Johannesburg Photo Essay

Elleke Boehmer, Dominic Davies and Charne Lavery

One thing to emphasise about Johannesburg is that it is a fantastically big city, both in terms of size and population. Though it is often compared to its sister cities in South Africa—Cape Town and Durban—it is in fact three times the size of both put together. The city sprawls outwards, built on an American car-based rather than European public transport-based model.
Brixton tower rises from the Western edge of the central part of the city, towering above the suburb from which it takes its name. Under apartheid, Brixton was a designated whites-only area, specifically for ‘poor whites’, whose population often clashed violently with the neighbouring Coloured suburb of Westbury and the Muslim suburb of Mayfair.
Brixton has since become one of the most mixed neighbourhoods in the city, as verified by the 2011 census: its residents include some of the original white families, large student communes, Coloured and Indian families from the neighbouring suburbs, new populations of African immigrants, artists, academics, and, until recently, a Constitutional Court judge.
North of the ridge the houses shift, without apparent transition or warning, into the vast, heavily secured properties of the very wealthy. These sharp divides and invisible barriers helped to uphold and propagate apartheid and in many ways continue to mark the city even in the post-apartheid present, marking the shift from crude race legislation to less obvious though still deeply entrenched class divisions. As Mark Gevisser, who spoke and read from his subjective psycho-geographical memoir, Dispatcher: Lost and Found in Johannesburg, at the third Planned Violence Workshop at Wits, observes: ‘There is always a suburban wall, there is always a palisade fence, an infra-red beam, a burglar bar, a thick red line, between the city I think I know and the city that is’ (2014: p.19).
These suburbs represent an embattled form of wealthy living that is aesthetically distinct from the more distant suburbs in the far north of Johannesburg. In the traffic-ridden city, their proximity to the CBD is at once coveted and yet a cause for concern, as memories of the centre’s history of violence linger on into the present.
The result of these anxieties is a proliferation of high walls around existing mansions and, in the case of new developments, an oddly positive or devil-may-care aesthetic which embraces these security concerns as a design principle—an aesthetic that we have called ‘security chic’.
The roads in this part of the city are monitored by a proliferation of CCTV cameras, while properties are hidden by high security walls topped with electrified wires.
Many houses in the plush suburbs formerly belonged to the so-called Randlords, owners of the original gold mines. Placed along the ridge, these streets command highly desirable views of the city to both north and south.
South Africa’s colonial history is quite literally inscribed into Johannesburg via its street names. Jan Smuts Avenue leads off Empire Road onto Queen Elizabeth Drive, alongside Nelson Mandela Bridge. The names layer up and intersect with one another forming a complex urban palimpsest, one that gestures to its connections with other geographical spaces and historical figures that shaped the imperial and post-imperial past.
Graffiti art finds gaps in the city’s formal cartography, as ‘tags’ lay claim to small sections of urban space on walls and worn out, vandalised signs.
Looking from Brixton along the ridge which divides the city along its east-west axis, it is possible to see the three landmark buildings that still dominate, and make distinctive, Johannesburg's skyline: Hillbrow tower, where this essay will conclude and, in between, Ponte City and the Carlton Centre.
Brixton and the CBD act as brackets to the suburb of Fietas—a wasteland of contested ground that was less successfully settled than Brixton under the ‘poor whites’ policy. Fietas now forms an oddly desolate space in one of the most central areas of the city.
As we move eastwards, Braamfontein is the next suburb, the part of the CBD that lies immediately north of the railway lines and south of the ridge. The University of the Witwatersrand is based at the western edge of this area and the Johannesburg Civic Centre on its eastern rim. Until recently Braamfontein, like much of the rest of the city, was an impoverished and dangerous area, featuring hijacked and dilapidated buildings, capital flight and poor services.
Recently, however, the area has changed dramatically. As the original site of the Johannesburg Development Association’s successful urban renewal project, ways have been found to rehabilitate the networks of pedestrian alleyways that had become associated with crime, through infrastructural improvement as well as cultural projects including murals, street art and installations.
This building, which was the central point of private investment in the suburb, now houses penthouse apartments available at prices comparable to the most expensive suburbs in the city. Emblazoned down its north-facing edge is an iconic image of Nelson Mandela. The commodification and globalisation of the Mandela brand, as commentators such as Adam Habib, B.J. Clerk, Richard Stengel and Mike Molyneaux have observed, has taken on a viral currency in post-apartheid South Africa.
Moving through Braamfontein, the street names continue to bear testimony to the city’s history. This street is named after De Beers, a diamond company founded by arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the turn of the twentieth century. De Beers remains responsible for 35% of the world’s diamond production in the twenty-first.
Braamfontein’s development has been accompanied by an intense and uneven gentrification, or even hipsterification, featuring an influx of new coffee shops and restaurants that would not look out of place in Brooklyn, New York, as well as private student accommodation options.
In some of these gentrifying spaces, companies such as ‘Propertuity’ transform once abandoned warehouses into new top-of-the-range city centre apartments. As their website states, Propertuity sees ‘urban regeneration as a drive for economic development, environmental upliftment and social progress’.
The murals that appear randomly on walls and street corners lend this part of the city a new cultural vibrancy, though still sitting in stark contrast to the fences and barriers that continue to cut through the urban landscape.
Johannesburg has always been an enclave of rich cultural activity. These artistic murals lead to the Market Theatre, an institution that became known during the apartheid era as ‘the Theatre of the Struggle’, and that now prides itself on exhibiting dramatic performances and photo and art exhibitions that continue to be politically engaged.
Though graffiti art reclaims Johannesburg’s divisive surfaces, in many ways it also alludes to a privileged subculture that is symptomatic of an unevenly gentrifying cityscape.
The Braamfontein Post Office, serving a large number of the city’s working-class commuters, was one of the hardest-hit during the fierce Post Office workers’ strike of 2014. The strike lasted for over six months and involved vandalism of postal infrastructures, including local post offices.
Travelling away from Braamfontein, the obvious signs of gentrification begin to fall away and the city takes on a rougher but still vibrant aspect.
Moving further into the CBD, Johannesburg’s sharp edges take on clearer definition as the buildings tower over the sidewalk and topple into the carefully regulated public space.
Railway lines converge at Park Town Station. The wide corridor of train tracks divides the CBD on an east-west line, running parallel to the line of the ridge just to the north. The tracks are hidden by high walls and traversed by a number of bridges, most notably the new Nelson Mandela suspension bridge which can be seen here.
Crossing over these bridges allows for views of these core infrastructural routes, originally built to import labour and export minerals for Johannesburg’s mining industry, though now used primarily for long-distance budget travel across South Africa to the furthest corners of the country—Durban, Bloemfontein, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town—and shorter distances to places such as Soweto and Diepsloot.
The Nelson Mandela Bridge, which cuts over the tracks in a form reminiscent of other cities’ river bridges, connects the medium-rises of Braamfontein to the high-rises of Newtown, a section of the city that was the home to some of the first forced removals implemented by the apartheid government in what was then South Africa’s Transvaal province (now Gauteng).
The grand colonial architecture located in this part of the city, once home to administrative and bureaucratic departments of the apartheid government, are now either abandoned or are being developed into new city centre apartments.
‘Jozi’, a slang term that many South Africans use to refer to Johannesburg, has recently been picked up by a number of companies seeking to rebrand the city as a hip, culturally rich urban space whilst refuting its reputation for being a city of crime. For example, LoveJozi sells a range of merchandise that transforms Johannesburg’s proliferation of concrete and roads into branded t-shirts, pictures, keyrings and bags.
In the summer of 2014, New York-based artist Yazmany Arboleda visited Johannesburg and was astonished by the proliferation of derelict buildings in the city centre that either remain abandoned or that had become home to huge communities of squatters who often live without running water or electricity. Arboleda’s response, with the help of some thirty South African artists, was to dress up as construction workers and visit these buildings to tip pink paint across their grey fronts. In order to raise the profile of their cultural protest, they poured the paint over a number of heritage buildings including Clegg House, pictured here.
Though Arboleda’s work can still be seen over a year after he undertook it, and despite the gradual expansion of a number of district house theatres, art galleries, museums and restaurants, there are still many buildings in Newtown that remain abandoned, windowless and uninhabited—in effect, walled up.
Moving to the city’s very centre, the buildings reach up higher and higher, blocking out the sunlight at street level and reflecting one another in their mirrored surfaces.
At the heart of downtown Johannesburg stands the Carlton Centre and Hotel, constructed between 1967 and 1974. As Bertina Malcomess and Dorothee Kreutzfeldt observe, the building ‘reflects the facts of mining capital turned towards new profits in a market-driven economy, the ordinariness, banality and sameness of globalised spaces of consumerism’ (2013: p.182). From the top of its fifty floors visitors are offered a panoramic view of the city. The tower was largely abandoned during the 1990s and, despite being purchased by Transnet in 1999, remained mostly unused due to the global recession of 2008. Nowadays, a bustling shopping centre thrives at its base and over 90% of its office space is in use.
Heading back north over the railway lines and this time moving to the eastern corner of central Johannesburg, signs indicate the edge of Hillbrow, an inner city residential neighbourhood.
Before arriving in Hillbrow, we encounter Ponte Towers. This city within a city has its own complicated history, one that microcosmically reflects recent South African history. Though filled with much-desired apartments when it was first built in the 1970s, in the late 1980s and 1990s it became the site of violent gang activity and was cut off from basic public services. The inside of the tower is hollow, and because there were no rubbish collections during this period, residents would toss their rubbish into this central tube creating a heap that rose to three floors in height.
Though designated a whites-only area in the 1970s by the apartheid government, these laws were less rigidly enforced in Hillbrow than elsewhere, earning it ‘grey area’ status. A rich cultural melting pot during the 1970s and 1980s, the area became notoriously crime-ridden in the 1990s after sudden capital (and white) flight. In the twenty-first century, Hillbrow has become known, along with the neighbouring suburb of Yeoville, as home to a majority non-South African immigrant population from all over the continent, particularly after the xenophobic attacks which took place in the outlying township areas during 2008.
Hillbrow has been shaped by poor urban planning policy since the 1980s, and its infrastructural resources have been unable to cope with the dramatic population increase that it has experienced in recent decades. Whilst pavements crumble and roads are potholed, they are also littered with impromptu market stalls and other informal business endeavours.
State-owned enterprises such as Sentech are developing new infrastructure services for Hillbrow, as citizens of the city demand access not only to better quality roads, but just as often to digital resources such as broadband internet. Brixton Tower, with which this photo essay began, has recently been renamed Sentech Tower.
Warping his syntax to convey Hillbrow’s urban intensity, Phaswane Mpe writes of this swiftly changing part of Johannesburg: ‘...with the spinning of cars the prostitution drug use and misuse the grime and crime the numerous bottles diving from flat balconies giving off sparks of red and yellow from mid-air reflections of street and flat neon lights only to crush on unfortunate souls’ skulls the neon welcoming lights the peace of mind you could see in many Hillbrowans the liveliness of the place and places collapsing while others got renovated new concrete and brick structures standing up where you thought there was no longer any space for anything’ (2001: p.25).
Reporter and journalist Louis Theroux visited Hillbrow in 2007 to make a documentary he would call ‘Law and Disorder in Johannesburg’. The resulting film focuses on the phenomenon of ‘hi-jacking’—when high rise housing is commandeered by rival gangs, leaving tenants without basic infrastructure and often in danger of being caught in violent cross-fire. It also addresses the rise of the private security industry caused by high crime rates and failing public services.
Hillbrow Tower, which marks the concluding point of this photo essay, is the tallest tower (as opposed to skyscraper) in the whole of Africa, and has been so since it was constructed over four decades ago. The building used to house a revolving restaurant and viewing deck as part of its six floors of tourist attractions, but was closed to the public during the violence and paranoia of the 1980s. Today it functions as an office block for Telkom, South Africa’s government-owned telecommunications company, as well as a cellphone tower fittingly connected to the surrounding parts of the city. There are also potentially plans under way, spearheaded by the Johannesburg Development Association (of Braamfontein fame), to rehabilitate the skyline-defining tower for public use as ‘Johannesburg’s Eiffel Tower’</a?.

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Johannesburg is one of the most culturally and structurally tessellated cities in the world—as this photo essay explores.

On 2 April 2015 members of the Planned Violence Working Group embarked on a winding tour of South Africa’s largest city to try and plot visual and conceptual routes through it. We were fresh out of the third Planned Violence workshop, held at Wits University in Johannesburg on 31 March and 1 April, and ably guided by Johannesburg resident and post-doctoral fellow at CISA Charne Lavery, who, happily, agreed also to contribute her insights and images to this essay.

Just as the photo essay of that much smaller and ostensibly incomparable city, Oxford, charted its planned violence by moving from a tower in the west of the city to a tower in the east, this infrastructural and topographical study follows a similar yet at the same time intriguingly different trajectory. The two landmark towers that frame this essay—the Brixton Tower in the west and the Hillbrow Tower in the east—are both named after the residential neighbourhoods in which they are found. Both towers are located on the watershed ridge (‘watersrand’) that runs on a west-east axis across the northern half of the city, a topographical feature that shapes the whole area’s undulating terrain. Born out of the vast mining industry that emerged following the discovery of rich mineral deposits, especially gold, towards the end of the nineteenth century, Johannesburg’s aspect and terrain tell a layered and interwoven history of colonial capitalism, apartheid governance and the neoliberal city. A closer look at its infrastructural strata reveal its evolution from mining camp to a city of segregated white communities and residential spaces for black labour and now, in the twenty-first century, into a mixed and unevenly developing urban environment. Indeed, that both Brixton and Hillbrow Towers were built to expand Johannesburg’s telecommunications connectivity is emblematic of the extent to which the city is now woven into the global networks and capital flows that continue to shape its development.

To capture the city’s strikingly striated development patterns and compartmentalised and layered spaces, the photos map a journey between these two locations, moving south from Brixton down to the rapidly gentrifying district of Braamfontein, into the central business district of Newtown, and then back north and east towards Hillbrow, well-known for its high crime rates as for its dense and diverse population of immigrants from the rest of Africa. The essay focuses as much on Johannesburg’s open flows as it does its segregated spaces, plotting a route navigable only via automobile because of the city’s broad streets and sprawling infrastructure, as the opening clip from Jamie Uys’ film The Gods Must Be Crazy demonstrated back in 1980.

Though its imperial and apartheid past is still evident in the city’s present-day appearance, the photo essay strives to move beyond these by documenting in particular Johannesburg’s contemporary infrastructural redevelopment, one shaped by the processes of gentrification and privatisation and vividly coloured with its rich cultural production and vibrantly mixed population.



Gevisser, Mark. 2014. Dispatcher: Lost and Found in Johannesburg. London: Granta.

Malcomess, Bettina, and Kreutzfeldt, Dorothee. 2013. Not No Place: Johannesburg. Fragments of Spaces and Times. Johannesburg: Jacana.

Mpe, Phaswane. 2001. Welcome to Our Hillbrow. Pietermaritzburg: University of Natal Press.

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