Saturday, June 30, 2012

Uitvalgrond - Surplus ground

Site of former Shareworld

If there is any notion of landscape that defines Johannesburg it is perhaps best described by the Afrikaans word ‘uitvalgrond’, which translates into English as ‘surplus ground’. Uitvalgrond was the word used to describe the original triangular-shaped farm of Randjieslagte, which fell between 3 larger farms and was selected as the site on which the city was originally planned. The Transvaal Government didn’t think the mining town would last very long and so this dusty, flat surplus ground had seemed sufficient. In the current shape of the city, the idea of the surplus ground applies to those areas that appear empty, falling between or alongside new developments, the extensions of highways, shopping malls, parking lots and major intersections, alongside railway lines between mine dumps and mine shafts no longer in operation. These seemingly ‘natural’ interstices within the urban and sub-urban fabric of the city are not necessarily unoccupied or unused, often the space is the territory of informal traders or trash collectors and taxi yards, as well as the city’s indigent and homeless, or simply a pathway cutting across it. These areas extend along the railway line, underneath highway flyovers, or between main roads and new shopping centres, often describing the edges of greater Johannesburg. One example are the areas surrounding the Chinese trading centres, China Mall, Afrifocus and Dragon City, built on the original Crown Mines, where an aerial view reveals left-over mine structures behind the new developments. Inside the city, however, different ‘edges’ become apparent – between immigrant communities staking claim on streets, such as the Ethiopian/Erritrean community in Jeppe Street; or between gentrified zones and the territories adjacent to them, such as Arts on Main. In Johannesburg ‘surplus ground’s’ define the zones between the visible edges of the man-made and what we might define as ‘landscape’. They are most legible from the highway, and through the window of the Gautrain as it leaves Marlboro station for the 15 minute ‘trip’ from Alexandra to Sandton.
Looking at the city from Google earth reveals many zones of surplus ground, stranded spaces and abandoned sites that speak of the city’s history and development not as monument or memorial but as trace, tear or scar. In a sense we can think of these surplus grounds as stranded historical sites, such as the old Village Main Mine alongside the M2 near to the Heidelberg off ramp where about two years ago the symbolic head-gear was removed (possibly to be recycled).
Mining conveyor belt, Crown Mines area behind Afrifocus Mall
“There’s no question that Soweto is something of an recreational desert,” said Shareworld’s executive director, Reuel Khosa (developer of shareworld complex). “This place came in as an oasis.”  (Los Angeles Times, 1988, David Crary)
Built in the 1980’s as an entertainment and water-world for Sowetans, Shareworld contained an ‘artificial sea, a 2000 foot sand beach and wave-making machines as well as a discotheque and cinema complex. Publicised as ‘a victory for all those South Africans who still believe there is hope in South Africa’, the irony of the building of a beach for black people during the political violence of the 1980’s cannot go unmissed. Shareworld was closed since the mid-90’s, used only intermittently as a venue for dance parties, film shoots and a meeting of the Landless People’s forum during the World Summit for Sustainable Development in 2002. It became a surreal ruin, resembling a Spanish fishing village located between the massive mine dumps on the edge of Orlando West and Meadowlands, just off the road to the National Exhibition show grounds, NASREC. It was demolished in the lead-up to the 2010 World Cup and is now an empty site opposite the Soccer City Stadium. Its only visible use are the driving schools that use the parking lot as a practice ground.

View from a light aircraft, approaching Shareworld site from Soweto
Shareworld has become an ‘uitvalgrond’, located at the intersection of several trajectories in the history of the city’s development: apartheid planning’s separation of amenities; the mining history visible in the two tailings dams (mine dumps) that dominate the landscape and recent large-scale, event driven development around the soccer world cup, including up-grade of the approach roads and the Bus Rapid Transit system. 

What is legible at the this site is the particular relationship between a nature that is man-made, in excess of the urban, defined more by the sub-urban and perhaps even the subterranean.[i]

Bettina Malcomess lectures in theory and history at the Wits School of Arts and the School of Architecture. She works as an artist and writer, and is currently completing a book about Johannesburg with Dorothee Kreutzfeldt titled, ‘Not No Place’, to be published by Jacana Media.

[i] This text accompanies a short tour of the site with Anne Historical, along with an installation of elements of the Millennium Bar, a temporary, movable ‘bar’ built out of material from demolition sites and scrap yards.

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.