ong, A. (Eds.). 2011. Worlding cities: Asian experiments and the art of being global. Cambridge, MA: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Robinson, J. 2006. Ordinary cities: between modernity and development. Psychology Press.
  • Thomas, D. 2013. The Gautrain project in South Africa: a cautionary tale, Journal of Contemporary African Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, pp. 77-94.