Johannesburg as Refraction of Dissonant Times

Edgar Pieterse
Concert by Camino Verde youth outside La Granja. Photo Torolab

In 2023, Johannesburg has been in the news a lot, mostly for the wrong reasons. This trend found its apogee during the last gasp of August when a so-called hijacked building caught fire and 77 people lost their lives.1 The scale of the tragedy brought a longstanding pattern of governmental neglect into stark relief. Joburgers felt silently vindicated that their ever-deepening disillusionment with the city government, and their withdrawal from collective commitments were justified. Everyone must accept that they’ve got to look after their own interests even if the post-democracy social compact around redistribution and redress, embodied in the slogan “one-city-one-tax base”, was once widely accepted.

In the wake of the devastating fire on 31 August, the responses from political leaders across the ideological spectrum laid bare thinly veiled xenophobia and scapegoating. Political courage and magnanimity were in desperately short supply and the moment congealed a longstanding culture of neglect, mendacity, ignorance, populism and opportunism. There is seemingly no one on the political horizon with an appetite to engage the city in all of its localised and global complexity, contradictions, unknowns and potentialities. Joburg residents and institutions have effectively been left to fend for themselves. The near daily crisis of failing water supply, low water pressure, electricity blackouts, sewerage spills, rampant crime, unreliable public transport, pervasive corruption and tender rigging, aggregates into a widespread societal disdain for the political class responsible for the running and futures of Johannesburg.

Johannesburg is not alone in its downward spiral of disrepair and interminable crises. They are perhaps not as extreme, but Pretoria (Tshwane Metropolitan area), Durban (eThekwini) and East London (Buffalo City) are not much different; nor are any of the townships with the highest rates of violent crime in Cape Town. Profound development challenges can be traced back to deep economic and institutional issues. In terms of unemployment, South Africa is an outlier for an upper middle-income country with unemployment at 42.1 percent during the first quarter of 2023.2 Shockingly, the figure jumps to 60 percent for youth. These alarming figures reflect a long-term trend that marks most of the post-apartheid era and is not unrelated to spatial inequality and the concentrations of various forms of economic, health, material and development disadvantage in so-called townships and informal settlements where the urban poor are concentrated. The challenge that South Africa faces is to address profound economic exclusion whilst simultaneously attending to the imperatives of decarbonising the economy, which could, if poorly managed, exacerbate structural unemployment and inequality. Furthermore, economic policies must also align with a Pan-African agenda – the African Continental Free Trade Area – that South Africa signed up for. But it is possible that in the short-term this agreement could further undermine the competitiveness of South African firms, exacerbating the employment crisis.

Triangulating between the imperatives of deep inequality, achieving environmental sustainability and integrating with the regional African economy demand political imagination and strategic clarity and resolve that are in short supply across the political spectrum in South Africa. The polycrisis vortex seems destined simply to gather violent momentum, leading to unthinkable social dislocation and pain.3 Agony and cruelty  seem to be the defining experiences of numerous cities, nations and communities across the world as war machineries re-enter geopolitics at various scales, not least across the Saharan belt of West Africa, the Great Lakes, Ukraine and, most recently, Palestine and Israel. These visceral arenas tend to overshadow the greater, low-intensity carnage meted out by organised criminal gangs (in collusion with criminal actors in security forces) in Haiti, many Mexican cities, El Salvador, Brazil and, of course, in South African cities such as Cape Town, to name a few. Different forms of structural violence such as hunger, poor health and inhumane living conditions are a fact-of-daily-life for three billion people across the Global South, concentrated in complex makeshift neighbourhoods in cities and towns marked by vulnerability to incessant intimidation and the prospect of violence.

We face a profound existential political crisis.4 Current systems and forms of governance are out of sync with the systemic factors that drive the polycrisis and its maldevelopment effects. The most telling examples are in the climate change crises. We do not have the global governance institutions that can legislate, as well as regulate and sanction parties failing to comply with the necessary radical changes to production, manufacturing and waste systems that directly produce unsustainable carbon emissions. The science is clear about the speed of decarbonisation required as well as the differential contributions of various national economies. These have been calculated by governments themselves as well as by oversight institutions. Yet, every year when nations congregate at the Conference of Parties it is the same story: no one is following through on their inadequate commitments, and as a result the crisis deepens and even more radical mitigation and adaptation actions are required, with even less likelihood of success.5 The resource and material demands of the global economy fuelled by unbridled consumerism represent a predicable disaster unfolding in slow motion, and as witnesses we seem paralysed.

Similar dynamics apply to various biophysical systems that constitute our planetary boundaries, reflected in a dramatic overshoot of our safe operating space as a living planet, demonstrated in the figure below.

Current status of control variables for all nine planetary boundaries. Illustrated in Richardson, K. (2023). “Earth beyond six of nine Planetary Boundaries”, in Science Advances, vol. 9, no. 37. DOI:10.1126/sciadv.adh245.

The deep ecological crisis intersects with an equally profound crisis of inequality linked to obscene wealth differentials within countries, between countries, between regions and of course, within cities where the global economy is anchored. An equally profound political crisis of legitimacy and opportunism means that most countries have very few ideas, leaders and institutions able to come to terms with the polycrisis, let alone systematically and creatively address it. Yet almost all economic growth remains anchored in cities. Ninety percent of urban growth will be in Africa and Asia and an enormous amount of investment will have to be mobilised to remain ahead of this demographic curve in terms of infrastructure and buildings, and attend to the gigantic price tag of refurbishing the built environment of established cities in OECD countries.

The aggregate of these investments is what will determine the fate of the Global South, the global economy and especially cities because they will have to be the primary theatre of action to figure out new, circular, sustainable, inclusive and regenerative forms of value creation, that can produce universal mundane comfort (decent quality of life) and opportunities for flourishing.

There is an inescapable aporia at the heart of this story: the powers that control states and multinational corporations do not see their interests reflected in taking painful corrective short-term action, yet changing course towards a just, sustainable transformation requires collective action that involves states and major corporations. This begs the question: how will systemic change come into the world, and from where? Neither philosophy nor social science can answer these questions. What is called for is an inhabitation of the aporia through artistic thinking and practice. Development actors who are fiercely committed to figuring out new forms of questioning, language building, representation, affective dispositions, strategy and tactics will best be served by entering into argumentative dialogue with artistic and aesthetic registers. Such encounters could also infuse the arts and artistic movements with a renewed sense of urgency and relevance. What remains unclear are the institutional frameworks and spaces that can engender such encounters. We clearly need a new grammar for imagining and experimentation to decipher the pathways that lead away from emergency response, to systemic change and regenerative futures.6

“This begs the question: how will systemic change come into the world, and from where?”

Let us travel back to Johannesburg and the urban scale. Given the coexistence of urgent emergencies and the need for systemic change, we must cultivate a double-mindedness. We always need both incremental (ameliorative and modest) and systemic (structural and radical) change. Their articulation is optimised when incremental and political acts feed off strategic ruptures in the fabric of normality, such as when the inner city building was gutted by the fire. It is during these moments of intense outrage and anger that it becomes easier to mobilise the full democratic range of public passions and cultural attachments. By definition such a political disposition can accommodate generosity, openness, rage, patience, experimentation and impertinence. These are not contradictory sensibilities but the very entanglements that artistic thinking is so powerfully equipped to embody. Thus, in my research I am always hunting for stories and examples of people and organisations inhabiting this messy and uncertain space. This work is at the root of an exhibition-in-a-box that I am co-curating with Tau Tavengwa focused on patterns and instances of emergence in cities across the Global South. In closing this reflection I want to invoke two stories from a basket of twelve we are collating for the exhibition.

One of the harshest places to do imaginative work is Tijuana in Mexico. Yet, in our research we found a remarkable example of audacious practice to alter the realm of the possible and imagination in the work of a local project space called The Farm. It was initiated by Raúl Cárdenas and compadres about 25 years ago when they established Torolab and curated successive experiments to carve a safe haven where artists, musicians, children, scientists, farmers, care workers, mothers, scholars, activists and former gang members could be enlisted in a wide range of programming that almost always took its cue from artistic thinking.

Communal cooking at La Granja. Photo Torolab

One of the outstanding interventions involved an experiment between nutritionists, food stall workers, community cooks, designers and entrepreneurs. The humble mission was to reinvent the staple tortilla. The challenge was to ensure that the required minimum daily nutritional intake is embedded in the recipe, which demanded a change in the conventional formula. The alternative had to be as affordable and tasty as the tortilla that people consume daily. As part of rethinking desirability and aesthetics, the carts used by the vendors were also redesigned to ensure a novel experience and sense of beauty for residents when buying the new and improved tortilla. Most importantly, rigorous scientific research underpinned the experiment and enabled the harvesting of tacit knowledge through constant feedback from residents and community cooks. All aspects were documented and tracked to create a new archive of community life, desire and movement.7

COMA was developed to supplement the poor diets of Mexican workers by creating a food product containing the vitamins and nutrients absent from the standard urban Mexican diet. Photo Torolab

None of this work solves the larger systemic questions but it operates at a level of everyday intimacy that is a fundamental dimension of both imagining and instantiating different kinds of future potentialities.

Another example is on the other end of the spectrum: the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) in Bengaluru, India is an audacious effort to reimagine the university so that it can equip a new generation of urban practitioners to advance alternative forms of urban life, infrastructure, building, literature and visual cultures.8 IIHS invented a post-disciplinary faculty system; introduced a radically different curriculum; enabled direct engagements with the “real” world in the state and private sector through various internships whilst academic learning is happening; and brought in artists and writers to rescript the frames of reference for urbanism. Story development and telling, hidden away in the case study method, are central to their practice.

“None of this work solves the larger systemic questions but it operates at a level of everyday intimacy that is a fundamental dimension of both imagining and instantiating different kinds of future potentialities.”

This radical epistemic and pedagogic project dovetails with an insistence on occupying the worlds of policy research, theory building, advice and intermediation, resulting in, for example, the building of a completely new institutional architecture to advance universal access to sanitation in a state with a population of 55 million people. There is no equivalent institution anywhere in Africa, but it offers a reminder that the Johannesburg city-region can reimagine and reinvent itself despite all of our messy political and institutional challenges. India is nothing if not politically messy and complex.

My current obsessions compel me to scour the Global South for urban experiments that offer clues about how to inhabit our time of dissonance, a veritable interregnum that demands a commitment to radical experimentation, deep learning, fierce debate, and the fostering of beauty, insight and transdisciplinary knowledge magnetised by artistic thinking.


Edgar Pieterse is Founding Director of the African Centre for Cities (ACC) at the University of Cape Town, and Provost of the Norman Foster Institute for Sustainable Cities in Madrid. He has curated exhibitions and hosted discussions on pressing urban challenges, and his research and teaching explore urban imaginaries, alternative futures, sustainable urban infrastructure, place-making, public cultures, responsive design and adaptive governance systems. His current research is focused on the major exhibition Emergence, as well as on sustainable infrastructure systems in low-income contexts and explorations of city-level innovation ecosystems in Africa.


  1. Ballard, R. (2023). “Johannesburg Fire Disaster: Why Eradicating Hijacked Buildings is Not the Answer”, in The Conversation, 2 September 2023, Accessed 14 October 2023.
  2. This refers to the expanded definition of unemployment, which includes discouraged work seekers. Source: Accessed 13 October 2023.
  3. Polycrisis denotes the simultaneous accentuation of different types of economic, ecological, political and cultural crises that are systematically inter-dependent. The World Economic Forum perspective on polycrisis is set out here: Accessed 14 October 2023.
  4. Pieterse, E. (2023). “How to Build Equity”, in Schellnhuber, H.J. and Armillas Tiseyra, R. (eds.). Reconstructing the Future: Cities as Carbon Sinks. Basel: Birkhäuser.
  5. United Nations Environment Programme (2022). Adaptation Gap Report 2022: Too Little, Too Slow – Climate Adaptation Failure Puts World at Risk. Nairobi: UNEP,
  6. This approach stems from a digital cooperative that I am enrolled in called 10X100. We are striving to build a strategically aligned practice that addresses the polycrisis across different interests, sectors and professional settings. https://www.10×
  7. Some of this work can be engaged with through this podcast:
  8. They tell their pedagogic and epistemic journey in IIHS in Surie, A. et al (2023). Towards a New Urban Practice: The Urban Fellows Programme 2021–2022. Bangalore: IIHS. Accessed 15 October 2023.

How to cite this article:
Edgar Pieterse (2024), "Johannesburg as Refraction of Dissonant Times" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. Accessed 24 April 2024.