wake up, this is joburg!

January 8th, 2016 

Dr. Tanya Zack

Introduction by Lindiwe Rennert...
Given the invasive, disruptive, typically unjust, and often violent nature of displacement, we are frequently flooded with painful testimonials and jarring statistics of the inhumane acts affecting individuals who fall victim to displacement. While these vile truths are important to share and act upon, Tanya Zack, in her collection of publications ‘Wake Up, This is Joburg’ provides us with a much needed light in the dark abyss: personal stories of how those that have been displaced by urban upgrading or civil unrest across the continent have (through entrepreneurial initiative) come to create thriving residential and economic communities in Johannesburg’s once abandoned downtown.

Below is a description of the publication in the author’s own words as well as a few excerpts from the book-series that highlight the lives of a few displaced persons in Johannesburg that she has grown close to. There lies real value in remembering that displaced persons were people, dynamic and diverse, long before they were displaced and remain people, resilient and adaptive, long beyond the act of their displacement. Tanya’s crafting of personal narratives reinserts an often absent a human face to the plight of displacement. 

Here begin the words of Tanya Zack...

Wake Up, This Is Joburg is a series of books that are ‘about that thing you can’t quite put a finger on when you tell people why you live here’. The books tell the stories of ten ordinary, interesting, odd, or outrageous denizens of the inner city of Johannesburg. Thusfar documentary photographer Mark Lewis and I have produced stories that center on informal butchers, the Yeoville market, waste reclaimers/recyclers, a taxi binding point, an outsider artist, and high rise inclusionary living. This piece shall feature extracts from Inside Out which offer insights into the working life of long term migrants who are still classified as asylum seekers and not yet permanent residents or citizens in South Africa, but who are the pioneers of a massive informal economy that is focused on selling goods from many countries to people from all over Sub-Saharan Africa within the active streets and market paces of Johannesburg.

On Marginalization
Johannesburg, though a host of opportunity, is pregnant with exclusionary practices. As foreign migrants to this city find, ‘…there are many layers of legitimacy. You might find yourself caught between being legal and illegal, depending on where you were born, what languages you speak, what skills you have, what products you sell or where you live. Like Senga, you may live here for over a decade, have six children, five of them born in Johannesburg, but still be considered an asylum seeker who does not qualify for a bank account or a travel document’.[i]

On Low-end Globalization
Arranged on the two tiers of Senga’s stall in the Rockey Street market are foods and oils unfamiliar to native Joburgers, but as familiar as their own language to those who have crossed half a continent to be here. There are varieties of beans from Malawi and the DRC, palm oil from Ghana and Cameroon, spices from Nigeria, Mopani worms and dried fish from Zambia. Face creams and antiseptic lotions from the DRC, Côte d’Ivoire and France confound the description of this and other kiosks as ‘vegetable stalls’. [ii]

On-going research, price comparison, attention to displays, quantity and variety mark the work of traders in the Rockey Street market in Yeoville. It's a vibrant market hosting an Afropolitan trader population including Nigerian barbers, dressmakers and fabric sellers from Nigeria, South Africa and the DRC, tailors and cobblers from Ghana and Nigeria, photographers from the DRC and Mozambique, and vegetable sellers from Zimbabwe and Mozambique.  Traders talk ‘trader language’ to one another. It is an intensity of a trade that is made possible through low-end globalisation. People are trading across borders and are distributing goods to many cities using cell phones and informal networks of suppliers, bankers, transporters and traders.

Image by Mark Lewis: Yeoville Market, Johannesburg

‘Geraldine is Zambian. Her imports of beans, peanuts, cassava, dried fish, eggplant and okra are sought after in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and East London. She sources goods for regular customers and brings in what is in good supply. She is networked to the delivery trucks that serve traders like herself across South Africa. Sometimes the trucks carry only goods for cross-border traders. But if they are carrying furniture or other large items, the drivers might agree to add an extra bag or box to their load for the market traders. Geraldine also works with individual suppliers and customers who do not use trucks, but carry bags of spices, creams or vegetables on their backs. ‘If someone is coming I tell him to bring what I need, ’ she says. The trading lattice is organised by word of mouth and transactions are recorded on scraps of paper or in notebooks. It’s low-end globalisation: boxes of goods arrive from many countries and are funnelled through backyards to be sorted and to join other goods bound for stalls, shops and restaurants across South Africa’[i].

She now stocks from Nigeria, Cameroon, Malawi, Tanzania, Ghana, Mozambique and Zambia.

Image by Mark Lewis: Senga at her stall with account books in hand

On the Burden of Women
Geraldine works long and punishing hours. In this she is similar to many of the traders and particularly the female traders in the Yeoville market. For some the work is clearly gendered. Senga and her mother have raised a family on the minuscule profits made from selling multiple goods at food and home ware stalls. Their stalls are open 7 days a week. Senga's mother says her only time off is when the whole family has to go to Pretoria to appear at the offices of Home Affairs to renew their asylum seeking papers.  She talks of the minimal profits that reward the hard labour of migrant women in the market. The story finds that ‘While varying fortunes have seen family members study, or enter into business and entrepreneurial ventures over the almost decade-and-a-half of life in Johannesburg, Senga’s labour and that of her mother, both of whom found a place in the Yeoville covered market in 2004, has not eased. It is not unusual to work for twelve or thirteen hours, seven days a week in this market…Family visits happen in the market. Children might drop in after school or a brother may come by during his lunch hour. Each is pulled in to pack something or deal with a customer or manage the stall for a few minutes. Senga’s own children are too young to make the journey to the market’[ii].

Tanya Zack is an urban planner who holds a PhD from University of Witwatersrand for her work on Critical Pragmatism in Planning. Her core skills and work experience include policy development, research, writing, project management and facilitation of community participation. Her clients have included the City of Johannesburg, the Department of Housing (now Human Settlements) and Urban LandMark. She has operated as an independent consultant since 1991 and straddles academic research and practice. 

To learn more about Tanya Zack or the Wake Up, This is Joburg publications, visit Dr.Zack’s site here