Publication

The Politics of Urban Life: Social Activism and the City of Johannesburg

Andrew W. Mellon Chair of Critical Architecture and Urbanism and Wits City Institute Director Noëleen Murray, and the Director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, Peter Vale, co-edited The Politics of Urban Life: Social Activism and the City of Johannesburg, a publication arising from the Performative Urbanisms and the City of Johannesburg workshop.

Published in July 2016 / Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation via the Wits City Institute, part of the Andrew W. Mellon Architecture, Urbanism and Humanities Initiative at the University of the Witwatersrand, and the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, University of Johannesburg.

Words: Noëleen Murray and Peter Vale (from the Foreword to the publication)

Image: Ricky Lee Gordon. Shadow Boxer, a 10-storey mural of Nelson Mandela, is modelled on the iconic photograph taken by Bob Gosani. It was painted by the street artist Freddy Sam (Ricky Lee Gordon) on commission by the developers of Maboneng Precinct as a gift to the city of Johannesburg.

In September 2015, the Wits City Institute and the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study hosted a three-day interdisciplinary workshop entitled Performative Urbanisms and the City of Johannesburg – fighting for and over the city; expressing the city; knowing the city.

Jointly organised by the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, the Wits City Institute, the journal Thesis Eleven and the Thesis Eleven Centre, La Trobe University, and the Chair of Culture and Society, Curtin University, the event focused on Johannesburg in comparative perspective, bringing together participants from South Africa and Australia. Our Australian partners were the editors and editorial board members of the international journal Thesis Eleven: Critical Theory and Historical Sociology (Peter Beilharz, Trevor Hogan, Sian Supski, and Julian Potter); the Thesis Eleven Centre for Cultural Sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne (Trevor Hogan); and the Chair of Culture and Society at Curtin University in Perth (Peter Beilharz). The workshop provided academics, analysts, activists, artists, and others with an opportunity to explore a range of themes centered on Johannesburg and its visual, spatial, textual, and especially performative representations, in the context of its functioning as a leading global city in comparative perspective.

A key intention of the workshop was to pay attention to knowledge produced in and of the city from beyond the academy, and to re-conceptualise urban cultures. Partly in response to a meeting with activists, representatives of non-governmental organisations and civil society groupings convened in 2015 by Professor Imraan Velodia, Dean of the Faculty of Commerce, Law, and Management at the University of the Witwatersrand, the first day’s proceedings, titled The Politics of Urban Life – Personal Confessions, provided a space for engaging with the struggles and experiences of social activists working in a range of organisations and institutions in and around the city. Chaired by Peter Vale, here, space was provided for spatial and social justice practitioners and urban activists to share their experiences of working among stakeholders faced with the incessant struggle of negotiating the realities of daily life in Johannesburg’s inner city.

Participants included Koketso Moeti, Lauren Royston, Erica Embdon, Munya Masunga, Jacob van Garderen, Tish White, Christa Kuljan, Lisa Vetten, and Maurice Smithers, with a literary contribution from the Afrikaans writer Harry Kalmer. These voices were brought together in the publication The Politics of Urban Life: Social Activism and the City of Johannesburg.

Disturbing, moving and inspiring in turn, the contributions reflect, if partially, a remarkable level of social activism in southern Africa’s biggest city. As we wrote at the time, we thought it fitting to encapsulate them in a free-standing volume, available in PDF and in print.

Download the publication here THE POLITICS OF URBAN LIFE