Spatial narratives: Marlboro Industrial

By Walter Fieuw (on behalf of CORC)

The socio-spatial dilemma

The interactions between spatial and social processes have occupied the imaginations of planners, geographers, urban designers and even economists and philosophers for many years. Essentially, urban and regional spaces are not removed from their ideological and political settings, but rather a reproduction of such social, cultural, political and economical relationships. Urban space is therefore not equal, but rather contested, especially in the intersections of the formal and the informal.

Marlboro Industrial is a contested inner-city slum in the wealthy suburb of Sandton in Johannesburg. The area has a complicated history. With the decline of industrial activity in the late 1980s, and the collapse of apartheid pass-laws, desperate factory owners advertised cheap accommodation in Marlboro Industrial area. People flooded from the overcrowded Alexandra and other surrounding townships. The informal rental agreement was simple: rent paying occupiers had the right to inhabit the derelict factories and construct informal dwellings. However, the residents of the inner-city slum has faced evictions ever since, with a spike in activity in 2012 (see these media reports: Daily Maverick, City Press, The Daily Sun, Independent Online and many more). The community, in response to the increased eviction threats, have formed a number of crises committees, such as the Marlboro Warehouse Crisis Committee (MWCC).

 Marlboro Studio

In October 2011, the MWCC approached the Informal Settlement Network (ISN), a network of settlement-level community based organisations mobilising local capacities around service delivery issues, to facilitate the enumeration of the settlement. Once the enumeration of the factory dwellers were completed, which is now the baseline with which the community counteracts the government’s eviction threats, the MWCC requested of support organisation CORC and university partner UJ to launch a design studio to explore tenure options linked to a long-term development plan.

The studio is now in full swing. The Marlboro Industrial Belt has been divided into 5 strips and will be covered by 10 groups, each led by a lecturer.

The students and community members were given a short briefing describing the task of field map and what they were required to find in the day, then sent into the field to begin the mapping process. They are working together to understand and document the nature of their respective areas of focus. Community members share their local knowledge of site conditions, while students captured the data while passing on the graphic skills of mapping. Regular meetings are held to discuss their findings, and interpret the spatial analysis together. In this way, the mapping of social processes in and between the factories, backyard shacks, roads and open spaces, and other urban characteristics are captured to reveal a rich spatial narrative. Yet, although the stories of Marlboro residents speak of resilience and inclusionary measures to ensure the best use of this area, their efforts are continually under threat.

Marlboro evictions

On August 2nd, Johannesburg Metropolitan Police Department (JMPD) cracked down on the settlement with no eviction order. In the early morning hours, when residents were leaving for work, the JMPD moved in on 3 occupied sites and demolished 300 dwellings. They refused to talk to the community leadership and presented no formal interdiction from the court, only offering NGO representatives a hand written statement in a note book as paperwork for such eviction. They claimed that notice was given with no supporting documentation, then went on to say they don’t need to give notice because the of the 72 hour trespassing by-law which according to legal representatives requires even more paperwork than a general eviction order. The JMPD has not communicated its mandate with the housing department and now as result over 400 residents of Marlboro are now out on the street with no alternative housing options.

A community member remarked to Eyewitness News,

At around 9:30 in the morning, we see the Metro guys here; coming to our area. They came to demolish the shacks without any notice, without any legal documents. They came to say, “No! You have to vacate the building.”

Socio-spatial exclusion

The urbanisation dynamics of Johannesburg is characterised by three main typologies of informality: 1) informal settlements, which have emerged from land invasions; 2) overcrowded rental stock and formal townships (including backyarders); and 3) inner-city degradation and dilapidated buildings, such as Marlboro Industrial. Each of these typologies have their own histories and measures of exclusion. Socio-spatial exclusion refers to the measures of how marginalised communities are denied access to the city, and in building more integrated and spatially just societies, becomes a rally cry for more inclusionary and pro-poor cities. In the case of Marlboro, the community is mobilising local resources to provide alternatives to evictions. The design studio aims to create the spatial analysis and social-use mapping required to really understand this complex informality typology.

Communities are providing the essential insights needed to break the exclusionary trap revealed by socio-spatial analysis. Evictions continue to break down the essential fibers that bind this community together. However, cities are still governed by sanitised conceptions of urban space, regulated by land-use planning and other planning apparatuses. These formal processes inherently exclude the poor, and denies access to the city.