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Through my long-term engagement with development in South Africa, I have come to learn how much space itself matters, as the product of practices and flows. As Henri Lefebvre has famously asserted, space plays an active and operational role in the production of our socio-cultural landscapes. The elements of this landscape must therefore be viewed as relational. In South Africa, as in many spaces considered ‘developing’ or ‘emerging’ worldwide, the (sometimes extreme) results of hegemonic control over this relationality is often simply described as inequality. But this masks the everyday practices and aspirations of people in producing space in a (sometimes insurgent) manner. These are important drivers behind the research that I conduct and that led to my most recently released publication in International Development Planning Review 40(4).
Development, whether international or locally driven, is often paralyzed by the failure to recognize relationality. What drew me to consider the production of housing in Johannesburg and the Gauteng City-Region was that it revealed when, where and how the processes of inequality come together in a fundamentally relational way. The aspirations of people to achieve the dream of owning a single-family home are operationalized in this landscape to fund peripheral settlement patterns and aim for ‘cities without slums’.
As I discuss in the article, linking to established scholarship in South Africa on the production of housing, these practices are akin to the socio-spatial exclusion and marginalization of people that occurred under apartheid. One could assert that the intent is completely different; to provide housing for populations disadvantaged under apartheid is indeed a noble pursuit. And it is understandable that the government making this promise is under immense pressure to deliver the greatest quantity of housing possible. But continuing the same spatial patterns on cheaper peripheral land only perpetuates exclusion. The extreme distances of this particular landscape simply strand underprivileged populations on the peripheries and lock them into impossible commuter patterns. I was particularly struck by the vast sea of such ‘aspirational’ development in the Vaal, located more than 75 kilometers outside central Johannesburg, where poverty and privilege collide.
On the other hand, the everyday ‘insurgent’ actions of people, and the organizations and movements they are a part of, also form a powerful counterforce to this hegemony over space and urban development. They seek to assert their own movements throughout the city-region and ground their attempts at livelihood creation in its fabric. These phenomena occur parallel to the so-called ‘grand visions’ of internationally and nationally funded development, and constitute their power over what is often simply described as poverty. There are some excellent local projects that support the insurgent perspective, including some initiated by the City of Johannesburg, while many are driven by NGOs or academic engagements, as the article briefly describes. The case of Slovo Park presented here is representative of the multitude of ways the underprivileged utilize to claim a stake to the urban landscape.
The article is part of a larger investigation into the region surrounding Johannesburg, which was the subject of my doctoral thesis at the ETH Zurich. It undertook a multi-scalar analysis, ranging from processes of accumulation and dispossession on the regional scale to narratives about the everyday movements of people within this urban region. Early on in this work, I observed the production of housing on the extreme peripheries of Gauteng, even extending into neighboring provinces, which functioned as a hinterland of this immense territory. One of the key questions that arose was how this socio-spatial inequality could be even conceptualized relationally: How did people move, interrelating the spaces of poverty and privilege? I did not find it accurate or precise enough to simply survey them about their patterns, because I wanted to understand the impact of these spaces of poverty: How did their travel costs and time shape their lives? And how did this tie into the everyday production of the region?
The fieldwork methods implemented to approach these questions were both interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary. They included participant observation, intensive engagement with maps, extensive interviews, and a novel smartphone application that tracked the mobility patterns of study participants. Over the course of the project, 93 expert interviews were conducted, from initial interviews beginning in 2011 and continuing through my final research visit in 2017. 30 volunteers participated in the smartphone study described briefly in the article for 30 days, generating nearly 1,000 total maps. This allowed a relational specificity between the spaces of poverty and privilege to emerge.
Aspiration is powerful force in the production of socio-spatial inequality, and international development paradigms – including the representation thereof – are intricately connected to the ways in which people perceive, conceive and live the urban. As researchers, planners, or those responsible for governance, I urge us in this article to consider the space between control and insurgency, seeking solutions that recognize the power and relationality of space itself.