Once you've lived in Johannesburg long enough you realise that there is a distinct physical or geographic orientation to its humour. Typically, the best jokes are told in a southern voice – by someone hailing from Diepkloof when the speaker is black, or Glenvista and environs when white. But it is the butt of the joke that is revealing: typically the funnier jokes are directed east.
"Turns out she comes from Boksburg, Brakpan, Nigel, Springs; used to be an usherette, saleslady, hair-shampooer, manicurist, go-go dancer, Rand Show demonstrator, singer, East Rand Princess, and is studying to be a travel agent," wrote playwright Barney Simon in a story in his 1974 collection Joburg, Sis!
Four decades on and Ekurhuleni, a sprawling metropolitan municipality of 3.1-million inhabitants, retains much of its unfussy working-class character. Formed in 2000, the amalgamated metro comprises nine small East Rand municipalities, including Alberton, Benoni, Germiston, Kempton Park and Edenvale, as well as the four towns mentioned by Simon.
Key landmarks include OR Tambo International Airport in Kempton Park and the N3 highway, which forms the metro's western border with Johannesburg. Were the congested highway a river it would be feasible to compare Ekurhuleni with working-class New Jersey, which is similarly looked down upon by aristocratic New Yorkers gazing across the Hudson River.
Like the state of New Jersey, Ekurhuleni is also a rust-belt enclave. One of largest concentrations of industrial activity in Africa, the metro is consistently posting declines in its manufacturing base. Once the epicentre of the early gold mining boom, Ekurhuleni's 337 hectares of vacant mining land is another potent symbol of its lapsed economic glory.
In Ekurhuleni, long an entry point for migrants drawn to the Gauteng region, fallow industrial and state land is now increasingly being occupied by informal settlements. It currently has 119 informal settlements, among them Gabon, Lakeview, Hollywood and Freedom Square.
Located in the northeast of the metro, on the outer edges of Tembisa, a township intimately connected with the evolution of the kwaito sound, Freedom Square resembles informal settlements elsewhere across the country. Tightly clustered corrugated-iron shacks abut frailer structures made from tarpaulin. Rubbish lingers in this community of 5 000 residents established in 1992.
They may have flushing toilets and communal taps, but residents of Freedom Square share a uniformly bleak outlook on life in this settlement.
"We live a fake life in fake houses," said Stanley Phele, a trader whose makeshift stall displays apples and chips.
"We live like soldiers in the Vietnam War," added Ouma Mphuti, a young woman struggling to secure a university loan after matriculating in 2012. "When you're sleeping at night you don't feel safe."
Mphuti and Phele's accounts are drawn from a five-part documentary about Ekurhuleni produced by media personality and entrepreneur Kgomotso Matsunyane. The documentary, the outcome of extensive field research and interviews, was shown at a recent meeting of town planners in Germiston.
The unvarnished accounts of everyday life contained in Matsunyane's documentary prompted occasionally bored delegates at the two-day Transformative Urban Regeneration Conference to sit up and take notice. Mphuti's plainspoken testimony particularly struck a chord.
"In 2012 there was a tendency for people to come into people's shacks and take their children while they were sleeping," said Mphuti, referring to a spate of child abductions and rapes.
Elizabeth Phaladi, a stout old woman who moved to Freedom Square in 1995, had her grandchild stolen from her shack. Unlike Nokawelezile Nyika, a resident of Freedom Square since 1993 whose two-year-old daughter died as a result of sexual assault, Phaladi rescued her brutalised grandchild.
"Life here is difficult and the things that happen here are scary," was how Phele summarised the prevailing mood in Freedom Square.
Despite comparing her community with a war zone, Mphuti is not entirely cynical.
"Ekurhuleni does provide opportunities," she told Matsunyane. "But if you're someone like me you can't get them. You're at the bottom of everything."
Mphuti wants to study psychology at the University of South Africa. When she approached the National Student Financial Aid Scheme with her acceptance letter, administrators at the government-funded student loan and bursary scheme said the available funds had been exhausted.
"What is that?" asked Mphuti. "It crushes me. It means my government is failing me."
Cities are ideas as much as they are brute physical entities. Understanding them requires navigating aspiration and fact, emotion and logic, individual circumstance and abstract distillation. As cities grow and take on increasingly complex functions, machines are increasingly augmenting fallible, smoke-break prone humans in managing the complex flows that characterise the life of any city.
"We increasingly share the space and time of cities with semiautonomous agents of a nonhuman, indeed nonbiological, nature, from drones to algorithms," offered Adam Greenfield, a New York-based urban systems designer in a recent 100-point manifesto.
"The grandeur in determining the conditions of urban existence increasingly resides with those who produce networked objects and services, and the interfaces to them."
There is, of course, the opposing view. Humans invented technology to serve them.
"In Rio de Janeiro, we are applying technology to benefit the population and effectively transition to a smarter city," said Rio mayor Eduardo Paes in 2011, a year after the launch of his city's $14-million integrated city management centre.
The centre, built in conjunction with IBM, houses Latin America's largest surveillance screen that integrates visual information from 30 different city agencies.
The evolution of the so-called "smart city" is not without practical hiccups, as regular observers of digital road signs in Cape Town and Johannesburg will have noted. But the real quandary posed by this new faith in technology is ethical rather than practical.
In his keynote address at the 40th World Congress of the International Institute of Sociology, held in Delhi in February 2012, Ash Amin, a leading urban geographer based at Cambridge University, introduced the idea of "telescopic urbanism". He clarified his rarefied sounding concept in a recent interview.
"As cities around the world are trying to muscle up, gear themselves up for international competitiveness and the like, telescopic urbanism regularly bypasses the poor, casting them as not part of the urban central, but as part of the urban peripheral, or another world," he explained.
In the new world of megacities competing with far-flung rivals on opposing continents, city management is increasingly being understood – and even reduced – to an information challenge. Ideas of mutuality, obligation and commonality have all but disappeared in this new paradigm.
"Its conceit is to think that the availability of sophisticated mathematical models able to work large data in nuanced ways allows the city to be visualised and understood in all its complexities and evolving changes," said Amin.
This is certainly true of Ekurhuleni. Like most South African cities, Ekurhuleni is a sprawling, spatially fragmented place. History, rather than numbers, better accounts for its peculiar urban make-up.
The town of Brakpan, situated 40km east of Johannesburg, claims a strangely privileged place in the story of apartheid spatial planning. Ekurhuleni's quest for spatial equity and justice, a key aspect of its urban design programme, is partly indebted to what happened in Brakpan in the early decades of the last century.
Although now better known as a uranium and gold producer, Brakpan, which acquired its municipal status in 1919, was once home to South Africa's premier coal-producing pit. The town supplied power to the archipelago of industrial towns founded along the enormous gold-bearing reef discovered in the sleepy Transvaal Republic.
Already in the 1930s, city officials imposed limits on the free movement of black citizens with an elaborate system of bylaws that enforced segregation and controlled access to housing and employment.
The historian Hilary Sapire, who has extensively researched Brakpan, has remarked on how the town pioneered mechanisms ("tighter influx and efflux controls") that informed apartheid laws introduced nationally in the 1950s.
Black residents of Brakpan implicitly understood what was happening and in 1944 accused the National Party-controlled municipality of using the local township as a "testing ground for their political theories".
The apartheid legacy bequeathed by Brakpan represents one of the major challenges facing Ekurhuleni. The task is complicated by the fact that the metro is confronted with a diminishing industrial base, higher than average levels of unemployment, periodic bouts of xenophobic violence, and the volatile potential of hosting the country's second-highest number of informal settlements after Cape Town.
Deracialising urban planning
In a workshop session attached to the metro-sponsored urban regeneration conference, Neville Chainee, who heads up Ekurhuleni's human settlements department, spoke plainly about the challenges.
"What we need to desist from is entrenching the racial make-up of our society," said Chainee.
"There are going to be some hard decisions in particular about some of the land that is going to be released."
Michael Worsnip is making similar tough decisions. The Anglican theologian is chief director of land restitution support in the Western Cape branch of the department of rural development and land reform. Among the cases on his desk: District Six.
"It's a hugely complicated claim," said Worsnip, who presides over a 20-person-strong reference group that meets weekly to discuss issues relating to the restitution of District Six claimants.
His mandate is to oversee "the coming into being of the new District Six". Aside from the sticky practicalities of dealing with landowner versus tenant claims, District Six is also a highly charged symbolic site, which presents its own pressures.
"District Six in Cape Town, like Sophiatown in Johannesburg, Umkhumbane (Cato Manor) in Durban and Marabastad in Pretoria, bears the heart-wrenching scars of the apartheid system," remarked President Jacob Zuma in 2011 when he handed over 44 houses to District Six residents.
"Claims like this are not simple," said Worsnip when we met at his office early last year.
"The reality is that you are dealing with a very scarred memory."
He nonetheless conceded that the District Six claim, if concluded properly, "has every possibility to reintegrate the city".
This possibility remains latent. District Six remains a neighbourhood of vast absences. Every few weeks refuse collectors accompanied by metro police comb the area for debris. This tends to prompt tense stand-offs with the homeless who use the old mattresses, carpets and wheelie bins on the traffic circle beneath Nelson Mandela Boulevard.
Nearby, a number of low-density homes have emerged. Built in stages as residents have made deals with the city, the latest group, opposite the Muir Street Mosque, has been dismissed as resembling Club Mykonos. Their form throws up some interesting questions.
"How does one manage justice in the city? How do you create an equitable city? I don't have the answers," said Khalied Jacobs, a partner at Jakupa architects and urban designers. "What is clear is that District Six should not be developed in isolation to the city."
Working with Arup, a firm of consultant structural engineers based in London, Jakupa has created a model of a terraced city block that was presented to the department of rural development and land reform. The proposal showcased a plan involving 201 terrace houses and 413 apartments.
According to Jacobs, who travelled to Hanover Street as a child to buy polony, District Six is "not a blank canvas, it is a palimpsest". He said designers often adopt a "top-down" approach. "There is little engagement with the user."
Touching on a recurring point at the Ekurhuleni conference – the dysfunctional conversation between city planners and residents – Jacobs insisted that user consultation did not slow down urban design.
He offered as an example Jakupa's work at Eagle Park. This low-cost housing development was commissioned by the Western Cape department of human settlements and comprises 219 housing units. User input was key.
"You mitigate conflicts right at the beginning stages of a project," said Jacobs of the process.
In a city that beat Dublin and Bilbao to be elected as World Design Capital for 2014, housing represents a tangible design problem with ethical implications for Cape Town. Alayne Reesberg, chief executive of Cape Town Design NPC, the company tasked with overseeing Cape Town's World Design Capital project plans, is cognisant of this.
"Last year, 330 000 people came to Cape Town to make a home without jobs or secure accommodation."
Cape Town is confronted by numerous structural problems: sprawl, a lack of low-cost housing, poor public transport, water insecurity, residual apartheid and motorway flyovers that end in mid-air. For Reesberg, the design capital accolade represents a way to harness designer savvy to address these issues. She is, however, clear that design is not a silver bullet.
"Remember, it was technology that was going to save us; now it is design," she said.
"There is a certain conceit in that. But I like design thinking – it puts the user at the centre of the solution, not some gizmo or software."
This solutions-based approach to design is shared by the local city government, which underwrote the initial design capital bid proposal.
"Design for me is not just architecture, fashion, craft, beautiful tables and elegant wine glasses," said Laurine Platzky, the deputy director general of strategic programmes in the Western Cape government and a key architect of the city's work-in-progress design strategy.
"Design is a creative process that results in something that is appreciated and usable."
She offered sewerage systems, new motorways and integrated city living as examples.
According to Mugendi M'Rithaa, a Kenyan-born industrial designer and professor at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town is confronting design issues relevant to the vast majority of the world's population.
"We have an opportunity to speak on behalf of the 'majority world' with a powerful voice that could resonate across the globe," M'Rithaa wrote in 2011.
It is a point of view shared by Reesberg. Although Cape Town may lack the guilds and artisan traditions of Turin, or the high-tech smarts of Seoul and Helsinki, it is still a place of experimentation and real-world innovation.
"Cape Town may not be a Xerox PARC, but we are a laboratory," said Reesberg.
"We have valid and authentic things to contribute to solving important global design problems."
In 2011 Ekurhuleni's executive mayor, Mondli Gungubele, announced an ambitious plan to place his city's airport – Africa's busiest passenger airport by volume – at the centre of an ambitious growth strategy.
Drawing on United States know-how and experience in transforming regional airports into strategic business hubs, his "aerotropolis" model basically positions OR Tambo International Airport as its key economic asset and de facto city centre.
Alongside economic growth, housing represents one of the great challenges for Ekurhuleni city officials. In his state of the city address in March, Gungubele listed some of the important gains made in his sprawling constituency. Housing predominately represented a key theme.
Since 2000, a total of 68 000 have been built in Ekurhuleni, he said.
For Lizzy Mamphego, who moved to Ekurhuleni from Limpopo, her undifferentiated tiled-roof house in Benoni is a great improvement on the shack she inhabited for six years in Gabon, an informal settlement in Daveyton.
"I am happy that I now have a house, which has a ceiling," said Mamphego. "I sleep well because my shack used to leak."
She also praised the toilet: "We used to dig long drops for toilets, but now we can flush. We're living a good life. Even my complexion has changed."
In his workshop session, Chainee recounted how after the metro installed a communal toilet in a township it remained unused for two months. At a public meeting the mayor asked why.
"We were not quite sure who it was for," Chainee summarised the community's response. "We didn't think it was for us."
For Chainee, the incident highlighted the crucial interplay of infrastructural intervention and human engagement in city-making. As Chainee put it, making liveable cities in which citizens are shareholders means far more than throwing concrete at a problem. You need to speak to people.
Visiting architect Alejandro Echieverri underscored this point at the Germiston conference. In 2004 Sergio Fajardo, the one-time math professor, was elected mayor of Medellín, the second-largest city in Colombia. He inaugurated a project of urban renewal in the city, famed for its crime culture. Echieverri was his director of urban projects.
"For several years, the city of Medellín had imaginary walls that divided it into two antagonistic worlds: the informal and violent city of the poor, located on the northern slopes of the city; and the developed city of the rich on the southern plains," explained Echieverri in a 2011 article.
"The presence of physical boundaries defined by the complexity of the geographical landscape, and the social segregation produced by real and imaginary limits created a city of fragments, gaps and marginal spaces and borders, which strengthened social inequalities, insecurity and violence."
Among his solutions: public libraries, parks and sports centres. These public projects include the Moravia Cultural Centre, built on the old city dump. According to Echieverri, these solutions were the outcome of exhausting consultation.
"The most powerful thing is to involve the community in your process," said Echieverri. "You have to walk on the street, walk every day. You cannot implement change from your desk."
He wasn't joking about the need for city officials to walk. In the manner of Monrovia's mayor, Mary Broh, who routinely assists workmen in mopping up the Liberian capital, the mayor of Medellín would also go on walks. Twice a week.
"He had direct contact with the people," said Echieverri. "His mandate to us was that we had to do that. I love that idea. It is an aspirational idea."
Indeed, particularly in a country of blue-light processions and inescapable need.