“Our discomfort, my discomfort”: a review of ‘Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global City’.

AiW Guest: Kagiso Nko.

It is part of how Joburg narrates itself, in particular to itself.
Editors’ Introduction – Nicky Falkof and Cobus van Staden.

AiW note: This review of Anxious Joburg (Wits UP) was completed before our accompanying Review Q&A, published on November 10th. Alongside reviewer Kagiso Nko, researchers, editors and writers Joanna Woods, Katie Reid, and Tinashe Mushakavanhu explored their investments in the book’s project with one of its two editors, Nicky Falkof. References here to Falkof’s responses to Nko’s additional queries in that Q&A have been added and are linked accordingly.

Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global City (Wits UP, 2020) is a scholarly collection that opens up to other ways of looking at Johannesburg, or Joburg, as it is commonly known by residents. It is also a book that both necessitates and compels us to come to terms – time and again – with the city’s history of state mandated violence against black and poor bodies. 

It is there in the first sentence of the book’s Foreword, by writer and thinker Sisonke Msimang: “For black people Johannesburg has always been a place of toil and misery”. The depth of this early reckoning — “always” — stays with me as I read on; it contributes to the questions I am prompted to ask myself, wrestling with them, it seems, along with the book’s editors and contributors — whose is the anxiety that ends up mattering most here?      

Joburg experiences a high amount of crime and poverty, and, as the book consistently makes clear, it is also one of the most unequal cities in the world. The city is about 76% black, about 12% white, 5% Asian, and 6% coloured (in South Africa’s official term of population registration). Anxious Joburg also illustrates the ways that race is synonymous with class in South Africa: middle class fears are frequently ‘white’ fears – even given the growing black and non-white middle class in the socio-economic stratifications of South Africa’s largest city and economic hub.  

I consider myself a Joburger, though not a native. I came about six years ago to study, and have had a love/hate relationship with the city ever since. My affinity might have led me, perhaps unfairly, to read this book with a certain expectation – reflective of my own experiences of Johannesburg as a young black man who is not from a middle-class background. Perhaps also because of my overfamiliarity, I kept oscillating between enjoying the sometimes thick descriptions and scholarly analysis, and thinking some chapters were unnecessarily long. 

But they do develop the ‘snapshot’ of the experience of the city the editors say they hope to provide (p.14). Expertly edited by Nicky Falkof and Cobus van Staden, their Introduction, “Traversing the Anxious Metropolis”, concedes that much of the available literature does tend to discuss “middle-class fear of crime in global south cities (Caldeira 2000; Ferraro 1995; Lemanski 2004; Spinks 2001)” (8). Falkof and Van Staden assert that their purpose is, instead, to put forward a very different take on Joburg – already a popular city of academic research and scholarship of the global south. The collection is an attempt to chart the emotional topography or the landscape of feeling of the city through anxiety, employed as “a common language, a collective rhetoric, that allows us to talk to each other about how we live here” (8), even in a city where the “segregationary urge plays a significant part in who lives where” (10). 

In this and in various other ways, the book acknowledges the difficulties of the task it sets itself. Still this does not ease my feeling that mounts throughout: that it is primarily the anxieties of minority groups that come forward, and as fear of a black and criminalised ‘unknown’ or of an unacknowledged, anonymised and, so, silent other.      

This is complicated. And on many levels. Take the book’s first formal chapter, “‘We Are All In This Together’: Global Citizen, Violence And Anxiety In Johannesburg”, by Van Staden, which reflects on the violent aftermath of the much-publicised ‘Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100’ concert of 2018. A “star-studded music and philanthropic event that took place in Johannesburg”, (23) Van Staden begins by acknowledging the concert’s success, on its own terms: it secured more than $7 billion in funding pledges for progressive causes and entertained a stadium full of music lovers at the Soccer City stadium, located there on the outskirts of Soweto in celebration of the centenary of Mandela’s birth. 

However, there was an “eruption of public violence outside the stadium which significantly complicated its meaning”. For such an internationally high profile event, this represented, Van Staden argues, a coming together of the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ in a clash that revealed “Johannesburg’s specific anxieties” (23). Discussing the failure to provide security for the concert goers, Van Staden builds an argument from his own first-hand experience and other’s ‘citizen witness’ reports — which came primarily via individuals’ social media feeds, and so, in real time, both nationally and internationally, as newsmakers struggled to make sense of events on the ground.

Touching on some key issues that come up through much of the rest of the book, Van Staden highlights institutional and state failures specific to South Africa that disrupted the assumed smooth running of the ‘global’ technologies and aspects of the concert, such as load shedding — planned and scheduled blackouts by the state because of excessive power / electricity demand. In so doing, the chapter demonstrates that the anxieties produced by the incidents after the Global Citizen event were multi-layered, in how they reproduced exercises of dominant power over different bodies: state power (or lack of) over its citizens, with an almost total lack of accountability; and in the crowd, other power structures and many related anxieties come through – particularly in this case, the use of violence in the maintenance of a cisgendered “patriarchal hegemony” (32) and those threats that women and queer bodies face — all drawn in different ways along racial and socio-economically divided lines.

Van Staden concedes to the fact that the “middle class has been particularly vocal in complaining about these breakdowns” (29); he goes on to conclude that “the attacks on the concert-goers outside the venue can’t simply be read from the perspective of class” (31). The research, the chapter, and thinking of the writing all plays that out. But, I also want to argue, this event and the violence afterwards highlighted classed anxieties. It made them more, rather than less visible. Van Staden shows how one had to partake in a variety of Global Citizen awareness-raising actions in order to be entered into a raffle to get tickets — “(mostly social media based clicktivism)” (24). With South Africa’s data cell phone bundles, a lot of South Africans and Joburgers were already put out of the range of the belonging it made up (31). 

In the developing psychological map of the city’s image under state capture, these particular localised circumstances — whose voices and anxieties matter most as Joburg citizens, and, again I would want to stress, in relation to those the editors’ introduction acknowledges are “louder” and therefore “easier to read” (13) — is a question that, in the end, does not sound at quite the same volume. 

Perhaps it cannot. It does feel like the structure of the book becomes emblematic of this at points, seeming to cluster together, for example, and at the front half of the book, a number of those chapters which turn a critical lens on whiteness, its narcissism and fragility, and specifically white anxieties. 

This grouping (chapters 4-7) amplifies the book’s concerns with post-apartheid anxieties as a symptom of the city’s changing psychogeographies, due to increased access of black people into formerly whites-only spaces. (See Falkof on this point in the accompanying Review Q&A, in response to my first question to her there.)

Derek Hook in “The white centreline vanishes: fragility and anxiety in the elusive metropolis”, Nicky Falkof’s chapter, “Ugly Noo-noos and suburban nightmares’, Renugan Raidoo in “The unruly in the anodyne: nature in gated communities”, and Mingwei Huang’s  “The Chinatown back room: the afterlife of apartheid architecture”, take different approaches to what becomes a discomforting running theme of criminalisation and othering of the black body in the long wake of white middle class flight from the suburbs. 

Huang, in directing her attention to Cyrildene, a suburb in the East of Johannesburg, asks “what does not transform?” in the hangover of racialised anxieties, does change the focus to the developments of post-apartheid Chinatown and the Chinese migrant community. This has been less visible in discussions about Joburg elite locations. Still, from the inside of one house lived in by the “Chinatown boss” (153) and a relatively self-enforcing environment, the house and the ‘maid’ or domestic labourer’s access is the point where issues of privacy, intimacy and domesticity continue to reinforce acute and brutalising stereotyping on the grounds of race. Fear of crime is not only directed towards unknown racial others but fixates on those in close quarters, whether domestic workers, gardeners, security guards, or workers’ partners.

Renugan Raidoo similarly relocates focus through the built urban environment to attachments to nature, pointing out the heritage aspect to the apartheid and colonial nostalgia that is built into the aesthetics of Joburg’s gated housing developments. The ‘natural’ that is created through these places exhibits a “menacing fragility” (135), reviving a romanticised “pastoral history built by white labour” (140). In turn, as Raidoo demonstrates, this generates and is a part of persisting and contradictory white unease, right at the heart of these perceived pockets of safety. Significantly, this chapter, pointed to in its title, “The unruly in the anodyne”, also sounds a striking note of the erasure of black histories in the “project of elite world-building” of Joburg’s gated communities. Raidoo raises archival evidence from the 1980s to show the amount of graves of black people, buried on the land around the working farm that became the land for the gated housing development, that were exhumed and dumped in “waterlogged mass graves” in Mamelodi, while the graves of white people that were moved to individual plots in Midrand Cemetery numbered just six (139).

Shifting this weight, inclusions of pieces by storyteller Baeletsi Tsatsi, a photo-essay by Antonia Steyn, and a Q&A dialogue with photographer Sabelo Mlangeni give the collection some texture, offering different modes of grappling with Joburg anxieties. 

The two most visually directed chapters that feature photography – Steyn’s, “Shifting topographies”, and the conversation between researcher Joel Cabrita and Mlangeni, “Photography and religion in anxious Joburg” – sit back-to-back about three-quarters through the book with some interesting results.

Antonia Steyn c. Nicky Falkof https://nickyfalkof.com/

Steyn’s essay, with words by Falkof, features two iconic buildings central in how people have come to know Joburg: the “so-called” Hillbrow Tower and the cylindrical Ponte City apartment building. Both dominate the Joburg skyline in the residential inner-city neighbourhood of Hillbrow, “on the historical border between city and suburbs” (177). But the focus on both buildings, and Hillbrow itself, also holds a sense of dread, the neighbourhood having garnered a reputation as a place of crime, violence and decay (178). 

This uneasy, even “anxious” lens precedes Mlangeni’s dialogue piece about his photography practice. Reflecting on his photographs made in connection to his identity as a member of the Zionist church in Joburg, the city he moved to in 2001, and back home, the village of Driefontein in Mpumalanga, by contrast Mlangeni brings forward the significance of Hillbrow to his future as a photographer, and the possibilities it held in navigating the city’s more treacherous terrains  – “it was just a fantastic community we had in Hillbrow” (188-189). Shown by key examples of Mlangeni’s images, although much of what Cabrita and Mlangeni talk about can be construed negatively – “anxiety, displacement, dislocation, liminality, not belonging”, as Cabrita summarises it in the end of the discussion (202) — there are also profound moments of togetherness, peace and belonging.   

The storytelling of Baeletsi Tsatsi is spread across the book, in three unnumbered, small text pieces — titled “Taxi Diaries” and subtitled “I: What are you doing in Joburg?”; “II: Travelling while female”; and “III: And now you are in Joburg”. The treatment of these text pieces was unlike the scholarly chapters or Steyn’s photographic essay, a decision opaque to me on my first reading. (Nicky Falkof responds as an editor to my question about this in the accompanying review Q&A to this piece.) I chose to read them alongside Njogu Morgan’s scholarly chapter, “Driving, cycling and identity in Johannesburg”, as they each concentrated on various intersections in how different residents of Joburg experience mobility, but you could take this in different directions as a reader. 

Tsatsi’s diaries give a first-hand, present-tense experience of using a minibus taxi – the transport mode of primarily black residents — as a woman in Joburg, highlighting its cultures and its threats. This is beautifully illustrated in II: “Traveling While Female”:

I had a job interview at the SABC and I wore my beautiful silk wraparound skirt and that day I learnt, ‘Don’t wear soft clothes in a taxi headed towards Auckland Park, they will tear’. I can’t wear certain dresses or pants if I’m going on particular routes because they just worsen the taxi rank abuse I’m already prone to. The night before, I think long and hard about the outfit that will make me disappear or make me less enticing to the queue marshals and the taxi drivers.

Morgan’s reckoning with transport as an “outsize” “social activity [that is] shaped by demographic differences” in Joburg (64) presents a different set of concerns. Looking historically, Morgan makes a point of socio-economic and spatial dynamics in perceptions of mobility. Anything from the suburban “time-advantaged” vehicle owner to the cyclist or taxi user, exasperation with “technologies and infrastructures of mobility in the city” are regularly framed in terms of risk – “road rage, crime, potholed roads, poorly maintained buses and trains, errant minibus taxi drivers and more” (64).

Much like the many other public narratives of Joburg, such transport narratives evoke anxiety. But the standout in Morgan’s analysis is the pinpoint in his use of the concept of “status anxiety”, i.e. status competition attached to objects that are, in this case, modes of transport, and the symbolic power of the luxury car shaping the top of social hierarchies since “the founding of Johannesburg”  (78-79).

Partly, “status anxiety” becomes a useful link through the book. It calls back to the earlier, “It’s not nice to be poor in Joburg: Compensated relationships as social survival in the city” (chapter 2). As fresh as it is informative, Lebohang Masango takes us insightfully through the inner workings of navigating the financial insecurity that her interlocutors experience: three women, each from black middle class backgrounds. 

Here, anxiety is premised on how one cannot hang in the middle in Joburg: as the three women say in various ways, you are either rich or you are poor. Consumerist and aspirational, Joburg encourages different ways of engaging and practicing love, intimacy, and romance, which the chapter does well to show the motivations for, also dispelling certain assumptions and perceptions about these ‘compensated relationships’ and financial status. 

By engaging closely with her interlocutors and their stories, Masango brings these relationships forward from the black middle class in South Africa; in the busyness of Joburg’s competitive environment, maintaining this status is still precarious, demanding black people do more to retain it – to “hustle” (47). Masango shows how that is a source of anxiety on its own. 

As Masango’s insightful work reveals some of the black middle class anxieties that white middle classness does not contend with, chapters by B Camminga, Khangelani Moyo and Aiden Mosselson give a beautiful snapshot of anxieties experienced by black, poor and marginalised inhabitants of Joburg. Together with the conversation between Mlangeni and Cabrita, positioned towards the later part of the book, these chapters (9-12) really make strides to highlight the anxieties of the majority black population as well as underrepresented groups. 

B Camminga’s chapter, ”Marooned: Seeking asylum as a transgender person in Johannesburg”, is poignant, underlining the fears that African transgender refugees seeking asylum face in  a Johannesburg. The city extends its anxiety borders to the administrative capital of Pretoria in this context and Camminga’s chronicling of anxiety experienced by transgender asylum seekers shows it to be compounded manyfold – by various levels and kinds of conservatism, homophobia, class, race, xenophobia, and transphobia. 

Camminga’s geographies also note anxieties specific to Joburg in the comparative lack of dedicated LGBTQI+ shelters and resources, and the closure of the Refugee Reception Office (RRO) in the previous relative safety offered by Africa’s “gay capital”, Cape Town (206). Being dependent on the South African state remit to gain refugee status is itself an arduous process; as a transgender person, often already fleeing persecution and abuse in their countries of origin, gaining that status is even more cumbersome, as well as dangerous, despite the promise of shelter and protection enshrined in South Africa’s legal constitution. 

Khangelani Moyo’s contribution, meanwhile, looks at the risks for the mostly black residents of living in a Johannesburg “periphery” built on former gold mining land, Sol Plaatjie, an “economically depressed quasi-formal settlement located between Roodepoort and Soweto” (226). Moyo clearly articulates health fears related to the environmental degradation and mercury pollution from the mine dumps (235) — as well as the fear of violent crime that comes with living in proximity to the activities of illegal informal mining — this is all with a vacuum of any government intervention and law enforcement. 

“Everyday urbanisms of fear” brings across the picture of the informal miners, the ‘zamazamas’ specific to Sol Plaatje, as heavy handed, violent, organised criminals. But I also saw people attempting to survive extreme financial precarity by partaking in this highly dangerous activity. Moyo quotes Thornton on this point, who defines zamazamas as being “‘better described as ‘artisanal’ miners and entrepreneurs who create significant numbers of jobs and economic value for many local communities’ (Thornton 2014, 127)” (231). 

This kind of multifaceted writing about the dangers of living and getting by in Joburg is appreciated, showing itself, too, in Aidan Mosselson’s “Inner-city anxieties: fear of crime, getting by and disconnected urban lives”. I lived in Johannesburg CBD for about two to three years and have experienced the same anxieties and fears expressed by the residents consulted in Mosselson’s research. Combining interview material with urban studies and planning scholarship, Mosselson argues that fear of crime (FOC) is a defining feature of Johannesburg life and urban subjectivities. But in Mosselson’s hands, it is not a bourgeois sentiment. Despite “their general silence in the prevailing literature”, he tells us, “poor black people are actually more likely to fall victim to crime and violence, and frequently articulate acute fears and anxieties about this vulnerability” (245). I appreciated this chapter particularly and would have liked to have seen a bit more of its kinds of discussions. 

Anxious Joburg makes formal acknowledgements of its absences, future directions for further research, as well as the structural complexities of the city and its arguments about it. The quality is not in contention. And I am in no way decrying or invalidating those anxieties that speak most through it. 

To return to my opening question though, reading through, I could not help wondering how, even with the theoretical sophistication and expertise collected by this book, its approaches to providing a critical lens of the emotional topographies of Joburg centre certain kinds of fears. It cannot help but risk reinforcing the racialised stereotypes they bring forward to dissect. 

I guess my overriding feeling remains: what and who does the book come to represent, and with that, whose anxiety is it that matters more? Perhaps if this collection had been more explicitly about the residues of apartheid anxieties persisting today, I would have felt less ambivalent throughout. 

But maybe this was a goal –  to make us question our discomfort, my discomfort.  Overall, this succeeds, offering a compelling collection and insight into the psychology of Joburg, contributing, as Sarah Nuttall’s Afterword says, “significantly to the growing literature on global south city lives and city forms” (267). 

Kagiso Nko is a PhD student in Anthropology with the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. He is broadly reading around Blackness, Black Life, Township Life in South Africa and Happiness. 

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

To open Kagiso’s review further, find out more from his direct questions to editor Nicky Falkof, with our accompanying post, a Review Q&A (out on the site on November 10):

Answering the questions is Nicky Falkof… 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.

Kagiso asks specifically about the presence of the ‘black anonymous figure’ as a source of anxiety in the book, the collection as a ‘true’ reflection of Joburg anxieties, and the editorial decision behind the spread of Baeletsi Tsatsi’s storytelling “Taxi Diaries”.

Other questions about the book’s approach to the city range across its focuses, considering the productivity of anxiety as a theoretical approach, as a snapshot of the present to its future possibilities; the book’s inclusions in light of its omissions; the visual arts and architectural focuses that run throughout; migration and the pandemic, and extending the reading of anxiety to the violence of July 2021 after former president Zuma’s arrest…

See here for an update from Global Citizen in Dec 2020:



Categories: Research, Studies, Teaching, Reviews & Spotlights on...

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

join the discussion:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: