Dashiki Dialogues: Downtown Joburg’s tragicomic spectacle

2012-11-24 09:01

Here’s to the hard-working masses scratching a living in the grimy, unforgiving streets of the Joburg CBD. They, dirty and abandoned like dreaded lepers, have kept downtown Jozi from succumbing to the ravenous rot of official neglect.

This while the upper classes, having dropped the inner city like a bad habit, were out chasing thrills elsewhere in the north. I’m convinced they couldn’t be bothered with the plight of those left behind to mend the now-dilapidated colossus.

This is why I find the animated “urban renewal” chatter – with its various campaign mantras – unsavoury, to put it lightly.

We are every so often treated to catch phrases like “back to the city” and “bringing people back into the inner-city”.

The city’s bureaucrats and other monied people have been framing the urban renewal debate in interesting terms. They speak of bringing people back into the downtown area as if it has been empty all along. One might ask whether those souls that move daily through the

asphalt tributaries of this concrete jungle don’t qualify as people.

It’s a tad too tough a question, but nevertheless a valid one. How else can we explain the apparent exclusion of Jozi’s poor from the new language of “progress”?

The problem with this now-popular grammar about what the city should aspire to is that it frames the poor as a structural problem and the “returning rich” as the solution.

This is partly because the return of monied people from the north is wrapped up with a bid to lure business back to the CBD.

(At least that’s how the story goes.) But the truth is money never stopped being exchanged on the streets. It was just not in the preferred hands of those holding power, so what is being called for is actually gentrification.

The poor would either have to shape up to the “returning” gentry’s sensibilities or ship out.

I think the rich generally harbour an abhorrent disdain for the poor of the inner-city. We can call this a kind of fear, like that reserved for wild animals, deployed against the shabby subaltern strata of our urban society.

It’s a tragicomic spectacle. The subaltern are rendered dispensable at best or, worse still, wished away through the gentrification fantasy.

They are then coded into the city space through the rich from the northern suburbs too self-consciously trying to copy the “lifestyle” of being poor.

They come clad in branded freebee-type T-shirts and cheap sneakers, some in cutoff denims among other pleb-like apparel for a neo-hippie look.

The poor, whose love for the city never faded like worn dashikis, ought to reject any dialogue about their home that doesn’t address them as authentic equals.

Follow me on Twitter @Percy_Mabandu

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