/ 25 November 2020

Journey through anxious Joburg

South African Army Patrol Johannesburg's Central Business District
A new book has collected writing about the condition of living, yes, with a high crime rate, but also other, more pervasive existential urban stresses particular to the Global South (Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Street life in Joburg, such as it is, can be fraught with perils both real and imagined. For many people living in the city, from township to suburbs, through the CBD to the rarefied streets of the faux-Tuscan north, getting around Johannesburg can feel overwhelmingly stressful. Mobility itself, which should be one of the most basic elements of urban living, becomes a daily trial of nerves and test of luck.  

Scratch a Joburger and you’ll hear a story of mugging, harassment, endless traffic, broken robots, potholed roads, corrupt police, road rage, boomed-off thoroughfares, or even floods, lightning and other extreme weather conditions. Where residents of Sao Paulo and Shanghai socialise, shop and congregate in the streets, many Joburgers — particularly after 5pm — engage in a panicked scuttle to get indoors, away from whatever nameless insecurities the dark might hold. 

Many of our concerns are an inevitable reality of living in a city with a high crime rate, but added to these feelings is something more existential. 

All Johannesburgers carry with us a store of anxiety, ever-present, which manifests as a kind of low-level hum underlying our daily lives. Anxiety is different to fear (which we also have). Fear is related to specific causes — it has an object. Anxiety is what the psychologist Kopano Ratele calls “objectless”. It is a free-floating, ubiquitous part of urban life, one that in Johannesburg manifests in very Johannesburg ways. 

We recently published a book on these manifestations, pulling in artistic and academic voices on Joburg’s many anxieties, from the uneasy interactions between young women and the blessers who pay their bills to the guard blocks and retina scanners dotting gated communities in Dainfern; from the tortured politics of domestic labour in Chinatown to the psyche-splitting horror of finding a Parktown prawn in your shoe.

We wrote Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City because we were tired of how observers in the Global North talk about cities. In the first place, judging by that body of writing, one would be excused for thinking there are only three cities in the world: London, New York and Paris. 

In the second place, when writers do speak about Global South cities, it’s frequently suffused with anxiety about the south. Southern cities are seen as the origin of problems — migration, gang violence, pollution, disease — and therefore as problems in themselves, needing the north’s developmental expertise to “fix” them. We were not interested in the Global North’s anxieties about the south. We wanted to think about the experience of being in a southern city.

One of the challenges of writing about the Global South urban experience is the flipside of the London/NYC/Paris problem. 

Those cities have been written about so often that they have come to define the urban experience. Our shorthand for understanding our own urban lives is made up of cobbled together and repurposed language from the Global North, which frequently only reflects a fraction of the experience of being here. 

However, unlike cities such as Kinshasa, Guadalajara and Ahmedabad, Johannesburg has generated a formidable amount of scholarship over the decades. This gave us the opportunity to tap into a wealth of earlier writing about the city. 

Despite this head start, much of the vocabulary of life in Johannesburg and other Global South cities still has to be written. We need a lot more writing about the experience of anxiety in the Global South as a whole, and South Africa in particular. Anxiety might be “objectless” but it certainly isn’t placeless. It defines the experience of being in the city, and being in our bodies. 

As the city is remade through anxiety — sprouting razor-wire and burglar spikes as far as the eye can see — so our bodies are remade through the anxiety of being here. We are awash with stress hormones, even when we’re not explicitly stressed.

South Africans need to talk about what’s making us anxious. As our book shows, this will inevitably be a big conversation, one that will draw in many of the country’s problems: racism, inequality, gender-based violence, systemic poverty. 

There will also be lots of smaller conversations, about taxis and the men who drive them, about sending or not sending airtime to relatives, about how we deal with anxiety through sugar, booze or weed, and how anxious we feel about that fact. And finally, there will be much bigger conversations about how these tendencies are impacted by global inequalities.

All of these conversations must happen, and they must happen in the Global South, both the physical south and the larger mental south woven together from the languages and experiences of its people. 

Even as southern cities go, Joburg is a complicated handful. But its anxiety-inducing contradictions open gaps for a new understanding of the urban experience. For all Joburg’s stress, city life is here, and it’s ours.

Anxious Joburg: The Inner Lives of a Global South City is edited by Nicky Falkof & Cobus van Staden and published by Wits University Press