Updated: Nov 14
South Africa is a country well known for its past struggles with segregation and structures that promote classism. It had been recognized as the most unequal country in the world. Which is strange for ‘The Rainbow Nation’ one of the first countries to legalize gay marriage, pass progressive bills that govern the rights of vulnerable groups such as women, children and other disadvantaged groups. It all looks very good on paper. But what’s the reality now?
I thought it was an illusion at first when I moved to the big city of Johannesburg. Just an uneasy feeling of being unfamiliar with all its huge buildings and many people. But it wasn’t, at different locations and points in the city it feels different the access, ease of movement and safety was all at varying degrees. I first attributed it to crime and being able to feel safer as I moved through the more affluent neighbourhoods of Johannesburg. I never questioned how intentionally these structures had been set. Say for example, I’m in the CBD area, it’s crowded, dirty, the air smells awful and there is pollution everywhere. It is loud and bustling and I have a better chance of being pick pocketed than I do of reaching my destination safely. This area feels unsafe but the chaos adds a rhythmic flow to things. This is the heartbeat of the entire city yet the majority of the people who live there do not have the time or the access to some of its better resources. Then, you catch the train or the bus or a taxi to the northern part of the city. It’s quieter, much cleaner, there’s room to walk about and smile at people, all the shops are clean and there’s lots of security everywhere (armed security). There’s a gentle unease there too, but one of feeling out of place in the areas of Sandton. The Eastern part of the city is so far removed from a lot of the urbanization and is mostly suburban areas where people make their homes. It’s decidedly middle class. The southern parts are old and historic with a mix of lower and middle class homes. And at the further reaches of the city in all directions, lie the elite. The best houses, most beautiful estates, very far from the city I grew to love. At certain intersections of these areas you can sense or visibly see the segregation, from how many trash cans line the streets, if the traffic lights work correctly and the efficiency in service that the area receives. It never occurred to me how intentional this might have been and what the people who first did the town planning had in mind. Until I learned about something called ‘Structural violence’ which according to the Norwegian Sociologist Johan Gauteng is a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs as stated by HarvardX (2018). He also explores cultural violence, which is a form of violence imprinted by cultural views of certain groups and how cultural violence informs and creates structural violence. For example one might say "The Johannesburg CBD is full of crime, immigrants and illegal activity."And while this might be the case this view informs the access and safety that normal citizens or low in-come residents might have to healthcare, clean water and other basic services. I started thinking about which areas had the easiest access to healthcare, who was it easier for to walk down the road, and who felt safest in the areas they lived in. Who had information, resources and tools to take advantage of their environment and participate in the environmental economy, safety practices(such as neighbourhood watches) and from then on I mapped out the city in my head. Beyond it being segregated by economic status and class, it was also separated by ease of access to resources, recycling and spaces of information and growth (libraries, recreation and sports areas) and the ones within the city were poorly managed and funded. To the point that a certain percentage of these initiatives would end up denaturing and just becoming another city eyesore taken over by crime or the homeless (which are another issue of structural violence and town planning that I’ll touch on more in a later article). Which raised the question, in the design of these structures are the communities consulted and included? How easy is it for regular citizens to find effective channels to enact change? Something as easy as them asking for another garbage bin to be added to a street. Where do the children play? What do the homeless eat? How are all these diverse groups of people to interact in a positive manner when structurally, their needs aren’t fully met?
There is a deep sensation of elitism in the way that the people of Johannesburg live. One can put you in an economic ballpark by simply knowing in which direction of Johannesburg you live. “Oh I’m from the north” translates to “I am probably middle to upper class” and the quality of life between all these areas is decidedly very different. I didn’t know this at first so when people would try to impress me by saying which direction of the city they were from they’d receive a blank nod. Until I started traveling. Seeing all these places. In one area the houses are the size of soccer fields with large driveways. In another that same soccer field sized areas could house over 10 families living squished together. All in the same city.
Now on the subject of the homeless in the city, N Jadezweni (2021) in thesis notes that homelessness is an industry. There are organizations, social groups and institutions, be it governmental or not, that benefit from the homeless and thrive on its vine. They are part of the subculture that would, in my view, have to be done away with, if structures were created with the intent of being multi-use, accessible and sustainable. She notes that these subcultures enforce rules that other people who don’t live on the streets do not have to follow, for example no drinking or smoking, no sharing of beds and the people they cater to must be home at a certain hour. This then becomes the perfect place for anarchy against these rules where the homeless no longer wish to stay there and may resort to drugs, crime and other risky behaviour in a search for belonging or certain human dignities they feel can be met outside of the subculture. This particular thesis research was done in Capetown. A city in South Africa I haven’t been to but I feel acutely shares the same issues of structural violence, quality of life and rights being pendent on money, race and other factors and access to basic life needs and environmental care being unequal for the people. In the same city there are rival gang wars and world class hotels. Daily murder and the safest places to jog, corruption and drugs right opposite some of the most expensive homes in the country.
My thoughts on this matter are, it wasn’t a mistake that our urbanization and our cities turned out this way. I recently went to the Eastern Cape and was shocked to see so much green, open land, and cleanliness. There are fewer people there and less development because the opportunities for individual financial growth and development are concentrated in the smaller parts and provinces of the country. A more well balanced expansion could lead to less crowding in cities for access to work and development of rural areas and open up the discussion on sustainable living, caring for the environment in spaces where people are not so under pressure to chase money as that equates to life. The structural violence is there within our urbanization, you feel it in different parts of this country, the sometimes jarring effects of gentrification, town planning and ‘prime real estate’ all have an effect on how well people get to live their lives, and what they get access to.
Street homelessness in urban Cape Town: An exploratory study of the lived experiences of people living on the streets by Nobula Jadezweni. Published December 2021. https://scholar.sun.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10019.1/123516/Jadezweni_20739915_2021.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Why South Africa is the most unequal country in the world and how to fix it: https://youtu.be/71-jlOvrUFc
About the author:
I am a person of the world with a window that allows me many lives. Music and good food are why I'm still here. Apples are my arch enemy.
drawing by @sauyce