Urban Frustration (1)


Julie-Ann Tyler on the physical manifestations of protest culture on public space.

Johannesburg is a complex city with a rich, and at times dark, history. A history marked by protests. Joburg will always be remember for the many anti-apartheid protests that took place in the city and still remains to be a city that sees hundreds of protests every year.

Protesting has become an integral part of South African society. The advent of democracy in 1994 saw the right to freedom of expression and protest gaining constitutional protection. The lingering effects of apartheid, particularly on the city, have meant that frustrations continue to exist, and continue to be manifested within the urban environment.

From 2004 to today, which can be called the second decade of democracy, Saba (2013) notes the increase in violent popular protests.  This has meant that South Africa is often labeled as the “the protest capital of the world,” and has one of the highest rates of public protests in the world (Alexander:2012).

Although research has been done that questions the validity of this articulation of violent protest, it can be said that as a nation we embrace protest and our current laws and our constitution protect our right to protest.

Protest is defined as a statement or action that expresses disapproval of or objection to something. In South Africa, we envisage protests as physical expressions of frustration or disapproval. We have images of marches and large gatherings of people holding signs and dancing and singing. In some cases we think of looting, of burning tires and emptied dustbins.

In all these cases the city needs to accommodate this frustration. The built environment must provide a space for this and it must withstand the effects of the protest.

In the spirit of ‘claiming our right to the city’ we can, and should, be able to gather in public space and express ourselves. The right to the city encompasses participation. Protest is a form of people participating in how their city is run. The protests last month in Hong Kong are an example in this regard, where we saw thousands of protesters expressing their demands right in the middle of the city. The city has to accommodate this frustration.

The effect of this form of expression in a physical space often leaves scars on our urban landscape and remains a memory that the space will forever more be associated with. In this way a space can often be characterized by an event. The event and the people activate and appropriate the space and turn it into more than it is.

Where do people choose to protest? Often this is a simple answer and most of the time the site for protest is directly linked with the cause of the frustration. For example employees will march to a head office of the company to demand wages. This also means public buildings such as the legislature building, court houses and police stations often become spaces for protest to happen. The Joburg City Hall steps for example will always bare the memories of many protests that happened there, from the woman’s protests in the 1950’s and 60’s to the EFF and ‘school pupils’ protests this year.

Are the public spaces associated with these buildings able to accommodate protest? What affects do the protests have on the spaces they occupy, during the protest and after the protest?

Is Johannesburg designed to accommodate this urban frustration? When designing a city should we design with this in mind?

Can a city design for protest?

(Saba, A. V. (2013, January 22). Revealed – the true scale of SA service delivery protests [with original offical data]. RetrievedSeptember 23, 2014, from from the Media24 [online]: Available at www.m24i.co.za)

(Alexander.P. (2012, March 23). Protests and Police Statistics: Some Commentary Retrieved September 20, 2014, from from the Amandla Magazine [online]: Available at http://www.amandla.org.za/general-downloads/protests-and-police-statistics)

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