Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe, Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis (2008)

Johannesburg The Elusive MetropolisWithout the gold-bearing beds of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg would not have existed. That the city started in 1886 as a series of uncontrolled mining camps is due precisely to the presence and discovery of gold near the surface of the reef… It is at these deeper levels and in the way the world below interacted with the surface and the edges that the origins of the city as a metropolis are to be located. Beneath the central business district and the environs of Johannesburg lie thousands of boreholes and drilling footages of varying depths—a testimony to the way in which, in the production of this Southern Hemispheric modernity, the world of race and systematized human degradation became part of the calculus of capital and dispossession, technology, labor, and the unequal distribution of wealth. In our view, this dialectic between the underground, the surface and the edges is, more than any other feature, the main characteristic of the African modern of which Johannesburg is the epitome, and perhaps even of the late modern metropolis itself. (pp. 16-17)

In many senses, there is no metropolis without a necropolis. Just as the metropolis is closely linked to monuments, artifacts, technological novelty, an architecture of light and advertising, the phantasmagoria of selling, and a cornucopia of commodities, so is it produced by what lies below the surface. In the case of Johannesburg, the underground is not simply a technological space emptied of social relations. It does not exist only in an abstract realm of instrumentality and efficiency. In fact, it always was a space of suffering and alienation as well as of rebellion and insurrection. As evidenced by the lives and time of Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, the underground of the metropolis is the repository of possibilities for invention and utopian dreams. In Johannesburg, the underground was the symbol of the powerful forces contained in the depths of the city. (pp. 21-22)

The inequality in the concentration of strategic resources and activities between the different segments of the city has sharpened since the 1990s. A parallel economy—informal and transnational—has emerged… a socioeconomic fragmentation is also visible in the built environment of the city: a geography of fortifications and enclosures; increasing demand for spatial and social insulation; and reliance on technologies of security, control, and surveillance. In this context, the stranger and the criminal now assume, more than ever, greater prominence in most cities’ imaginations… The criminal, we could say, moves between the surface and the underneath. Striking at the everyday—the woman leaving her garage, the man asleep in his bed, the young girl on her way to the shop—he navigates the ordinary surfaces of life by attacking from a darker, more underneath place. (p. 23)

We have called this book “Johannesburg—the Elusive Metropolis.” To assert the elusiveness of Johannesburg is to unfix rather than to fix the meanings of the African modern. We have wished to point to the gap between the way things actually are and the way they appear in theory and discourse. (p. 25)

—”Introduction: Afropolis” in Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe eds, Johannesburg: The Elusive Metropolis. London: Duke University Press, 2008.

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