Mpho Moshe Matheolane: Life in the city – an urban legend?

I drove through the inner part of Johannesburg a few days ago. It was just after lunch and the streets were full, traffic lights serving no function but decoration as throngs of people crossed the road nonchalantly.

As I sat there, patient but alert, I couldn't help but wonder what drives people to populate a city, even when it is clear that it will not give them what they seek.

I am inclined to believe that a city has something about it that draws people to it, something about its history and its promise of the future that says it's okay to take a wild chance on relocating and leaving your comfort zone. Life can only get better. 

But does it?

Living in the city, for all its promise of adventure, is fraught with uncertainty. People converge on it with the hope of a better life, believing that somehow, just by being here, their lives will change direction and fortunes will present themselves.

That is rarely the case. But the exodus that takes place in the search of greener pastures is unceasing. Small towns and rural area are seen as having nothing to offer but the dignity of isolation.

It is to the city, the epitome of urban dwelling, that hopes come to be crushed and burning ambitions thoroughly extinguished. Inequality presents itself more acutely here than any other place. Johannesburg is an archetype of this kind of city, where a Dickensian Tale of Two Cities (or many micro-cities) is constantly unfolding and morphing into various social manifestations.

It has the undeniable feature of being an Afropolitan centre of note yet, like anything that grows bigger and reaches further into the skies, the shadow that is cast behind it  equally looms larger. It is this shadow that prevents a city like Johannesburg from ticking all the boxes of a sustainable city with the potential of being great.

Joel Kotkin, an urban historian and writer, notes that there are three critical factors that make the city a great place to live. He lists these as the sacredness of place, the need for security and the role of commerce, making the argument that "cities thrive only by occupying a sacred place that both orders and inspires the complex natures of gathered masses of people".

One is tempted to say that Johannesburg meets these criteria, albeit reluctantly and, in the same breath, one cannot deny that it also fails to do so. Johannesburg is, if nothing else, multifaceted and schizophrenic. Its landscape is constant, but inside, it is anything but.

We already know its history. It has been the stage upon which the all-devouring political factors that shaped the history of this country took place. It has also been the place in which commerce thrived and played a significant role before abandoning ship, especially in the context of the mining town that came to form its foundation and indirectly infuse it with the never-ending energy with which it has come to be associated.

When commercial institutions had all but left the city in droves (for their own greener pastures in Sandton) the Johannesburg that remained became an architectural relic whose intended glory was never achieved.

Relics are in some instances all that is left behind now. The old stock exchange stands hauntingly empty; nothing but a cathedral-like space with dusty trading booths and seven stained-glass windows in woeful praise of capitalism. Abandoned buildings stand eerily on the sides of the inner city streets, mere distances away from the commercial hubs of the banking districts and cultural precincts.   

However, despite its shortcomings, you will not find Johannesburg empty at any given moment. If you do, you should know that you're probably in the wrong place. It still has that unmistakable current of energy that pulls everything and everyone to it. It has a life and a mix of people so unique that one often feels that this is the part of it that fails to receive enough recognition.

I am still not sure if Johannesburg fits the bill of what Kotkin would regard as a great city, or even a city with the potential to be great, but I am certain that its inhabitants do regard it as just that.

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Mpho Moshe Matheolane
Mpho Moshe Matheolane is a Motswana from the little town of Mahikeng. He is a budding academic, researcher and writer with interests in art, history, semiotics and law. He sits on the Constitutional Court Artworks Committee – a clear case of serendipity – and is a firm believer in the power of an informed and active citizenry.

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