Anxiety in Johannesburg: New Views on a Global Southern City

The skyline of Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, with the largest economy of all metropolitan areas in sub-Saharan Africa. The city is one of the 40 largest metropolitan areas in the world and is also the largest city in the world not located on a river, lake or coastline. (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC / Sygma via Getty Images)

  • Cities like Johannesburg, South Africa, are often presented as a site of unrest.
  • In many cases, these spaces appear only as places for the collective fears of the north.
  • While fear is one way of describing this situation, anxiety can be a more helpful description.

In the media and popular culture of the north of the world, cities like Johannesburg, South Africa, are often presented as a site of unrest. They are the source of the immigrants, drugs, violence, poverty, disease and environmental crisis that worry nervous citizens in more “developed” cities.

Even when they take center stage in international media production, southern cities like Johannesburg are loaded with fear or fantasy. Think of the District 9 movies with its slave Nigerian gangsters, the homeless genius of Slumdog Millionaire, or the contented domestic worker of Roma. In many cases, these urban spaces – dynamic, changing, stimulating, new – appear only as places for the fluffy imaginaries or collective fears of the north.

In his book Liquid Times, philosopher Zygmunt Bauman calls fear “arguably the most sinister of open-society demons of our time.” He writes out of fear like a palpable monster that stalks the lives of late modern subjects in a world where centers of power are diffuse and distant.

Fear is, indeed, one way of describing this condition. But anxiety is perhaps more helpful, suggesting a lingering, low-level feeling and even, in the words of psychologist Kopano Ratele, “irrelevant.” Anxiety is everywhere. It does not depend on particular triggers. It is easily spread and shared, spread by wind, like a rumor, like a virus.

The elusive metropolis

Anxiety in Johannesburg is not new. Despite its intermittent glamor, the city has always felt unstable for those who live there. South Africa’s largest and richest urban center, it is also deeply uneven and streaked with the spatial markers of apartheid. According to town planning professor Martin J. Murray, it

leads a double life. The city is a paradigmatic example of the glamor and excess of the first world and the improvement and degradation of the third world. It is simultaneously a global speculative investment market fully linked to the global economy via a globalized flow space.

Black migrants who were once forced into urban labor by law now face the same conditions due to poverty, unemployment and rural underdevelopment. Fear of hunger and violence mingles with a neoliberal fear of failure, of being left behind in a rapidly changing world, painfully symbolized by the city’s “branded skyline”. White commuters who once escaped imaginary Communists are now enthusiastically investing in security technology and reporting passers-by to armed private guards.

In every part of the city, from malls to taxi ranks to back alleys, women are wondering if it will be safe for them to get home – or if they are home, if they will make it through the night. . From hawkers in the central business district to crooks in shopping malls, nothing seems entirely fixed or reliable in this elusive metropolis. And yet, the anxiety conditions in Johannesburg are rarely discussed by researchers.

Anxious Joburg

Like any other city in the south, life in Johannesburg is full of feelings that are at the heart of modernity. What does it mean then that a city like Johannesburg so casually evokes anxiety in the north? And more importantly, if creepy emotion is the basic layer of the modern era, as Bauman argues, what does it mean that we think more of the anxiety of southern cities than of them? ?

In order to fully understand the life of the city, we must take into account its emotional landscapes. We need to ask ourselves what it means to be an anxious modern citizen, subject to the same epistemological insecurities as people elsewhere, in a place often portrayed as inherently unstable.

These are some of the questions we asked contributors to our new book Anxious Joburg, a set of essays and reflections that consider the intimate inner life of Johannesburg. Rather than categorizing it as a list of developmental and economic problems to solve, these researchers, artists and storytellers reflect on what it’s like to live in this complicated city.

A wide range of people and experiences are explored, including inner city religious communities, young women navigating the perilous mobility of taxis, nervous white middle classes, transgender migrants grappling with the aggressive border regime. of South Africa and those living in poverty on the outskirts of the city. .

From the gated community of Dainfern in the north to the township of Soweto in the south, from the liminal suburbs of Melville and Yeoville to the back rooms of Cyrildene and the apartment buildings of Hillbrow and the central business district, Anxious Joburg investigates the complex. of the city assigns from several positions. He invokes a range of theoretical approaches – including visual arts, cultural studies, psychology and anthropology – to argue for the central role of emotion in understanding urban life in the Global South.

Emotion and urban life

When the forms of the city are grouped together as simply the source of the dangers that worry the north, it becomes difficult to grasp the current form of the urban, which is likely to reach its ultimate expression in the expanding megalopolises of the south. As academics Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe argue, we need to develop ways of reading African cities that are no longer “dominated by the meta-narrative of urbanization, modernization and crisis”.

Part of this work requires us to consider intimate experiences of everyday life. After all, as cultural theorist Sara Ahmed explains,

Emotions should not be viewed as psychological states, but as social and cultural practices.

In southern cities, as elsewhere, emotions are performative and collective and have social and political consequences.

Johannesburg is not the most distressed or the most dangerous city in the world. It is not unique or terrifying. However, its global reputation, spectacular racist history, and propensity for siege architecture make it an extremely valuable site for thinking about how anxiety structures the contemporary life of the southern city’s inhabitants.

The new book Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City is available from Wits University Press.


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