Flying into Johannesburg it seems like any other city. It is a sprawl of mainly low-rise buildings and there are sizeable green areas which don’t look like formal parkland, with fingers of modern uniform suburban housing spreading out into them. Green felt golf courses with mature trees and a sprinkling of well spaced out mansions with blue garden swimming pools speak of wealth and leisure for many. There are strange and sometimes oddly symmetrical rocky outcrops rising from an otherwise flat looking terrain. In the distance and through a little haze, either African dust, or exhaust emissions, or both, the inevitable city centre skyscraper skyline comes into view with irregular blocks like three-dimensional Tetris and a few bulbous telecoms masts. Three lane motorways snake through the city and the unmistakable straight or gently arcing pencilled railway lines with their bulges of parallel storage tracks are visible adjacent to what look like large areas of warehousing or industrial estates. Some of the suburbs look neat and leafy, with symmetrical houses intersected by evenly spaced grid pattern roads.
Then suddenly something catches your eye and is quite quickly gone and you think it was nothing. Then another one comes into sight and it looks like someone has miniaturised a town. A random patchwork of tiny roofs has been squeezed together with no streets or even visible paths. At first you dismiss it then you see another and you think the plane must be further from the ground than you thought because they look like human dwellings but they are far too tiny. Another appears and another, always surrounded by a margin of red-brown soil but with no hint of tarmac or trees. The contrast with the adjacent housing estates and their ‘normal’ sized houses is suddenly striking. These collections are each the size of a small suburb and squeezed into odd corners here and there, at road junctions or on barren areas of land. It is as though there is some chaotic Lilliputian society with tiny towns scattered here and there inside the real city – a Lord of the Rings landscape with hobbits and humans living side by side. It takes only a few moments to realise that these are where people with no real houses live, tin shacks and shelters made of any sort of material jammed together into shanty towns. They are officially termed ‘Informal Settlements’, a neutral and cosmetic description with a hint of Newspeak about it.
This is, for the first time visitor, an unsettling and humbling sight. When you have seen them a few times from the air, the impact lessens. No doubt if you live with them they are just part of the scenery and are probably not even noticed by many. The remarkable proximity of high-rise office blocks, expensive suburbs, small but neat working people’s housing adjacent to these collections of corralled humanity living on society’s edge, shouts social inequality and teetering societal instability. It is not the same as the drunk down-and-out pictured at the base of the Empire State Building. These represent whole colonies of people living in the heart of a Westernised town, but functionally outside of it and with their own code and culture. Except where they encounter health care provision or the police they are largely invisible. An IS won’t appear on a map, despite being of equivalent size or population to many named suburbs.
As the plane gets closer to the ground it becomes easier to see the height of the walls, all topped with wire, that surround every building that is not part of an informal settlement. This is a city and country where the ‘have nots’ experience en masse the contrast between their lives and that of the ‘haves’ in a very direct and undiluted way; and the ‘haves’ are extremely aware of their own vulnerability.