Reviewed by Jenny Robinson (Department of Geography, The Open University)
Published on H-SAfrica (October, 2006)
This is an exciting collection for South African studies and for urban studies as a whole. Writing from the city of Johannesburg, the authors are drawn from a wide diversity of backgrounds--literature, politics, urban studies, architecture, journalism, anthropology, and art. The papers are a mix of close theoretical arguments, lively contemporary accounts, reflective personal narratives, and engagements with new developments in this fascinating and dynamic city.
Johannesburg poses many different analytical challenges. Weaving the historiography of its apartheid past with the cultural and political innovations of the post-apartheid decade, for example; or making sense of the juxtaposition of HIV/AIDS-related death and the lively youth cultures, which are proliferating in the city; or opening up theoretical understandings of the city to the everyday encounters with the rest of the continent which Johannesburg seems to, in turns, relish and prefer to refuse. This collection really does try to find ways to do theoretical justice to the astonishing complexity and novelty, which is the city of Johannesburg some ten years after apartheid ended.
Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall start the collection with an energetic appeal for analyses of South African cities to open themselves up to the "multiple elsewheres" which shape the cities in practice (p. 348), moving on from the very locally embedded and in some ways exceptionalist accounts of the apartheid city which have dominated the literature in the past. This intersects with a spatial analysis of city life as shaped by flows, networking and interactions with many different places, by multiple rhythms and diverse imaginative experiences. All this makes Johannesburg (and all other cities, then), in many ways "elusive," as the title of the collection suggests. This spatial imagination, increasingly dominant in analyses of cities around the world, is tied to other post-apartheid theoretical maneuvers. Apart from bringing Johannesburg (and African studies generally) into a non-provincial engagement with the themes of a broader urban studies, it also invites us to think about the segregated city as one tied together (rather than kept apart) through numerous intersections between town and township; and to move on from the instrumentalist themes of political conflict and development ambitions which have cast a shadow over urban studies in South Africa more recently. (Although, I would suggest that there is much creative and theoretically informed work being done by South African scholars in this area too.) Here, Mbembe and Nuttall embrace the cultural dynamics and everyday life of the city through conversations with broader urban theory (stretching the dominance of the figure of the flâneur, for example, to include the migrant worker, the stranger, the criminal). This is an excellent range of themes and lines of analysis with which to invigorate post-apartheid urban studies and to facilitate creative and mutually rewarding engagement between South African scholars and others.
Mbembe starts the collection with a long review essay, instigating some of these agendas and experimenting with a range of theoretical vocabularies for capturing historical and contemporary dynamics in the city. In some ways this piece is an exemplary exercise in re-interpretation. He takes us back through some of the perennial themes of South African urban history--migration, segregation, regulation of African work and home lives, the intersections of class and race--and moves on to some themes which are important in framing a post-apartheid urban analysis: memory, forgetting, consumption, private/public spaces, fantasy. Mbembe's writing is in many ways pure pleasure, which also happens to be one of the ways in which he characterizes superfluity (as luxury), the running theme of his assessment of Johannesburg's urbanity. Although he also frames the term as meaning an excess which can then be exchanged, but he also intends it to imply a surplus which is a waste, or useless. He uses this to capture Johannesburg's complex histories of dependence on gold (a luxury commodity), on the racist production of a superfluous, expendable African labor force, on the superficiality of contemporary consumption and consumption landscapes as (perhaps) a way of masking the memories of past horrors. Overall, then, the essay is elegant and persuasive, with an exciting use of currently popular theory, including recently translated Michel Foucault, Hannah Arendt, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Georges Bataille, Georg Simmel and Siegfried Kracauer. This makes for a very stimulating read and one can only look forward to more of the same from this author as the fruits of his Johannesburg sojourn and research appear in the world.
It is, however, a rather provisional read of the historiography of the South African city. Although it is hard for me personally to assess this, as I am far too implicated in producing this historiography, I do think that there is scope for stronger reflection on the conclusions of South African urban studies. There is much to build on, even though I can only agree with his concerns that this literature can seem exceedingly empiricist and, at times, can frame issues in a rather parochial and limited way. But there has also been much detailed investigation of some of the issues he explores, including how biopolitics (of bodies, spaces, techniques of rule) shaped the city. Here a lot of attention has been paid to how health concerns shaped the city, for example, and whether they (as with other aspects of governance) were mobilized to effect racial segregation and control, or whether they had a life of there own, which would have been significant without apartheid and which certainly continues beyond apartheid's demise. So, on the one hand, this style of theorizing could reach further into reframing existing debates convincingly, and would certainly find much richer material to draw on to support some of the claims being made here. On the other hand, putting these creative engagements with the theoretical elsewheres of South African urban studies into play can only be a good thing for stimulating innovative research and writing on these and other cities.
Three empirically rich essays follow Mbembe's piece, each of which takes a different path through the life in Johannesburg, each rather different. Nuttall's exploration of the Y generation--youth culture, or "loxion kultcha"--highlights the need for research on contemporary ways of styling the self in the city. She cites a student essay from the University of the Witwatersrand, in which Mpolokeng Bogatsu frames "Loxion Kultcha" (Loxion taken from ilokshini, the Zulu form of the word "location," an early-twentieth-century term for African townships) as a cultural performance which claims "the streets of South Africa's townships as its cultural womb but occupies the centre of the city with its new forms" (p. 437). She draws her analysis from popular youth magazines and other media, to suggest how the city is functioning to energetically generate hybrid ways of styling the self. The provisionality and potential for refiguring existing elements (of language, style, performance) in the city resonates with AbdouMaliq Simone's rather different account of "people as infrastructure." Theoretically astute and ethnographically insightful, AbdouMaliq Simone demonstrates that the more mainstream themes of informality, development, globalization, etc. matter a great deal in this city, and can certainly be explored in ways which embark on new trajectories of engagement, both theoretically and empirically. His book, For the City Yet to Come (2004) is well worth reading.
The final formal essay in the collection, by Frédéric Le Marcis, offers an anthropological account of "the suffering body of the city" and addresses how people use city spaces and move around the city in their struggle to live with HIV/AIDS: marking out new spaces of despair and exclusion in the post-apartheid city. His analysis reinforces a sense of the city as being open to reinterpretation and remaking, but in ways, which are so different from the Y-generation, and loxion kultcha, which Nuttall considers. This is an important essay, which starts to map the spatialities of the lives of the many people in the city who are living with HIV-AIDS, and who are sick, poor and struggling to access the services they need with the discretion they might desire. Reading these essays one after the other, one is bound to wonder how these different urban cultural practices meaningfully inhabit the same city. If the fragmented, superficial city of Mbembe's characterization of post-apartheid architecture has emerged out of the ineffective repression of memories of the biopolitics (of the right to kill and separate) of apartheid governance, how can we characterize the biopolitics of the post-apartheid era? Le Marcis comments in his conclusion, "as for the city, it is clearly in its nature to survive its dead. But the city hardly exists without this submerged component, the depths in which the scraps and the remains finally come to rest" (p. 476). The subterranean--the mines, the unconscious repression--have always been a part of the making of Johannesburg, Mbembe reminds us. Now these new depths and repressions (of death, of AIDS), and the many thousands of afflicted (30 percent of pregnant mothers, for example, test HIV positive at hospitals in Johannesburg) certainly deserve our attention. Or perhaps we collude with the new biopolitics of the city in which the loss of population through HIV/AIDS is anticipated by government as lightening the burdens of service delivery.
In the style of the Public Culture journal, a second part to the book incorporates a number of contributions, which are more invested in the practices of the transforming city of Johannesburg. A prominent journalist recounts his route to Johannesburg from long years in exile, shaping the city for him: two young Ph.D. students are interviewed about their experiences of life between Soweto and the wider city of Johannesburg; an architect-critic offers her views of recent proposals for a new development in Kliptown, one of the more well-located areas of Soweto; a writer/filmmaker comments on a redevelopment of a formidable apartheid prison in central Johannesburg; and an artist reflects on his representations of the city, the continent, the uncertain spaces of life. There is so much to say about these essays, they are very suggestive and showcase some of the best critical writing and urban practice coming out of Johannesburg. I encourage readers to explore them, perhaps as a surrogate for a visit.
Overall, this is a collection which will form and frame South African urban studies for some time, and is very welcome. It opens up new conversations and interactions. Within South African cities it encourages scholars and practitioners to look for crossings, engagements and reconfigurations. And beyond this city it suggests a re-invigorated trafficking in ideas about cities between African scholars and those who live in and learn from other contexts.
. Editor's note: A first review of this book already appeared on H-SAfrica (Sara G. Byala, "Review of Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall, eds., Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis," H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews, April, 2005. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.cgi?path=47291119641634). The importance of the book led us to commission 2 different reviews, the former by an historian, a second, following, by a geographer.
. Edgar Pieterse, "Building with Ruins and Dreams: Some Thoughts on Realising Integrated Urban Development in South Africa through Crisis," Urban Studies 43, no. 2 (2006): pp. 285-304.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-safrica.
Jenny Robinson. Review of Mbembe, Achille; Nuttall, Sarah, eds., Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis.
H-SAfrica, H-Net Reviews.
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