Mapping an Emotional Landscape: Urban Anxiety in Johannesburg

In our fifth edition of Talking Urban Futures in Africa, the CSIS Africa Program sat down with Cobus van Staden and Nicky Falkof, co-editors of Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City (Wits University Press, 2020).

Van Staden and Falkof discuss why anxiety is a useful lens to understanding Johannesburg (“Joburg”), the largest city in South Africa. Anxiety underpins what people buy, how neighborhoods are structured, and which type of crimes take place. But there has been a deficit of study into Joburg’s emotional landscape. While cities like London and New York are highly romanticized through books, television, and movies, Johannesburg remains one-dimensional on the world stage—most featured in films about apartheid, post-apartheid, and violent crime. The editors also discuss the intersectionality of crime, including anxieties felt by women, particularly Black women; queer individuals; and LGBTQ migrants. Last, they talk about Joburg municipality’s urbanization initiatives and differences in race-based anxiety between Joburg and U.S. cities.

  • Cobus van Staden is a senior researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) and is affiliated with the Department of Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

  • Nicky Falkof is a writer and academic based in Johannesburg. She is associate professor in media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

The discussion, moderated by Judd Devermont and Marielle Harris, has been edited for purposes of brevity and clarity.

JD: I think the first place to start is the way that you describe the importance of Johannesburg's emotional landscape, and how you use anxiety to understand why Joburg is the way it is. Why is it important to look at the city's emotional existence? Why is it valuable to understand a city through emotion rather than facts or statistics?

NF: Why anxiety? Well, you can't analyze a political system without considering people's emotions to some extent. What are people afraid of? What do they desire? What identities are they imposing on themselves and on others? Who do they want to be close to? Who do they want to be far from? Emotion structures how we shop, which structures our economies. It underpins the physical ways in which cities are built. But we don't often think about Global South cities in these terms. We don't often grant people the agency and the inner life that we grant people in the Global North.

If you consider media, cultural production, and literature, you might think about the kind of films that are made about a city like New York, where you have your deep, internal, canonical pieces of text that are all about how someone feels. And then you think of a city like Joburg, where you have films about Apartheid, films about post-Apartheid, films about violence, but never anything about people’s inner lives.

CVS: This is one of the reasons why we focus on anxiety rather than on fear, because anxiety is free-floating. We quote a prominent South African psychologist who calls anxiety "objectless." So you can be anxious about a particular issue, but you can also be anxious, very anxious, about not something specific at all—just a lot of different things—and some are defined and some are not. It is this anxious hum that underlies the experience of living in Joburg.

Because South Africa underwent apartheid, and Johannesburg was built according to apartheid ideas, there are buffer zones, highways, and empty stretches keeping people apart. The history of the city is written on its landscape. But the emotions that result from that history are not as well mapped. Mapping an emotional landscape ended up being our contribution to previous physical mappings done in Joburg.

MH: One of the topics you cover in the book is crime—specifically the fear of crime—and how these are big contributors to anxiety. Can you break this down for us and explain how crime intersects with class, race, and gender in Joburg?

CVS: Crime is a major reality in Johannesburg. It is a major structuring principle in how the city is built, how people build their houses, how they act in public. But the fear of crime is almost something different than the actual crime problem. When looking at crime statistics in South Africa, one realizes that poor people suffer disproportionately from crime. Crime for poor people is a daily, lived, physical experience. Whereas for more affluent people, the discourse around crime is huge, but they don't have as much of a daily experience of crime.

NF: From an intersectional perspective, crime is a huge issue in terms of gender. South African rates of gender-based violence (GBV) are off the scale. There are horrific stories weekly of women murdered, both by intimate partners and strangers.

In the book, there are stories written by a young Black woman who traverses Johannesburg in highly precarious ways using public, mini bus taxis. These are dangerous, and young women are often seen as fair game by the drivers and to other men. Crime is, particularly for women, one of the most significant features of life in Johannesburg, because you are constantly hypervigilant. For working-class women much more so than middle-class women, and for women who take public transport much more so than for women who have private transport.

CVS: The line between robbery and GBV is incredibly blurred. The fact that South Africa has gone through pervasive, systemic levels of corruption, particularly during the Jacob Zuma era, has further erased the line between who is a criminal and who is not a criminal? So, when South Africans talk about criminals, "You shouldn't do this because criminals are watching," certain people are included in that group, and other people who have well-proven criminal records are not.

Crime talk is coded. It's a coded way for people to talk about the failures of the state, for example, or a whole set of other issues. And it very much depends on who's doing the talking, and what kinds of words they're using in relation to crime, to unpack exactly what kind of anxieties they're expressing.

MH: Can you describe the anxieties felt by women, queer, and trans individuals in Joburg? What is different, or significant, about the anxieties these communities might experience?

NF: For women, physically being on the streets feels quite dangerous. In Johannesburg, you hear stories of women sexually harassed or even assaulted at taxi ranks or other public spaces, and often it's “because their skirts are too short.”

It’s not just a case of women being easier targets, so it's easier to steal their handbags, or of stereotypes of ravaging sexuality. It's about discipline. There's something in the way that gendered crime manifests in the streets of Johannesburg that is about telling women where they belong and where they don't belong.

Some argue that part of this has to do with the disenfranchisement of a generation of South Africans who were left out of the supposed promises of apartheid when South Africa turned into a neoliberal state. Who do you take your frustration out on? Who's always at the bottom of the pack? It's Black women. I do think that is an oversimplification, but there is something significant in the way in which Black women are consistently disciplined.

We have a huge homelessness problem in the city, and there's a lot of begging. But the majority of these people are men. Where are all the destitute women? Why are they not on the streets? How are they surviving? A lot of women, particularly migrants, end up in very low-level, extremely low-paying prostitution jobs because they're not permitted to survive in other sectors of the city.

CVS: With regard to the LGBTQ community, many transgender migrants come to South Africa because it has constitutional protection for sexual minorities, which other African countries do not. In some ways, South Africa is a kind of promised land for LGTBQ people on the continent. And when one goes to Johannesburg Pride, in particular to Soweto Pride, you really feel that. You can really feel people who come from everywhere, from all of these rural places, and a lot of other countries, to make it to Joburg and you really do feel giddiness in terms of self-expression.

But of course, self-expression also makes one visible in public space, so it becomes a difficult trade-off. For trans people, many of them try and get to Cape Town, because Cape Town has an image of being more LGBTQ-friendly than Johannesburg. But frequently, these migrants end up falling victim to attempts by the South African state to stop migrants from coming to South Africa. The government can't legally stop people from applying for asylum, but it makes the asylum process as difficult as possible, including by forcing LGBTQ migrants already in Joburg to stay in the city.

JD: Well, why don't we zoom out a little bit? You write that crime is becoming this anxious lingua franca for how Johannesburg talks about the state. It's also how Joburg thinks about the way the world sees it. What will investors think? How do both of these narratives impact policy, if at all?

NF: Other than being recognized as a “world-class African city,” which is just a ridiculous tagline, it seems like there is an astonishing lack of interest at Joburg’s municipal level in branding itself. One of the clearest ways you can tell whether policy is outward facing is through tourism. Tourist spaces that feel “safe” and “nice” have developed in wealthy parts of the city, but at a municipal level, you don't get the feeling that anyone who runs Johannesburg is particularly concerned about its larger reputation. If spaces like museums or concert locations open up, it is because groups or private individuals are willing to expend a lot of money. But the municipality is just not particularly bothered about it.

MH: Can we zoom out a little more to Southern Africa, or even the Global South? How is Joburg a viable template for city life in the southern hemisphere, and what does this reveal about an urbanizing Africa?

CVS: Joburg actually becomes a negative template in the sense of how frequently life becomes harder for people who are already experiencing difficulty. In Joburg, you have a situation where poor people who are trying to make a living are chased away by other poor people who are also trying to make a living.

NF: One of the things we were trying to avoid in this book was making the claim that Johannesburg is unique and special and exceptional, because obviously this is a problem that South Africans have. We think we are not of this continent.

Johannesburg is not the most anxious place in the world. But it is useful as a template when mapping the emotional landscape of a city because emotion is so visible in its architecture, in the mobility or lack of mobility of its people, both socially and physically. In a lot of ways, it sits in a kind of a mid-space, right? It's not a “developed, world” city. It's not London, and never will be. It's never going to have the architecture and the infrastructure and the Tube. But it also doesn’t have the vast areas of poverty that you find in Lagos or Delhi.

You are talking about a city where you have a lot of informal housing, a lot of people living in very dire circumstances. But you're also talking about a city where during Covid-19, the Gucci store did better business than any other Gucci store in the world.

Another reason that it is a useful template is that this is such a particularly unequal country, and its inequality is so visible. In Johannesburg, no matter how rich you are, if you leave your gated community in your BMW, somebody is going to ask you for money or try and wash your windshield. And inequality is of course the way in which global urbanization is headed.

JD: Are there things that the United States can learn from the Johannesburg experience about anxieties and how to address them or live with them?

NF: South Africans name out loud the fact that the state is rotten and that there's something seriously wrong with the way things are running. Whereas it seems to me that in the United States, that is not always socially permissible. People who do that are seen as quite radical. It's not “normal” to acknowledge that something is wrong in your democracy.

CVS: It’s not possible for white people in South Africa to pretend that they are the default, as happens in the United States. They might want to be, and a lot of their anxiety comes from not being the majority, but they can’t pretend they are.

NF: In South Africa, race talk and crime talk intersect, but race talk is also often quite overt. People are capable sometimes of speaking about race in quite straightforward ways because it is difficult to hide from it. Sara Ahmed makes this point when she talks about the way that scholars in the North write about the “invisibility” of whiteness. She argues, "Well, it might be invisible for you guys, but it's not invisible for us. Because we live with it every day." And because of the racial demographics in this country, it is a lot harder for white people to casually pretend that we’re benign.

In South Africa, the white middle class, although they do use crime as the placeholder for race, are potentially more cognizant of racial issues. That does leave some space for social change because people may be able to acknowledge the inherently racialized nature of their fears, which does not seem to be the case in the United States.

Judd Devermont is the director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Marielle Harris is a research associate with the CSIS Africa Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Marielle Harris