battleground

twist

The concept of the battleground addresses the conflictual dimensions of life in the Joubert Park neighbourhood, and is the metaphor that most strongly characterises the wider public perception of Joubert Park. It is concerned with the connected ideas of territory, conquest, sabotage, and ambush. The emergence of violence in the neighbourhood may be tactical or random, sometimes highly organised, sometimes chaotic.

Battles are fought on various levels against the backdrop of urban redevelopment and the  enforcement of law and order. These battles are predicated on commercial competition and survival schemes, with the area’s inhabitants generating distinct codes of conduct, territories, allegiances and ‘rules’ that govern interaction. These work both against and within the parameters of official ‘law and order’ and the authorities, drawing into question precisely who has the ‘right’ to the city. A list of opposing fronts that are forged in the process include:

– residents versus self-proclaimed landlords (with buildings often hijacked with no public services and utilities such as waste removal , electricity and water),
– buildings versus slumlords, vandalism and environmental pressures
– South Africans versus non-South Africans
– the urban poor versus urban redevelopment (resulting in forced evictions);
-‘legal’ stall vendors versus ‘illegal’ street vendors;
– informal taxi-ranks versus traffic authorities
– security guards versus petty thieves
– women versus men
– street traders versus city authorities
– taxis versus pedestrians and commuters
– prostitutes versus police
– police versus criminals, drug-lords, ‘illegal’ immigrants (with ‘passport’ check-ups run regularly in the streets/unlawful deportation), street vendors, bar owners and pirated products

These antagonists have ambiguous and complicated interactions with one another, ranging from tactical collusions, alliances and truces through to brutal violence which is sometimes planned but often random.Vacant buildings are walled. Gangs of young men target commuters and traders during the day in streets and clients around bars and clubs at night. Clashes between traditional values and urban modernity can be seen in aggressive responses by (mostly Zulu) taxi-drivers to women wearing mini skirts. Every night groups of female cleaners sweep the piles of waste left in the streets by the traders, only for the waste to reappear the next day.

During the xenophobic attacks on foreign immigrants and shop raids in May 2008, many of the buildings were locked up for a week, turning shop fronts into secure forts; few street traders operated during this time. Buildings inhabited by Malawians, Somalians, Congolese, Zimbabweans were ‘taken over’ by South African squatters. Thousands of Africans left Johannesburg after the attacks to return to their home countries.

These contemporary ‘wars’ takes place on the ground of former political battles: bomb attacks on the Drill Hall (Defense Force headquarters) and the Shell House (ANC headquarters) in the 1970s and 1980s, clashes between the ANC and Inkatha in the 1990s (one of the most famous sites of this struggle, Shell House, now stands empty). During the reconstruction of the Drill Hall live mortars from World War Two were found and had to be detonated. Where the taxi rank is today, infantry regiments used to march in the 1950s.

battle1


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