Mobility Paradigm in Johannesburg

Essay, 2016
7 Pages, Grade: 75%



Racially shaped mobility patterns in South Africa date back to the colonial and apartheid eras. Apartheid as an oppressive system of social engineering through spatial segregation confined the mobility of black people. The mobility of white people was encouraged and facilitated more so in ‘white’ spaces or those spaces deemed too good for the black majority. The persistence of the apartheid space economy in the post-apartheid city implies that although mobility is no longer restricted by harsh laws, it is limited by economics and politics of the stomach. However, inter and intra-city mobility of black citizens has sharply increased with the dawn of democracy and so has the influx of migrant populations into these post­apartheid urban spaces.

Against this backdrop, this essay will illuminate the processes that have influenced the production of post-apartheid Johannesburg. The theoretical framework of this paper is the mobility/fixity theory supported by Lefebvre’s ‘production of space’. The paper seeks to zero in on the two most prominent displays of mobility/fixity in the production of space as it relates to Johannesburg; these are the ‘white flight’ of the 1980s and ‘Africanisation’ of the post­apartheid city.

Mobility/fixity and the production of space

With fluidity of information, goods, capital and people in the globalised world system, it can be easy to assume that the entire world is mobile. Mobilities theory is the exact realisation that global relations are not so; it is neither a claim that everyone and everything in the world is mobile now, nor is it an erasure of the extensive global mobilities made possible by the colonial world economy. Instead, Sheller (2011:2) argues that mobilities studies seek to probe ‘who and what is demobilized and remobilized across many different scales, and in what situations mobility or immobility might be desired options, coerced, or paradoxically interconnected’.

Accordingly, mobilities theory includes both the local processes of movement through public space and everyday life as well as large-scale movements across the world (Sato & Murayama, 2008). These movements largely influence the rationale for various austere governance systems in both the public and private sectors as there are fears of illicit mobilities and their associated security risks (Kotef, 2015). As such, it is seen that mobilities are centrally entangled with issues of organising and reorganising institutions; shifting travel, tourism and migration patterns, transmitting risks and illnesses across the globe; producing a more distant family life; connecting distant people through ‘fragile bonds; and other complex dynamics (Hannam, et al., 2006).

Moreover, apart from physical, corporeal movement of people and objects, mobilities encompasses imaginative, virtual and communicative travel (Urry, 2007). This aspect of mobilities theory draws on the definition of space as described by Lefebvre (1991); he argues that space encompasses the perceived space, conceived space and lived space. Perceived space is the concrete space devoid of any subjective observations of people and it is what is encountered in the daily environment; conceived space is the subjective mental construct of space which includes ideas about and representations of space. Lived space is thus the intricate combination of both the perceived and conceived space. This implies that social associations and lived space are patently hinged together in everyday life (Purcell, 2002). In this regard, the production of space as concept is about the mobilisation of both physical, mental and social forces and transformations (Lefebvre, 1991).

Furthermore, tying in with Lefebvre’s production of space theory and the geography of capitalism, Brenner (2004) argues that mobilities and fixities occur through opposing forces where global restructuring has neither resulted in absolute territorialisation of societies, economies, or cultures onto a global scale, nor has it led to complete de-territorialisation of these societies, economies and cultures. Instead, he asserts that the representation of the political-economic space a complex, tangled mosaic of overlaid and interpenetrating nodes has become more appropriate than the traditional model of homogenous and connecting blocks of territory. This then presents a paradigm shift that seeks to indicate the emergence of complex mobility systems and their restructuring effect on both space and time.

Mobilities theory as it relates to space cannot be studied without examining the necessary spatial, infrastructural and institutional anchorages that configure and enable mobilities. This interdependent nature of mobilities to immobile systems creates what is referred to by Harvey as the ‘spatial fix’ (Harvey, 1989). These systems of ‘immobile’ material worlds that are made up of platforms, roads, garages, stations, aerials, airports, docks, and factories allow for mobilizations of locality and re-arrangements of place and scale materialized. They also often enable the fluidities of liquid modernity, and more so of capital on a substantial physical scale (Urry, 2003a).

Apart from the interrelations between mobility, production of space and temporal relations, mobilities can also be entangled in power dynamics of everyday life. It is seen that while some places and technologies enhance the mobility of a select group of people the same places and technologies can also heighten the immobility of others. This highlights the inequality of mobility as a resource; it is seen that it is a resource to which not everyone has an equal relationship. This phenomenon of differential mobility reflect structures and hierarchies of power and position based on abyssal lines of race, gender, age and class, at both local and global scales (Tesfahuney, 1998).

‘White flight’

In light of the understanding of mobility as a resource and as empowerment, one can examine the spatial transformation that was sparked by ‘white flight’ in Johannesburg that began in the late 1970s. It has been argued that mobilities research seeks to understand patterns of migration and the forces behind this movement of people. Apartheid as a governance system was used to restrict the mobility of black people within and among urban spaces while the mobility of white urban citizens was encouraged in these spaces. Although it can also be argued that the mobility of white people was limited to those spaces the state deemed safe for their occupation and their conceived sense of space prevented them from engaging with ‘unsafe’, ‘black’ spaces. Nonetheless, this oppressive governance system and the ability of the state to enforce those laws that restricted the mobility of black people and to some extent of the white populace was beginning to crumble in the late 1970s. This saw the in-migration of blacks into the inner city and their illegal occupation of communities like Hillbrow. This gradual encroachment of white Johannesburg reached critical mass in the early 1980s and this saw the rapid out-migration of whites from the city centre toward the north to create white ‘safe’ spaces that would economically exclude the ‘intrusive’ black majority (Braid, 1996).

The resultant Johannesburg space economy could be described as being occupied by "two separate societies”; with a white, affluent society located primarily in the suburbs and a black society concentrated within the inner city and in large poverty enclaves in the peri-urban. Unlike in other countries whose cities have undergone ‘white flight’ where only the white middle-upper-class vacated the inner city; Johannesburg saw an exodus of all white bodies regardless of economic class because in the South African city, racial oppression was cemented by economic oppression. As such, the entire white populace in Johannesburg’s inner city migrated to the northern suburbs and commercial and business interest followed as this left the inner-city with a decreased purchasing power.


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Mobility Paradigm in Johannesburg
Community Studies
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ISBN (eBook)
johannesburg, mobility theory, migration patterns
Quote paper
Inolofatseng Lekaba (Author), 2016, Mobility Paradigm in Johannesburg, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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