Review Q&A: ‘Anxious Joburg: the inner lives of a Global South City’ with co-editor Nicky Falkof

Ahead of our forthcoming review of Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City (Wits UP, 2020), we are publishing here an accompanying Q&A.

Answering the questions is Nicky Falkof, co-editor (with Cobus van Staden) of the book. 

Asking the questions – 3 each – alongside our AiW reviewer, Kagiso Nko, are three other scholars, thinkers and editors – each invested in the book’s project in different ways: Joanna Woods, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, and Katie Reid.

Anxious Joburg emerged from an in-person workshop and was published in October 2020. Now, as the fallout of November’s 2021 municipal elections in South Africa begins to show — a ballot marked by the lowest voter turnout in post-apartheid South African history with significant losses in South Africa’s economic metropolis of Johannesburg, former stronghold of the ANC — this Q&A about the book’s approach to the city ranges across its focuses, dating from the snapshot of its present moment to future possible anxieties, extending the questions of the text to the violence of July 2021 after former president Zuma’s arrest, and the anxieties of the global pandemic…

Co-editor of Anxious Joburg, Nicky Falkof is a writer and academic from Johannesburg, where she is currently an Associate Professor in the Media Studies department at Wits University. 

Kicking off our Qs for Nicky is Kagiso Nko (who is a PhD researcher in Anthropology at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, where he is broadly reading around Blackness, Township life in South Africa and happiness.)

Nko: A huge source of anxiety is penned to be a ‘black anonymous figure’ in about half the chapters. How do we reconcile this with doing away with racialized and stereotypical views on how black people are viewed – especially as dangerous?

Falkof: There are only three chapters that deal with the anonymous black man as an imaginary threat (Derek Hook’s, Renugan Raidoo’s, and mine), but I think it’s quite significant that that was what stuck out in your experience of reading the book.

One of the primary motivations for this book, and for my own work in general, is to shine a lens on this tendency, which is still, in 2021, endemic in cultural discourses among non-black South Africans. White anxieties, which are my particular area of interest, are literally built around the excessive figure of a mythical black man who presents an exceptional source of threat to worried whites, who see themselves as extraordinary victims in SA. You ask how we reconcile this with an anti-racist agenda that rejects the associations between blackness and violence/danger, and at least part of the answer is that we actually talk about it. We foreground and highlight these paranoid myths to make it clear that they are myths.

Things shouldn’t be this way, but the fact remains that white people’s anxieties, and the fears of the cushioned middle classes in general, get a disproportionate amount of attention in media and political discourse so we can’t just ignore them and hope they go away. We saw so much of this during the ‘community’ vigilante actions that characterised the recent looting and riots in KZN and Gauteng: all black South Africans, everyone, from elderly people to women with children, were classified as dangerous at those roadblocks. These racist representations have power and need to be interrogated as robustly as possible. 

Nko: I know this is  a bit of an unfair question, but do you think the book is a true reflection of anxiety in Jo’burg?

As a media scholar I am contractually obliged to argue that there are no ‘true’ reflections! I’m being flippant, of course, but there is some truth to this.

Firstly, we can only claim to be giving a realistic reflection of the specific anxieties that these chapters deal with, rather than with the multiple other affective experiences that classify Joburg life. And, secondly, we have to acknowledge that the anxieties we do deal with are mediated through the perceptions and positions of the chapters’ authors. So I don’t honestly think we can claim that this book, or any scholarly work really, is a completely authentic representation of lived reality, because of the processes and selection and interpretation that reality goes through.

But I don’t think that undermines or devalues the work at all: the chapters in this book give really insightful views into certain elements of certain Joburg realities. I don’t know that it’s even possible, in just one book, to give a properly definitive picture of such a complex and mutable city.   

Nko: The idea behind Baeletsi Tsatsi’s ‘Taxi Diaries’ to be spread throughout the book – what was the thinking there?

Letsi is a really wonderful storyteller. Cobus (my co-editor) and I were very struck by her taxi stories, tiny snippets of unvarnished urban life that sum up a lot of what fascinates us about Joburg: the conditions of mobility and immobility, the endless inequalities and constrictions, the necessity of relating, the changeability, the warmth. We loved the way she gently narrated a certain kind of urban movement and the negotiations and compromises it requires. We knew that we wanted to include her work and we considered asking her to write a single longer story/chapter, but in the end it felt really natural to have her narrate the reader through their experience of the book in the same way that she narrates herself through her experience of Joburg.

As we say throughout, this is such an emotive city, it’s so full of complicated and demanding feelings. We wanted a throughline that emphasised this affect and kept the more scholarly chapters grounded in a sense of the daily realities of Joburg – and what is more real than trying to get around by taxi? 

Joanna Woods (is a doctoral researcher at Stockholm University, whose project focuses on contemporary southern African speculative fiction; she is also our Comms Editor at Africa in Words).

Woods: First, I have to say how much I enjoyed reading this book!

In the Introduction, you note that “anxiety provides a common language, a collective rhetoric, that allows us to talk to each other about how we live here” (p.8). This is such a productive way of thinking about the state of anxiety and/or the state of being anxious. Could you comment on the creativity of anxiety: the potential that might be embedded in the concept? Perhaps especially in the context of Joburg, and South Africa?

I actually had just this conversation recently with a brilliant PhD student named Maya Loon, who has compelling arguments for why we should think about anxiety as productive. And to an extent I do agree that these kinds of persistent negative emotions can be part of what drives the enormous creativity of a city like Joburg. At the same time, though, I also want to push back against this idea in certain moments and contexts.

Zygmunt Bauman talks about cultures of fear as debilitating consequences of the powerlessness we feel in a distant and shifting political culture that we don’t really understand or relate to. I draw on that a lot in my own work: the kind of anxiety I’m interested in, and that this book is interested in, is a collective state that has its roots in social conditions (Sara Ahmed writes wonderfully about this) rather than an individual experience. I worry that defining this kind of anxiety as productive/creative can veer dangerously into a neoliberal vision of society in which even debilitating feelings are good because they make us do more, create more, produce more, which of course is in line with the way we are interpellated as capitalist subjects.

I think it’s necessary to be able to say that yes, the condition of anxiety is ubiquitous to modern life, and that it definitely has elements that spur meaningful work and thought, but at the same time to allow ourselves to admit that that’s kind of disastrous. We don’t necessarily have to find a positive application for the consequences of capitalism, and maybe, in imagining more just futures, we can think of a social world where we don’t always feel compelled to be moving and advancing. In a way I think my own focus on the anxious nature of this city is also a requiem for stillness, for not achieving, not scuttling, not being driven, which are of course not states I have personally managed to achieve, given that I work in academia in the 21st century. 

Woods: There is a wonderful mix of contributions in Anxious Joburg – from essays to diary entries to a Q&A with photographer Sabelo Mlangeni. But were there contributions that perhaps didn’t make the final book, or that you feel were missing or would have liked to have included had there been time, space, or if word count allowed?

Absolutely, and as I said above there is no way a single text can encapsulate a whole city. There are so many gaps in this book, which we have had to learn to live with and readers have been very kind about. The nature of an edited project, especially one that develops from an in-person workshop, is you can only include what people are willing to write and submit, so there will always be things missing.

We tried to manage these by commissioning a few pieces (Aidan Mosselson’s and Njogu Morgan’s, for example), but there are still major lacunae we didn’t fill. In her preface Sisonke Msimang writes that this is a book about Joburg rather than Soweto, which would be very different, and she’s completely spot on as always, but for me the absence of Alexandra and other inner city townships sticks out.

We would have liked to include something explicitly on health anxiety: chapters like Khangelani Moyo’s touch on it, but we would have liked a conversation on HIV and/or TB, on clinics and hospitals and medical aid, on getting to and from healthcare locations. And, as Kagiso’s first question above made clear, we also have to acknowledge that the anxieties of privileged people are, as always, over-represented, because they (or rather we) have the loudest voices; in its own way this emphasis also leads to lacunae, and we need to consider what we are leaving out when we include three chapters about white/wealthy Joburgers. 

 Woods: The book provides an interesting and unique snapshot of a present moment, in a specific space-time. But I am curious to know if you think the book reveals something of the past and/ or uncovers anything of a future imaginary as well?

I do think there is a lot of our history in there, yes. Colonialism, slavery and formal apartheid were all regimes of terror that worked on the emotional lives of those subsumed to them, but this isn’t usually a way in which we talk about them (Pumla Gqola’s book on slavery being a notable exception). I don’t think that you can talk about anxiety in 21st century Joburg without being hyper-aware of the ghosts that lurk around the city: the miners, the labourers, the protesters, the millions of humans who were casually sacrificed to build this place and then casually ignored. These are the ‘urban atmospheres’ that Sarah Nuttall points to in her beautiful afterword. Joburg is a profoundly haunted place but also one in profound denial, constantly rebuilding itself, promising newness and reinvention without acknowledging the bones that line its cavities. Thinking of the contemporary city in terms of anxiety allows us to open up conversations across decades, to try and imagine how these emotional currents shaped earlier experiences of living, getting by and also not getting by in this city. 

Katie Reid (is a recovering academic, an independent researcher, editor and creative arts consultant; also editor and co-founder of Africa in Words).

Reid: The book is so rich and with so many possible avenues to take it – thank you –  so I’ve tried to keep my focus on the visual – arts, urban, architectures…

Cross-section – ‘Mapping Anxiety in Greater Johannesburg’ by Naadira Patel, pp. xiv-xv (modified by AiW)

Prefacing the chapters and guiding our way in to them, there is a map of the book’s locations of anxiety, 33 of them, an illustration by Naadira Patel, ‘Mapping Anxiety in Greater Johannesburg’. Could you say a bit about how this map came to be, and is there something about visualising these topographies in this way, the idea of the conceptual map, that was/is important for your project?

The map was something that Cobus and I were determined to include from the start. We wanted some sort of visual representation of how split the city is, how divided and factional. Due to its (continuing) history as an apartheid city, its car-centric planning, its spread out nature, its tendency to move north and south rather than upwards, its public transport failures, Joburg remains characterised by islands. There are concentrations of action and public life – central Soweto, the inner city, Rosebank, Sandton, parts of the north – but then in between are vast swathes of the city that you would never know unless you lived in them or had a reason to visit. So many people’s experiences of Joburg are experiences of urban enclaves with suburban wastelands in between.

Naadira’s map does an amazing job of illustrating those gaps: there are spaces that just hang. And of course life happens there, but in presenting the city this way we wanted to try and show how far apart the centres are and how weirdly unmapped the bits in between them can feel. You ask in the next question about psychogeographical nodes, and in a way I think that’s what I’m getting at: the sites on the map are those, but we also want to acknowledge our lack of knowledge of what lies in between them, the ‘here be dragons’ that happen in different parts of the city for different kinds of residents. There are places that middle class people just don’t know or understand, there are places where the poor have never been. Of course this is the case in all big cities but again in Joburg it’s so incredibly visible.

This was something I discussed with the hosts of the Surviving Society podcast — which is such an amazing resource for conversations about race and the city — who were talking about their comfort, as born and bred Londoners, with moving through pretty much all of the city. That is a comfort that born and bred Joburgers never have. There are vanishingly few people who are genuinely comfortable across most of this city; the rest of us feel constrained by our race, our gender, our class presentation, our language, whatever else marks us as certain kinds of insiders or outsiders. So yes, part of the purpose of the map was to show what wasn’t there in the contributors’ collective landscapes of the city, as well as what was. 

Cross-section – ‘Mapping Anxiety in Greater Johannesburg’ by Naadira Patel, pp. xiv-xv (modified by AiW)

Reid: In the geographies and experiences of Joburg that the chapters relate, a series of what we might think of as different nodes, or perhaps even “hyper-localizations” to use ‘academise’ or scholar-speak, of anxieties emerge – I am thinking primarily in a psychogeographical sense. The text really clearly brings out the materiality of the experience of the city’s anxieties – people’s movement across the city, as well as the restrictions of its enclosing structures in fences, walls, towers, the separate zones and neighbourhoods in lived experiences of urban planning – and the in-building of the infrastructural and architectural “apartheid remains” that persist (to quote Sharad Chari, itself quoted in Mingwei Huang’s chapter, “The Chinatown Back Room: the Afterlife of Apartheid Architectures” on p.154), albeit in new(-ish) modalities and  manifestations. These are also gendered and sexed, as well as racially mediated and socio-economically mapped through the contributions. 

It seems like there is an interesting tension which could be seen to take an echo – I think – in the structures of visibility and invisibility, who is seen and/or not, that also run through the book. 

Were there any of these maps or geographies of anxiety — new visibilities of the “afterlives of apartheid architecture” to quote Huang again — that were unexpected, that surprised you as editors, or that changed your own trajectory and/or sense of your reader and who the book’s for, from the inception of the project? 

Well first I have to emphasise again that we didn’t really ‘choose’ contributions in the sense that we had a wide variety of options: we did end up commissioning some chapters, but really this book is made up of authors who were drawn to the initial workshop’s call, so it’s a self-selecting sample of people who found something productive in the idea of using anxiety as a way to discuss the urban. Hopefully our oversights are themselves calls for other unexpected/surprising affective geographies.

But to answer your question, I was actually deeply surprised by so many of the trajectories in these chapters. The kind of movement of both natural and aesthetic features in gated communities that Renugan Raidoo’s chapter points to, the different modes of migration that I mentioned above, the urban to rural shift of white people in Derek Hook’s chapter, the powerful attempts to claim the right to movement that Njogu Morgan deals with, the ‘hidden’ communities that Aidan Mosselson, Khangelani Moyo and Mingwei Huang draw out (at least hidden to me, as a white suburban academic); all of these drawings of Joburg were fascinating to me, and largely unknown despite my attempts at moving through the city as much as I am able.

I think you’re absolutely right about the tension between visibility and invisibility. On the one hand, as I said above, Joburg makes visible many of the conditions of the urban contemporary, its poverty, its subtle segregation, its fluidity; but at the same time Joburg, unlike aggressively mediated global cities in the north, remains to some extent unknowable. You can’t just find a website that’ll help you get around, you can’t rely on tourist information, you can’t trust Google Maps to keep you safe; surviving in Joburg is about sharing knowledge, about cousins and friends, about rumour. All of this is so clearly encapsulated in the taxi industry, which is really tricky to navigate as an outsider, but how else does a person get around unless they’re wealthy enough to own a car?

Included in Njogu Morgan’s chapter, Driving, Cycling and identity. ‘Members of a cycling club in late nineteenth-century Johannesburg pose with their machines. Courtesy of Museum Africa Picture Archives’, p.70.

To get back to your question, I think the work in this book has shifted my own understanding of the city as a place I am attached to but don’t really know. I still know little but, if this makes sense, my understanding of my own lack of knowledge has deepened. And I’ve found that really useful in terms of my own research and teaching.

Reid: In the editors’ Introduction, you make clear that the book, while appealing to psychoanalytical thinking, does not attempt “to psychoanalyse the city”, a task you go on to describe as “Promethean” and “whose attempts are best left to artists” (6). I’d love for you to a) expand on that a bit more, and b) perhaps with comment on the visual artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers the text does include, given your note that the creative arts offer a “vital perspective on the city” (p.14).

What we were getting at here is something that’s been pointed out by the brilliant Jacqueline Rose: you can’t just take psychoanalysis and apply it wholesale to a city, a country, a community. Psychoanalysis offers a really useful set of tools and terms for describing social phenomena, but that doesn’t mean we can simply diagnose entire collectives with particular conditions. It’s important to make that distinction. But at the same time the most powerful visual and other art offers a glimpse into that psychic underbelly, without the pitfalls of diagnosis.

Anton Kannemeyer, whose work features in Derek Hook’s chapter, is one of the most incisive chroniclers we have of hysterical white anxiety. I can think of few people who manage to get under the skin of white South African fears in the visceral, somewhat gross way that he does. Sabelo Mlangeni has an amazing eye for the secret lyricism of urban communities; he photographs city people honestly, without romance, but at the same time without the withering gaze of the anthropologist, so there’s a real sense in his work of the quiet joys of the people who live here as well as of how tenuous these can be. Baeletsi Tsatsi does something quite similar in the way she pares the daily experience of moving through Joburg right down to its bare bones, but in her case the teeth-gritting insecurities of that kind of mobility are brought right to the centre, without hyperbole, with just a deep and disconcerting awareness that anxiety, for some people, is a permanent condition. Antonia Steyn’s work is visually stunning, these large, wide landscapes that almost-but-not-quite beautify the city into a vision of its wannabe aspirational self, until you look at the images together and suddenly realise that, topographically, none of this makes sense.

These contributions stand alongside the work of artists and writers like Puleng Mongale (who I adore), Dean Hutton, Lidudumalingani Mqombothi, Terry Kurgan, Sibusiso Gcaba, Malcolm Jiyane, who manage to get under the city’s skin in a really immediate way.

I’m not suggesting that artistic work is more meaningful than intellectual work – anyway, that’s a flawed division that I think we should push back against as much as possible – but more that the collaboration between these ways of looking, writing and speaking can be incredibly rich and insightful. That’s a big part of why we wanted to push this further than ‘just’ a collection of academic essays, and for me at least it’s really part of the reason that I’m proud of the project. 

Photograph by Antonia Steyn, c. Nicky Falkof

Tinashe Mushakavanhu (is a Research Fellow at Wits WISER and JRF at the University of Oxford. Mushakavanhu is a writer, editor and scholar from Zimbabwe working at the intersection of art, design and technology.)

Mushakavanhu: Johannesburg has always been a city of migration, attracting people from everywhere. In what ways has this shaped the psychology of the city and how does this reflect through the collection and your intentions as editors?

Both Cobus and I have our own experiences of migration. Of course this was of a fairly privileged form: he did his PhD in Japan, I did mine in the UK. But nonetheless both of our interests in urban forms are to some extent impacted by those experiences of atomisation, especially coming, as we both did, from growing up in white Johannesburg during the end of apartheid, where migration was something prevalent but abstract – all the black people we knew had a place somewhere else that was called ‘home’, whereas for us Joburg simply was home, regardless of the fact that, in my history at least, migration was a fairly recent occurrence (my grandfather’s family fled the anti-Jewish pogroms in eastern Europe at the start of the 20th century).

We have also both worked in the same department at Wits University, which makes one very aware of current crises of migration: I’m constantly encountering African students and colleagues who face the brick wall of SA immigration policy as well as daily xenophobia on the streets and on campus. So walking into this project I think we were both very aware that, while it wasn’t a book about migration as such, there is no way to tell a Joburg story without honing in on the mobilities and currents that sway our population in various ways. Some of the chapters deal explicitly with migration and mobility (B Camminga’s, Joel Cabrita’s and Aidan Mosselson’s, for example), while in others, like Mingwei Huang’s, it’s present but not necessarily stated; but I think a thread running through all the work, from the chapters on wealthy suburbs to those on precarious edge places, is concerned with the question of belonging or not-belonging.

And this is so fundamental to a migrant city, where residents are constantly negotiating or entrenching their positions and defining others as insiders or outsiders. Whether it’s the kind of long distance migration of refugees, the internal movements of the women in Lebohang Masango’s chapter who are drawn to Joburg for study and status, or the intra-urban shifts of the young women in Cobus van Staden’s chapter, who move from the township to the outer suburbs, the psychology of the city is absolutely framed by the constancy of movement and the instability this brings. 

Mushakanvanhu: After the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma this year for contempt of court, there were violent eruptions in some parts of South Africa, particularly in Gauteng and KwaZulu Natal. How can a book like
Anxious Joburg be read in such a social and political context?

One of the elements of the city that Anxious Joburg emphasises is the simmering tension that so many residents feel, from the inner city to the suburbs, about security and status. Some Joburg residents live in a state of heightened awareness about their physical safety and the safety of their homes and goods; others live with the constant awareness of being left behind, of being excluded from the glamour and stability of what my colleague Mehita Iqani calls the ‘good life’, which is depicted aggressively on the billboards that ravage our skyline and public areas; and of course many people exist within both.

The recent events in Gauteng really drew on these affects. They suggested a city in violent flux, where nothing and no one was safe, an excessive and overblown version of ‘everyday’ Joburg anxieties; but at the same time they were clearly inspired by the city’s rampant and visible inequalities. I don’t want to be too glib about it, but I do think this is a useful book for ‘reading’ the riots and the reactions to them. Yes, we know that there was a lot of political manipulation going on, but beyond that, these explosions of violence didn’t spring from nowhere. They were coherent with the city’s longer standing anxieties, with its basic unfairness, its atomisation, its material competitiveness, its constant changeability.

Some people are very angry here, with good reason, while others are very afraid, and many are both. When thinking about these kinds of events we need to think not only of the ANC factionalism and ruthless machinations behind them but also of the intense and febrile emotional landscape of the city that makes it available for manipulation. July 2021 really supports our broader argument: we need to be cognisant of the enormous social and political power of collective emotion.

Mushakavanhu: How has Covid-19 heightened anxieties in Joburg? 

I had a great conversation about this recently on the Surviving Society podcast, which I mentioned earlier and would like to plug again, if I may. Part of what we were talking about there is what the pandemic has done to Joburg, how it’s constrained and constricted this city that was intensely social and made it even harder to move through. Streets are even emptier while full taxis and buses feel even riskier; the few public spaces we have, and the retail spaces that so often stand in for them, feel like spectral echoes of themselves. Of course this is not specific to Joburg, but as with so much of what we’re interested in about this city, in Joburg this kind of global trend is hyper-visible: we see the emptying effects of the pandemic over and over, in spaces that feel hollowed out, lifeless or intensely precarious.

In Joburg groups of wrapped up informal recyclers huddle together on makeshift beds under hanging balconies, just moments from deserted, echoing indoor malls. The constant crises that people in this city have – am I safe, do I belong here, who are those ‘other’ people, will I be allowed to stay here – are amplified by the way in which the pandemic has further carved up space. It feels like quotidian concerns about crime, safety, status and belonging have all been ramped up because they are even easier to see now: our powerful inequality is violently on display and yes, that makes different kinds of people anxious in different ways. 

Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City, co-edited by Cobus van Staden and Nicky Falkof, is published by Wits UP (October 2020).

As well as of Anxious Joburg, Falkof is the author of The End of Whiteness: Satanism and Family Murder in Late Apartheid South Africa (2015) and Risk, Anxiety and Moral Panic in South Africa (forthcoming 2022); she is also a co-editor of Intimacy and Injury: In the Wake of #MeToo in India and South Africa (forthcoming 2022). She is a Fellow of the ACLS African Humanities Programme, has undertaken a residency at the Rockefeller Bellagio Centre in Lake Como, Italy, and has been a visiting scholar at the University of Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, Sussex University in the UK and UNAM in Mexico. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vice magazine, The Conversation, The Mail & Guardian and the Daily Maverick, among other outlets.  

Website: www.nickyfalkof.comTwitter: @barbrastrident

Watch this space for our forthcoming review of the book: ‘Our Discomfort, My Discomfort’ by Kagiso Nko…

But maybe this was a goal –  to make us question our discomfort, my discomfort…

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