Interview: urban planner Tanya Zack on Johannesburg


South Africa has gone through huge changes since apartheid was abolished 1990 and free elections was held 1994. One of the places that has changed the most is Johannesburg, South Africas largest city and the region’s most vibrant commercial center.

The publisher Fourthwall Books has published a beautiful series of booklets about different places in Johannesburg, most of them dominated by immigrants from other African countries. These immigrants are often very skillful entrepreneurs and they add to the character of the neighborhoods they live in.

Mark Lewis (interview + photos) has taken the photos for the booklets, urban planner Tanya Zack has written the texts. We had the opportunity to ask Zack a few questions about the books (review).

Could you tell us a little bit about the ideas behind Wake up, this is Joburg?

– I have always lived in Johannesburg and I grew up close to the inner city, in Bertrams. My worklife has often intersected with the inner city and I have a passion for its dynamism and surprise. But from around 2008 I had the opportunity through my work – doing research and policy – to work on some of the big issue areas of the inner city – such as so-called ‘bad buildings’. I became convinced that I need to spend more time in understanding and in diagnosing what I see in the city before I can hope to respond to it as an urban planning practitioner.

– I started walking the streets of the inner city and I was overwhelmed with the excitement of it. I learnt so much, saw so much I didn’t know existed in Johannesburg and also simply encountered these incredible experiences of interacting with people or of just watching. I felt humbled by how little I knew and understood and how my training and experience as an urban planner equipped me in some ways to have a lens for interpreting what I was seeing but the privilege of just being in the space and looking was a whole new learning experience.


– Photography became a natural extension for me in the act of watching and I spent many months taking photos. This was also a vehicle of access because each photo required conversation, and permissions and so I got talking to people. It was still a personal project – looking, taking pictures, turning these into collages for the pleasure of absorbing and playing with the extraordinary images of the inner city.

– The next stage in this unplanned journey was the collection of stories. And Mark and I joined forces. I write the stories, he photographs them. We work together very closely so that the pictures tell a story and the words create images. In some cases the stories popped up because we encountered them in our wanderings. In other cases we set out specifically to understand a specific activity or person life and livelihood in the city. For instance we followed recyclers over a number of days and in some cases followed their stories over many months. Not every story is intended for publication. In fact most are just our personal encounter with our city.


– The selection of stories is not conscious as much as it is driven by ‘that feels right’ or that doesn’t feel right. The journey is intuitive. We are not trying to look at a particular category of person, space or activity but rather at something that feels lesser known, but important to us for understanding something about Joburg. They have mostly centered on less formal activities in the city and mostly in the inner city which is the dynamic heart of Johannesburg, often a first place of arrival for migrants and a place where buildings are constantly being re-purposed.

– We are not offering lessons or opinions on what should be done in Joburg. This is a creative task. If we can alert people in Joburg to something that feels a little lesser known and through that inspire a greater affection for this city of possibilities, we will have achieved a lot.


I have recently read the books, published by Fourthwall Books, by you and Mark and I have read another book that Fourtwall is involved in: UP UP: Stories of Johannesburg’s Highrises. Several themes are recurring in these books. One of those themes are change, rapid change on a grand scale. Several of your stories focus on marginality and informality. Can you tell us a little about that?

– One of the things the stories alert us to is people carving a livelihood on leftover space. All over Johannesburg leftover land and redundant buildings are appropriated temporarily or irregularly for living space, places of religious worship, gambling or for survivalist income generation. That space may be threatened or criminalized or ignored by the authorities. But these are often the only remaining places of opportunity for new entrants to the saturated informal economy of the inner city.

© Mark Lewis

– The most marginal of the activities and spaces that the story series explores is that of informal butchers who chop cow heads in a disused parking garage in the heart of the inner city. The condemned building that the story S’kop takes place in abuts highly formalized inner city structures and is within view of banking head offices and the cultural precinct of Newtown. It is in the shadow of the city railway station and is the backdrop to the city’s premier public art sculpture, the Firewalker.

– Several of the stories are located in leftover spaces or concern marginal economic activity. These activities that occur in the gaps of the planned and regulated city offer spaces of innovation and of experimentation with new ways of creating livelihoods and of city making.

– They may well manifest the shifts that begin as quiet moments and actions outside of the purview of formalized city planning but that over time normalize and mainstream in the urban space. More important than their absorption into the regulated city however is their value in pioneering new modes of practice – often out of necessity and at times out of a serendipitous accident of history. These fringes are the things to watch and learn from to understand how the remaking of cities happen in spite of the systems that resist change.

Humfrey, Caretaker of Ansteys
Humphrey Lenong, caretaker of Ansteys © Mark Lewis

In Tea at Anstey’s, about a beautiful art deco building where you live, you write: ”Everyone mentions crime or safety here.” Could you tell us a little bit about crime and safety in Johannesburg, and about what you think would be good policies to address these challenges?

– Violence is pervasive in Johannesburg. In all our stories there are views of crime and violence, whether violent physical crime, or violence of exclusion (such as of migrants) or xenophobia. In other research that I have conducted people speak of the violence and corruption exercised by security officers in the inner city, where violence is structural and where violence is exercised by security officers – in the form of extraction of bribes and threats or theft, as is alleged in several interviews I have conducted in the inner city – then the only action that can be taken is internal structural change within the state and security forces. This means that change has to start with cleaning up of policing and of the corrupt elements within local governance structures. It is a frightening city when people fear the law enforcement officers whose role should be protection.

© Mark Lewis

Can you tell us about the trading patterns you have observed amongst migrant traders who have featured in your stories, such as in the story Inside Out?

Johannesburg, as an arrival city for migrants, is also a city where business is fostered by low end globalisation. In our story Inside Out we note that: “Arranged on the two tiers of Senga’s stall in the Rockey Street market are foods and oils unfamiliar to native Joburgers but as familiar as their own language to those who have crossed half a continent to be here. There are varieties of beans from Malawi and the DRC, palm oil from Ghana and Cameroon, spices from Nigeria, Mopani worms and dried fish from Zambia. Face creams and antiseptic lotions from the DRC, Côte d’Ivoire and France confound the description of this and other kiosks as ‘vegetable stalls’.”

– We learn that on-going research, price comparison, attention to displays, quantity and variety also mark the work of traders in the Rockey Street market in Yeoville. It’s a vibrant market hosting an Afropolitan trader population including barbers from Nigeria, dressmakers and fabric sellers from Nigeria, South Africa and the DRC, tailors and cobblers from Ghana and Nigeria, photographers from the DRC and Mozambique, and vegetable sellers from Zimbabwe and Mozambique. In the story Inside Out traders talk ‘trader language’ to one another. That story also reveals the intensity of a trade that is made possible through low-end globalization. People are trading across borders and are distributing goods to many cities using cell phones and informal networks of suppliers, bankers, transporters and traders.

”Geraldine is Zambian. Her imports of beans, peanuts, cassava, dried fish, eggplant and okra are sought after in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban and East London. She sources goods for regular customers and brings in what is in good supply. She is networked to the delivery trucks that serve traders like herself across South Africa. Sometimes the trucks carry only goods for cross-border traders. But if they are carrying furniture or other large items, the drivers might agree to add an extra bag or box to their load for the market traders. Geraldine also works with individual suppliers and customers who do not use trucks, but carry bags of spices, creams or vegetables on their backs. ‘If someone is coming I tell him to bring what I need, ’ she says. The trading lattice is organised by word of mouth and transactions are recorded on scraps of paper or in notebooks. It’s low-end globalisation: boxes of goods arrive from many countries and are funnelled through backyards to be sorted and to join other goods bound for stalls, shops and restaurants across South Africa.”

She now stocks from Nigeria, Cameroon, Malawi, Tanzania, Ghana, Mozambique and Zambia.

Winnie sitting on her bed
Winnie © Mark Lewis

You speak of harsh realities in Johannesburg but also of hope. Can yo tell us about the hopefulness you found in the Tea at Anstey’s story?

– The Anstey’s building in the heart of the inner city is an extraordinary example of inclusionary living in one building. There a unique mix of income, race and class characterizes the tenant population. It has evolved as an inclusionary housing development through an accident of history. Tea at Anstey’s tells the story of this glamorous building’s deterioration and of its reclamation and partial subdivision for affordable apartments for ownership. It also tells of the plush apartments that have been converted by artists and other creative professionals.

And of the communities within communities of this sociable urban space. One tenant calls Anstey’s ”a test tube for a real community” and the writer notes the following people entering the lift one afternoon:

”Mother with baby on back.
Teenager with finger in mouth.
Two young guys carrying backpacks and sporting big earphones under hoodies.
Teenage girl followed by toddler in pink tracksuit.
Man with cello case.
Man carrying child in Spiderman suit.
Woman wearing towel around waist and carrying bucket of water.
Tall, stylish man carrying three shirts and suit bag.
Old man with broken shoes carrying bulging bag on back.
Frowning nurse in navy trouser uniform.
Laughing guys carrying crate of beer.
Young woman in chef’s top.
Woman in large sunglasses rocking to loud music from phone. (Bright lipstick!)
Stout man with limp carrying two plastic bags filled with vegetables.
Small boy yelling, ‘Yay! New shoelaces! New shoelaces! Yay! Yay!’”

– This is not the sort of mixed community that we can readily ‘design’ into urban living. But it is the sort we hope for and the sort that, as Anstey’s shows, is possible.

Ola Wihlke

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