Saturday, June 30, 2012

What draws people to Johannesburg is the people that you find there

Historian Keith Breckenridge from the Wits Institute of Social and Economic Research will curate the 2012 JWTC Tour of Afropolitan Johannesburg on Sunday 1 July. The theme for the 2012 Tour is The Natural Life of a City.  He has agreed to speak to The Blog.

Conventional accounts of Johannesburg usually privilege the histories of mining in interpreting the trajectory of this city. Is a pre-mining history of Johannesburg at all possible and what would it look like?

Johannesburg is a very strange city (quite unlike other cities that were built by mining, like San Francisco and Melbourne) because it has no geographical resources aside from its peculiar geology. Unlike many African cities it has no access to water ways, nor does it act as a central point on an older transport network. Having said that  I don't doubt that the generations ahead of us will do a better job of producing a history of the 18th century highveld, starting with the archeology --  but I don't think that will be a history of the city.  

Is there, in your mind, a difference between a “geological” history of the city and a “natural” history of the city?

Not really. I grew up here, and as a child the wild landscapes of the city -- which came with exciting natural dangers like rinkhalses and scorpions (but very few people) -- were defined by the quartzite mountains in Northcliff and Melville. The rocks of Johannesburg are primordial but they've also served as very modern agents of a modern natural history. This is nicely captured in van Onselen's social history of the Regiment of the Hills. And mining has remade the geology in such bizarre ways raising and flattening dumps around the city over the course of our lives that it is hard to think of a natural history that isn't dominated by geology.

Presumably, mines will be depleted at some point in the future. This in no way means that Johannesburg will become a ghost city. If we were to project ourselves in the future, what would a post-mining city and economy look like?

I'm sceptical that the mines will ever entirely run out. The economics of depletion is very paradoxical (as Mitchell shows in his book on the political economy of oil), and I suspect that a century from now gold mining will be quite prosperous in this area. (The Witwatersrand basin is still mostly unexploited, but the reserves are now at such depths that the rock temperatures alone -- approaching 80 degrees celcius -- make mining impossibly expensive. That will change.) Much, of course, depends on the place of gold in the world economy, but, even there, one of the lessons of our history is that gold thrives on crisis. Only someone who imagines that we can be free of a crisis free capitalism would have grounds to imagine a mining-free Johannesburg. Having said that, the city is already substantially beyond mining as a social and economic space -- what draws people to Joburg is the people that you find here. It's certainly not the weather or the institutions. That seems pretty cool to me. 
Did you see the movie ‘District 9’? In your view, what kind of future histories of the city does this film suggest?
I did, and I absolutely loved it. It's epiphanous, if that word is allowed. The movie does warn of a segregationist future carved out by the special kinds of biopolitical corporate power that thrive here. We have only to look at the private security and biometric welfare systems to see where that might go. But it also valorizes miscegenation and transgression (and cross-cultural sympathy and complexity) and that's really where we (and here I mean the Joburgers) are going.

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