Johannesburg – Central Business District (JHB-CBD) has been cursed with a bad reputation since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy, in 1994. Then, the  Gold capital  and a hub of African migration as well as rich Afro-centric imagination; Today, one of the  world’s most dangerous cities  to live and work in Africa. And of course, one wonders, what kind of human beings live there?

Reclaiming An Unequal Space

During the years of Apartheid, Johannesburg catered for the ambitions and dreams of those who came from all over the world for business. Its bustling streets smelt like perfumes, with sophisticated hotels and restaurants that awakened one’s hunger for sexual transactions in Fox and Marshall Street.

Today, you get a sense of an abandoned prosperity – as the city is not flourishing like it used to. We forget that these past flourishing moments came at the exclusion of Africans. Today, when Africans have taken ownership of the city — it is called  ‘dangerous’  and ‘ dirty’ . The exclusion of Africans from the urban composition of the city in the past has lead to present perceptions and generalizations of ‘danger’ in the city;

it appears that the presence of Africans in the city was never expected.

Does living in a space that was engineered for the ascension of Apartheid imply that one must conform to the ways of this space? There has been an increasing negative narrative – lambasting the reputation of the JHB-CBD – because it is not what it used to be. 

Poverty is visible in every corner of the city: you find  Amandla Muti Shop  trading a street from  Anglo American , or people begging their lives into mere existence, yet ignored.

It is irrefutable that in JHB-CBD, as an unequal space, there exists insecurities. We, as humans, reduce the value of a space as soon as it causes us discomfort. We easily disregard that other human beings are capable of regeneration. The previously excluded now have the opportunity to redefine their space and institute their ways of living in a manner that is inclusive and re-conciliatory.  

The Reproduction Of African Cultures

The mixture of different languages, cultures and lifestyles brings the whole of Africa into one vibrant space.  Admirably, is the entrepreneurial spirit that caters for the needs of each street.  Varying from Somalian cuisine, to Congolese fashion, to Nigerian jewellery trading and Zimbabwean-inspired hairdressing businesses.

Swahili, Zulu, French, Arabic and Shona are spoken with ease, and as you listen, you yearn to learn and respond to the robust conversations that are overheard.

Yes, Africans are co-existing, living together and thriving in harmony.
As much as there are incidents of xenophobia in the city due to pressured anger and hate; Africans have been historically co-existing peacefully and building the city as a continental milestone for progress.

What is so ‘dangerous’ and ‘dirty’ about JHB-CBD? According to whose standards are we measuring this idea of ‘danger’ and ‘filth’?

It is important that as Africans, living in Africa, we are careful and constructive in deconstructing these stories of ‘danger’.

We often, and subconsciously, demean families and shutter their dreams in the process of labeling their co-existence as the exercise of danger and dirty living.

Changing The Narrative

Only if the walls of JHB-CBD could tell, the streets could write and the robots could sing – we would be enlightened. Sadly, stories are only carried by human beings, and that is actually dangerous in itself – as we manipulate, and distract narratives. We fear the truth.  We silence the potential of positive change in any space. 

Frankly, co-existence is the best essence of embracing being human. Once we accept this fundamental truth, we can go ahead and possibly embrace humanity. In turn, our fellow homeless people, sex workers, traders and hasslers will be at ease living, and making their lives meaningful in a space that welcomes them wholly.


Times are changing, and so should our consciousness, our ideas and dreams – South Africans must stop being nostalgic about the past – particularly the experiences that were enjoyed at the exclusion of others. We now live in times, where no body, soul or spirit is not allowed to exist.

Original photographs by Babak FakhamzadehSteven dosRemedios and Saaleha Bamjee.

 

Read more:

  1. The double dehumanisation of an unequal society, Daily Maverick
  2. Race, Space and the Post-Fordist Spatial Order of Johannesburg, Department of Sociology (University of Cape Town)