"Taming the Disorderly City" by Martin J. Murray


During the era of apartheid in South Africa the dominant white minority tried to restrict the black majority (80% of the population) to life in inferior “bantustans”, remote from the cities. Those who needed to enter the white areas could be issued a pass, although blacks who might have been employed as servants or in other menial positions might stay longer under the employer’s protection. Later, all blacks were required to carry an identification book. Police might regularly raid black settlements around the cities in search of persons living there illegally.

Black South Africans were able to settle in the sprawling and mostly ramshackle townships south-west of Johannesburg, known as Soweto. With the end of apartheid in 1994 and the emergence of a black-dominated government the old restrictions were lifted. Everyone was presumably free to travel and live anywhere. South Africa was also able to shake off international sanctions and the potentially rich nation could advance to prosperity for all, and its biggest city could attain “world status”.

But it hasn’t worked out well.

All sorts of urban poor inhabit the city: paupers, beggars, the infirm, aged or sick people with little or no means of support; orphaned and runaway children, unprotected mothers with young children, widows, and other castaways without visible means of subsistence; jobless and idle youth, the casually employed, the chronically unemployed, along with the casualties of labor markets that favor the literate, the skilled, and the able-bodied… The forms of distress and social misery that the urban poor suffer include not only poverty… but also the breakdown in the fabric of relationships that tie them organically to places, networks and groups.
— from “Taming the Disorderly City”

A massive underclass numbering over three million has moved into Johannesburg, occupying whatever structures are available, sometimes settling in once-luxurious homes or commercial sites that were abandoned. Squatters take over parks and other urban spaces until evicted – often abruptly and in the dark of night. All the while the business and governmental sectors of Joburg (as everyone there calls it) have been trying to develop an exciting new city (it will host the 2010 World Cup) while walls are erected around existing homes and the unemployment rate reaches forty percent.

In his new book “Taming the Disorderly City: the Spatial Landscape of Johannesburg after Apartheid”, Binghamton University sociology professor Martin J. Murray details the conditions and treatment of poor blacks and their struggle for survival. He also states that, “it is not difficult or unusual for affluent urban residents to go their own way, not knowing and oblivious to the grim realities of depravation that encircles the city.” However, his work should cut through that obliviousness. Dr. Murray has been involved with the sociology of emerging nations since 1974. “Taming the Disorderly City” is planned as the first book in a trilogy; forthcoming books will examine western-style development plans in South Africa and Joburg’s view of itself.

“Taming the Disorderly City” details the disconnect between Joburg’s development schemes and the need for basic human services. It appears much easier to build a glittering new shopping mall or gated community than to lift some people out of poverty. Even the emergence of a substantial black middle-class in South Africa has not eased life in the “outcast ghettos”. And Professor Murray believes that the disorderly city exemplified by Joburg will be a model for urban society in which formerly public space becomes privatized and the poor are everywhere and nowhere.

Martin J. Murray joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about his study of urban life and social history, and his many research trips to Africa.

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