View from the mountaintop

Geci Karuri-Sebina

Johannesburg hopes to be a vibrant, equitable, diverse, sustainable, resilient and adaptive city by 2040, a vision that will require rigorous engagement and monitoring over time, in unfolding contexts.

On April 3, 1968, the leading American civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee. In his address, which focused on labour action in Memphis—there was a major strike by sanitation workers at the time—and the ongoing civil rights struggle, King concluded by saying that he was content with his life as he had been to the top of the mountain, had looked over it, and God had shown him “the promised land”. Throughout his speech, he hinted at signs of progress towards this promised land, a home that, for him, promised freedom, equal rights and justice. Ecclesiastical overtones aside, I found this imagery useful in thinking about the future of Johannesburg, particularly in this year that Alexandra, the city’s oldest township, turns 100.

I live in Sandton, a neighbourhood directly adjacent Alex, as the townhsip is popularly known. Sandton covers an area of approximately 156km², Alex 8 km². Relative to Alex’s population, which is estimated at upwards of 800,000, Sandton is tiny. The evidence to Sandton’s horizon is not too difficult to speculate about. New construction is underway on numerous high-rise luxury apartment buildings, commercial complexes and hotels, all proudly announcing—or at least demurely seducing with their claims to—“exclusive living for the fortunate few”. In spite of the current economic climate, the property market is still active. Sale boards regularly go up, come down and go up again in different parts of Sandton. Small shopping centres are being upgraded into shiny white and glass-coated mini-malls with boomed gates. A new high-speed train offers a safe in-and-out experience for the less adventurous visiting Gauteng. There may be a few new potholes and some errors on the rates bills, but the future, like the present, looks optimsitic.

What does this vision offer citizens living on the periphery?

The picture is a little different when you turn your attention to Alex. It is estimated that Alex houses about 10% of Johannesburg’s total population. Seventy percent of the people living in Alex are under 35 and unemployment is estimated to be as high as 65%. Crime levels have dropped, but are nonetheless disproportionately high. All these factors contributed to Alex being one of the epicentres of the 2008 xenophobic attacks.

I spend many of my weekends in Alex, on 8th Avenue with a local teenage girls’ club. The area is abuzz with people, young and old, navigating the dusty streets, which they share with cars, goats, seemingly endless rows of houses, shacks, kiosks, vendors and hairdressers. Roads, a few dozen schools, new social services and community facilities also feature prominently in the new Alex. Once nicknamed “Dark City” for its lack of electricty, Alex however still hasn’t quite acquired the status of a desirable address, in spite of its excellent location near some of Africa’s most desirable real estate. You could say future prospects here are still dark?

The teenage club I work with provides a microscopic reading of the difficult corner Alex—and many other places like it across the city—would have to turn to be tolerable, let alone successful places in whatever future we envision for Johannesburg. A group of us started the club in 2009. A few months of walking the township and asking residents what community service we could offer as “sisterly neighbours” elicited some horrific insights about growing up as a girl in Alex. “I have never seen a girl from Alex who’s grown up to be a professional,” stated one respondent. “If a girl is not sexually active by 12, it’s odd,” offered another. “If they are lucky, they finish matric first—that is if they don’t get pregnant and have to drop out—but then they just disappear into the township,” recounted a third. “They only have low-wage jobs—maybe a domestic or a shop teller—in their futures.” And so it continued. “These young girls need to be able to ask themselves who they want to be—a human being, or just dependent on a man,” stated another voice.

After three years running a sisterhood group that creates a safe space for the teenage girls to share and grow with guidance from other interested and experienced women, I have a clearer sense of how most young Alex women view their neighbourhood. To be successful, you simply have to leave Alex. This sentiment is reinforced through observation of the plight of family members, neighbours and peers. Even though you may love and be loyal to your home, your township, it offers little promise of ever being a promised land.

Going back to MLK’s image, some questions emerge. Where are the hints and signposts towards the promised land? How does Alex feature in Johannesburg’s vision of itself as world class African city? The recent Gauteng Development Strategy (GDS 2040), a long-term strategy that aims to offer “a coherent story of Johannesburg’s future development path”, suggests the sorts of outcomes that we should expect in this promised land: it will be vibrant and equitable, diverse, offer a high quality of life, be sustainable, be resilient and adaptive. As soon as I start getting excited about this appealing future, I remind myself to ask a few pointed questions: What does that future really look like for Alex? What do we anticipate it might take to actualise that future? Are the signs of progress towards that promised land really there? These questions prompt a further set of uncomfortable questions.

Firstly, instrumentally: What exactly does a world class African city do to address the spatial legacy of apartheid on the city? How long should that take? Does the city engage meaningfully and beneficially with the realities of informality in the African city, in all aspects of social and economic life? How?

Then, terminally, does the promised land retain the status quo, extending the dualities and exclusions of the present land, allowing the wealthy to do better, and the poor to reap more of the same? Will the excluded sit by quietly and accept this? Or, quite possibly, are we looking at an averaged future, a greyer, sub-optimal middle ground for all. Maybe the promised land is a more righteously exclusive land, the promise it offers of a cleaner and greener city expeditiously purged of those who don’t share in and contribute to the collective dream. What does this vision offer citizens living on the periphery? Perhaps the future of Johannesburg is Miami, as Damian Marley and Nas offer on their song ‘The Land of Promised’?

These are obviously just simple caricatures, but my point is this: visionary futures are interesting, but to be robust, they require rigorous engagement and monitoring over time, and in unfolding contexts. Cities don’t only change in neat and predictable ways based on population growth and shifts. Cities are also the result of the agency of people, our aspirations, changing lifestyles and consumption patterns, political priorities, public and private plans and investments, to single out but a few.

As a foresight enthusiast and practitioner, Johannesburg’s growth and development vision appeals greatly. Not because it will accurately predict or enable a specific outcome—“a world class African city”, “a city of our dreams”, “a city growing with you”, or “a city that works for me,” as various cities across South Africa have outlined in their catchy slogans—but because espousing a view to the future is a basic prerequisite of visionary action. It is a bold move, creating the potential to focus and capture the imaginations of the co-creators and constituents of that future. A basic question remains: What exactly is the future that we see for the entirety of our city? Before we begin talking of GDS 2050, perhaps we should attempt a shared peek from the mountaintop, to see if there is a believable and grounded promised land ahead, with clear signs behind, and many signposts in between.


Geci Karuri-Sebina is chair and director of the South African Node at The Millennium Project and executive manager of programmes at SA Cities Network.

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