Until the early 1990s Yeoville was a densely populated working class, student and immigrant white neighborhood. It was always the place that white immigrants started from before they began their journey – both north and upwards into the middle classes of Johannesburg. After the first democratic elections in 1994, its proximity to employment and the city centre, made Yeoville the preferred destination for a predominantly black, working class population now rapidly moving to the city from the far-flung black townships and rural areas of South Africa, and elsewhere on the African continent. As a consequence, white residents slowly began to move away taking their business and their money with them.
In 2008, I found myself on a commission in Yeoville. My colleague was researching a newly commissioned urban management plan, and my job was to find and photograph the blurred and interesting boundaries between public and private space. The diversity of the neighbourhood was immediately very striking. A mixture of South Africans and immigrants from countries like Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Somalia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.
It was a languid, muggy Johannesburg summer day, and sitting on a bench in the shade outside the Newnet Internet Café, I chatted to Ginibel Mabih Forsuh, who grew up in Limbe in the South West region of Cameroon. She had studied Business Science at university, and then in 2006, recently graduated and aged twenty two, she followed her fiancé, who had moved here a few years earlier. “Ce chien de menteur!”1 had taken up with somebody else in her absence, and so Forsuh found herself stranded in a foreign city and needing to rely upon her own resources. She started work at an internet café owned by a Cameroonian she had met through ‘home’ networks, and within a year had saved enough to initiate a partnership and her own Cyber Zone business on Twist and Van Der Merwe Streets in Hillbrow. Ten months later, after repeated police and landlord harassment, in both cases, taking advantage of Forsuh and her partners’ vulnerable temporary residence status, they were forced to close their modestly profitable business.2
Our conversation curved around a wistful turn from the vagaries of looking for love to the difficulty of finding work. Taking up a perch alongside us, sharply dressed Frank Assimbo, formerly a teacher of French literature and philosophy at the University of Kinshasa, sifted through his folder of papers and pleasantly joined in on our conversation. He had come to the store to photocopy his degrees for an apoplication for a teaching job. He had, by this time, spent several years trying to obtain South African residential and work permits, and in the interim, was running computer literacy classes for adults from his apartment on Yeo Street. They introduced us to some of their friends as they passed by, and then we all drifted off to the Afro- themed Nando’s on Fortesque Street, for a Coke.
I was interested in the detail; the throbbing street life and conditions on the high street – a lively hub of new and old shop fronts, bars, restaurants, Internet Cafes, and, in spite of Johannesburg City law enforcers’ efforts to demarcate confined spaces for informal trade – dense with layer upon layer of street traders. We were browsing through a pavement display of music CDs when a crew of policemen began to conduct a raid about half way up the block aggressively netting in people who did not have the requisite identity documents. In less than a heartbeat the block had emptied and I was once again struck by South Africa’s far from welcoming response to movement down the continent. I was also left reflecting, after numerous casual and friendly conversations with many interesting people we had met through the day, on the extraordinary level of education, entrepreneurial skills and tendency to risk-taking that many migrants bring here with them.3
Television and print media relentlessly direct our gaze towards the violence and conflict between South Africans and Africans who have come here from other parts of the continent. It is very rarely that a successful immigrant, with an ordinarily mundane and repetitive life is reported upon. The images of migrants and refugees that we are presented with, are usually abject and universalised types, standing in for oppression and (always noble) suffering, and are of course integral to the representational politics that surround mobility; symbols of a much larger argument.
LAYING THE GROUND
A few ideas began to churn. I started to think about making a new project in Yeoville. Finding ways to talk back to this big and abstract story; taking it away from the body politic to little, intimate stories about this particular person’s loss – that particular person’s dreams, or his great hairstyle, her exquisitely styled shoes and her enduring search for the perfect man!
My practice entails defining a new project first, and only then finding the right medium and space for the job. This research involves looking at physical and social conditions ‘on the ground’; paying attention to the details of the built environment and also to how people live in and move through this space, accommodating it to their own needs.4
I find affinities with the procedures of artist Francis Alys, who describes his interaction with a new context:
“My own reaction to the place [where I arrive to make a project] is itself subjective: it is a bit of a dance between my own concerns or obsessions that I carry with me over there and their meeting with that place, that clash that will eventually lead to a concrete reaction, a piece, or nothing. And it is never just about the place …… you arrive with a series of little sparks. You try them out in your mind when you’re there and they quickly light up or die away. To begin with you have a kind of pen pal relationship to the place, you imagine all kinds of potential scenarios, but really it is only on location that you understand what might be relevant”.5
I was mindful of my position as an uninvited outsider (or ‘tourist’), and of the pitfalls of parachuting a project (or a large object) into a neighbourhood that had not asked for it in the first place. With these thoughts on the back burner, I turned toward the equally challenging trajectory of very practical tasks like drawing together a start-up project team, writing (many) funding proposals, imagining possible research processes and partnerships, and finding the right institutional base.
The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), a graduate research and teaching programme at the University of the Witwatersrand welcomed a trans-disciplinary approach to their terrain and with interested colleagues and an apposite home base we were able to secure our project funding.
Past experience had taught me that working collaboratively in the public realm involves being able to build relationships, and in good faith, to navigate one’s way through a complex set of power relations and negotiations: between artists, other professionals, project partners, project funders, stakeholders, residents, participants, and audience that eventually, for better or worse, animate and bring the work into being. This shifting matrix of relationships forms the delicate foundation onto which everything else is layered and is as much a part of the final product as everything else that is produced along the way.
muf, a London based, all-women art and architecture practice, committed to working in public space say about collaboration:
“Collaboration operates across a range from the accidental to the deliberate, from the shadowing or paralleling of work to various kinds of wanted and unwanted interference … although it sounds obvious to say it, collaboration is about difference, otherwise why bother? Acknowledging difference opens up a space to recognise what you don’t know, what you do know and what you didn’t know you knew!”6
Our initial project team comprised John Spiropoulos, an urban practitioner, with whom my early thinking about the project developed, George Lebone, a Yeoville community activist who facilitated our initial access to people and places in the neighbourhood, Jean-Pierre Misago, a PhD student at ACMS from Burundi who helped us design a first research process aligned with his own enquiry into the experiences of migrant communities in Johannesburg, and Belinda Blignault, an artist and designer who came up with the look and feel of our first website. Hotel Yeoville, before it became a physical and virtual ‘thing’ embedded in its specific locale, was incubated in an 18-month history of research, development and planning.
The project’s name came to us very easily. We were thinking about ‘hotel’ as a place that offers intimate and temporary private space to people from many different places of origin. And Yeoville being a place where many people we met had a very tenuous hold on either. But, it definitely bothered some Yeoville community leaders and activists who needed to see the suburb as a cohesive whole, rather than a disparate group of South African and immigrant communities with their own very clear and separate national identities living alongside each other by happenstance. It also brought several people rushing up the stairs, clutching references that attested to their experience of working in hotels; and there were floods of emails from manufacturers of ashtrays, reading lights, and bedside tables in China. But, it was the one and only thing about which we were ever absolutely certain. For the rest, well, it felt, much of the way, like a wildly experimental (and risky) blind date. In a sense our first relationship of trust had to be with the process, and the unfolding of an unpredictable project.
SO THIS IS WHAT WE DID
1. Walking the grid
We spent several weeks methodically walking the suburban grid and talking with anybody who smiled at us as they went about their day. It was our sense that the word “community” was not a very useful one in the context of Yeoville. We met a heterogeneous mix of people from almost every country on the continent. There was also a distinct pecking order. South Africans and then Nigerians, on top, and everybody else in-between, with Zimbabweans at the bottom, and blamed for everything.
We kept our focus on drawing upon what we might find, and noticed two things most particularly. The first, wrapping around the Shoprite supermarket,7 was a whole suburban block of wall space covered in notices: sheets and scraps of multi-coloured paper with hand-written notes in English and French; offering and seeking shared accommodation, employment, money transfers, baby’s clothes, lounge suites, faith, romance, marriage and more. And interspersed amongst these were hundreds of small printed flyers; advertising business and translation services, language classes, religious events, HIV testing, abortions and a host of other services.
The second thing we noticed was the unusual density of Internet cafés. We counted thirty cafés distributed between just four blocks, all of them hosting customers at every terminal.8 Most of the cafés were owned and run by foreigners and had very specific national identities. People often seemed to come in just to chat, see who’s who, and meet up with friends, and familiar others.
Gorgeous Mr. Abbas, Congolese owner of the Timbuktu Cafe, occupying two large apartments on the third floor of a building overlooking Times Square, explained to us, somewhat ruefully, that competition had driven the rate of Yeoville’s Internet cafes down to R5.00 an hour, which didn’t bring in nearly enough revenue when offset against exorbitantly high space rentals and telecommunications costs. And so the Cafés plugged this hole by offering a wide range of ancillary services that turned their establishments into something between a cosy club lounge and a business centre. You could make long-distance phone calls, have your CV designed and typed, commission somebody to do research for you, or simply help you to fill in your application for citizenship or refugee status forms. You could hire a DVD, order a plate of food, have your hair cut, or braided, and find your way around the city and its authorities. It struck us that very large numbers of people seemed to depend upon communal café spaces to use the Internet and the telephone on a daily basis, with many of them making repeat visits at different intervals during the day.9 These were interesting social spaces, seemingly integrated into the daily needs and routines, and the serious business of many of the people living around them.
Between the communicative supermarket walls, and modus operandi of the many Internet cafés, we decided to work with web technology and some of the familiar language of social media as the medium of the project, and to design an interactive, customised website aimed at the online café culture of the suburb. The site was imagined as something that, on the one hand, enabled a largely invisible pan-African group of Johannesburg residents to write themselves into being, and on the other, as a useful resource that helped new arrivals to navigate their lives through and around the rules of the city.
Central to this early concept was the idea that the website should become the default homepage when any Café visitor began their browsing, but in as smart and savvy a business environment as this one, we knew we would have to be able to come up with an incentivising and reciprocal offering to the Café owners, something that really added value to their business!
And so we embarked on two simultaneous processes. One was to find out something about Internet Café business practices, and the informational and virtual context of these physical spaces. What were people doing online? And what might they like to be able to do online in this city and suburb? The other was a lengthy and parallel (and infinitely more difficult) process: to persuade one or other of the big telecommunications companies of the hidden value in this invisible local market of communal Internet Café users, completely ignored in major quantitative South African surveys on both Internet and cell phone access and use. We hoped to offer them unusual and far-reaching marketing opportunities through engaging with our project, in exchange for broadband and telephony packages at competitive rates.
2. ‘Culture as Infrastructure’10
Artist Tegan Bristow and web architect Jason Hobbs had, just a few years earlier, produced some contextual research on Internet cafés and their users in Braamfontein, Yeoville and Soweto. Bristow joined us at a later stage where her expertise in interactive digital media became indispensable to the exhibition environment we designed, and Hobbs joined this phase of our work to explore the sort of information architecture our website would require, and to identify a more or less typical café client. He helped us to design paper and online questionnaires aimed at Internet café owners, their staff, users and people on the street. We gathered together a research team comprised of South Africans and immigrants from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, D.R.C and Cameroon, all resident in Yeoville, and set out to map the number and location of Internet cafes in the suburb, and then to evaluate their infrastructure, services, business practices and technological needs. Internet café owners, managers and their customers were curious and responsive. Our process produced a useful sense of a more or less typical café client. But interestingly, we discovered, contrary to the popular notion of a “digital divide” in developing countries, this large Internet café user base in fact actively embraces, shares and maximizes technology as a survival strategy. They are simply not doing it from work or home, which are the only spaces ever considered when statistics about Internet usage in South Africa are compiled.11
We shared, discussed and analysed our results and experiences,12 reviewed our imagined project, and then worked toward creating a meaningful and useful journey through a three-dimensional website. The framing concept for the design and development of the website was our view of the political importance of the minutely observed details of personal, everyday life. We emphasised subjectivity and personal identity, and designed the site’s structure and navigation through ‘normal’ everyday life categories. Freud has often been quoted, (although neither Google nor anyone else can accurately identify the source!) as having said, “love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.“ Onto these we layered home, faith, play and more, and these themes became the vehicles of navigation through the website. We also decided to incorporate popular social media platforms such as YouTube, Flickr and Facebook, maximising on their viral capacity and also on the ease and familiarity with which people were using them in Yeoville. We took our wire frames back to the Internet cafés for feedback, amended them in response to comments that were made, designed and built the site, and then tested and amended it all over again.
Our next big challenge, while I worked upon and waited for a response from the corporate world, was to come up with an effective means of launching and marketing the project and its website within the suburb.
I have to add at this point, that at times, the implementation of my project felt like an epic mission, like being a player on a ‘quest’ in one of the popular, real-time online games, like World of Warcraft, where in order to succeed, you have to ‘build your character’ by acquiring talents, and a multiplicity of skills and new professions, as you get deeper into the game.
Excerpted from “Public Art/Private Lives A.K.A. Hotel Yeoville,” Terry Kurgan, Hotel Yeoville, Published by Fourthwall Books 2013.
1 French to English translation: “This lying dog!”
2 “There were some cops that already came to my place a few months ago and they made me so angry! Anyway, their arrival this time was the last straw! I was already having problems with the landlord who was always giving me unreasonable issues. The cops, this time stole all of my stuff. I didn’t know that the cops in South Africa have the right to steal? They stole my jewellery; they stole the flash drives, DVDs, and all the other goods I used to sell in my business. They also took about R3000 in cash from me. Yaah. So we just decided to close the shop.” Quoted by kind permission of Ginibel Mabih Forsuh, from a recorded conversation, August 2008.
3 Whereas many South Africans arriving in central Johannesburg are from rural areas and peri-urban townships, “more than 95% of non-nationals have spent their lives in cities or towns before leaving for South Africa. Foreign migrants also have disproportionately higher levels of technical and academic qualifications and bring with them the skills needed to survive in cities.” C. Kihato, C and L. Landau, (2006). “The Uncaptured Urbanite: Migration and State Power in Johannesburg”. The Forced Migration Studies Working Paper Series, Working Paper# 25.
4 This accommodation is particularly evident in Yeoville. With white middle class residents having moved away from the suburb, property owners began to neglect their properties because of uncertainty about their value in the context of this demographic change. They also tend to exploit the vulnerable and tenuous status of their new tenants – massively raising rents and neglecting to provide essential services.
5 Francis Alys: A to Z, Compiled by Klaus Biesenbach and Cara Starke in Francis Alys, A story of Deception, edited by Mark Godfrey and Klaus Biesenbach, p. 35, published byTate Publishing, London 2010.
6 Muf, (2001).“THIS IS WHAT WE DO: a muf manual” pg 29, with contributions from Katherine Shonfield and Adrian Dannat, edited by Rosa Ainley, Ellipsis Publications, London.
7 The Shoprite supermarket is on the corner of Bedford and Rockey Streets.
8 In late 2007, when we began our research, most people relied upon a PC to get online. In 2012, following global trends, the cell phone habits of South Africans have changed dramatically as smart phones, mobile applications and the mobile Internet have entered the mainstream. This doesn’t seem to have affected the customer base of Yeoville’s Internet Cafes.
9 The situation described above arises in low-income neighborhoods such as Yeoville because of the high cost of connecting to the telephone and Internet from home. South Africans pay some of the highest telecommunications rates in the world added to which we have low bandwidth and high bandwidth costs. Added to this, many residents have a particularly tenuous grasp on ‘home’; at the mercy of corrupt landlords who take advantage of their vulnerable status in this country.
10 This is a term Hilton Judin uses to describe architects Cohen & Judins’ approach to their design of the Mandela museum in Transkei; instead of simply providing storage and display spaces representing the life of Mandela, the museum project brought a plentiful and common source of running water (and a structure designed to contain it) to the people still living in the village of Mvezo, where Mandela was born, a legacy that more definitively presents his struggle. Women and children would no longer have to walk to the distant river to collect water. Judin, H, (2000). “Culture as Infrastructure” Journal Architektur Aktuell vol 245, pg 53 – “Less Aesthetics, More Ethics”.
11 This is discussed in greater detail in: J. Hobbs and T. Bristow, (2007). “Communal computing and shared spaces of usage: a study of Internet cafes in developing contexts.”
12 The research questionnaires included a section on what users might want from the website. The following received the highest votes: Information on immigrant and refugee rights and resources, the ability to advertise and seek accommodation and jobs, a personal profile on a community website, the ability to share experiences, stories and to leave messages for friends, and finally information on local sport and religious congregations. When asked what their hopes and dreams were, these were the most popular responses: A desire to invest in the local economy; a wish for the despotic leaders of their home countries to be removed; to be able to live and work in South Africa without fear; to be able to work in a chosen profession for which the subject was already qualified; to be able to help others in need.