7 Modes of Counterespionage

December 7, 2015

Text by Sumayya Vally and Sarah de Villiers of Counterspace.


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Adverts for muti (traditional medicine) paper the vertical surfaces of the city. A large conglomerate of muti practitioners and vendors is visible at Mai Mai market, south east of the city. Photo by Amina Kaskar.

By its very contexture, Johannesburg is an amalgam of many spatial blind spots. Since its inception, the city has beguiled migrant communities from across the continent and beyond. Migrant populaces entering Johannesburg in the years of its beginning, from other parts of Southern Africa and across the borders, survived the metropolis by creating diasporic urban conglomerates around the city. These were territories arranged by culture, by new evanescent economies, by innate and endemic dexterities—codes to access spaces only legible to those who could perceive its respective lexicons. The peripheries thickened and multiplied, and became savvy at defending and entrenching their modes of city existence.

Because governance privileged only a minority demographic, the majority of urbanities that formed were these thickened peripheries—now expert at their own autonomies, which existed despite the formal city. But these many margins, in many senses hidden to those external to it, are what make up Johannesburg.

Many have thought of Johannesburg as elusive (Mbembe and Nuttall in particular theorized this in The Elusive Metropolis),1 but the way that we read the city has more to do with understanding its assemblage of spatial languages than with its elusiveness. Some of these hiddens are hidden in plain sight, in broad daylight—they are here, if you care to read them.

For the most part, our profession situates itself within a small margin of the city, recognizing only what is superficially and conventionally understood as “architecture”; many are perpetuating a blindness to most of what the city offers to engage with. As spatial practitioners, we must become more fluent in comprehending our own context. Our realities are replete with clues for new stereoscopic possibilities—if only we start to engage with them. We do not situate our practice with having the luxury of choosing to not see the realities of our city. The “immaterial” is more material than the material. The city is there, if you know how to read it.

Definition of counterespionage in English:
Noun. Activities designed to prevent or thwart spying by an opposition: the Security Service has responsibility for counterespionage.2

Which side are you on?
Which realm is the legitimate, the real?
What is rendered opaque, and from whom?

A great deal of Johannesburg’s existences are made up too of counterexistences which work despite limitations and what is recognized as the nominal city—structures formed and designed for survival against economic and spatial deprivation, in the leftovers, slippages, and loopholes of the city, which we recognize as the city. Architects unravel the secrets of space through an all seeing plain of plan or section, both not actual perspectives by a person in space, but an all-seeing flattened view, equidistant from a slice in space. In a perspective, there is foreground and background—in section or plan, there is isolation in empirical space.

Imagine a spy, crouched above the city’s streets, viewing the goings on through windows and alleys from a parapet up above. Now, turn your mind’s eye toward the fugitive, running through the sewer tunnels in the bowels of the city, navigating through the hidden services that connect the individual properties above. The vision of these two is parable in a section, a vertical slice to forego the horizontal sprawls and runnings-on of the city. We feel Johannesburg is necessary to be unpacked through an archaeological section—from vantage points high above, to those below, to straddle the complexities and tensions that are spoken of, that run the city—following our eyes along the ventriloquist’s strings that hang up the motions of everyday life. As Jameson observes, in the observance of a stratification of a city, it is possible to note the ability of layers to fold and collapse onto the next, hierarchically overruling, smothering and bearing, but also polluted or fertilized by their forebearers.3 Unlike the vision of a city on plan, thus, the city’s various layers lose autonomy on the drawing and do not remain separate and impenetrable bubbles of existence. These bubbles, in reality, are sliced diagonally by interjected modes of movement, from economical exchange, and by oppressive powers of the time.

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Various surfaces of hidden space in Johannesburg may be conglomerated into an all-seeing section; slicing through what is normally hidden in plain sight. Image developed by Counterspace.

Johannesburg’s everyday life could be viewed in the most part as a city of practicality, its processes and industry pierced on its skin, metallically adorning its otherwise bare appearance. However, it is in and on this modernist mechanism that stories, life, and secrets are produced. Leach describes that “use never does anything but shelter meaning”4—alluding to the point that use or function—in Johannesburg’s case certainly its mining industry—has an innate ability to shelter, protect, and in so doing, an ability to hide. These former structures of monument and memory—for example the grand mine dumps that have grown to embrace the city and identify it as its own made, familiar mountain range—are slowly being taken away, one brush, sweep, and bucket at a time. Since many processes are hidden, inherently they operate unannounced, almost somewhat antimonumental. Thus, one may argue, if one does pay a little respect in the wondrous feat these processes are silently, stealthily making in the dark overnight, one may return in the day to a new city, where all the locks have been changed. Through this archaeological approach, we aim to dissect the hidden processes, expose them for a split second in their existence, and offer a moment for celebration for the momentous, crucial processes that are adding and rebuilding, quietly and fantastically.

For the twenty-first century spy in Johannesburg, there are so many places to look and to hide when looking (hence counterespionage); the remnants of mine dumps the first agglomeration of secrets and remnants of lost treasures waiting to be exposed and reported.

1. Deep Level Mines (-6500 feet)

a. Zama Zama

Try your Luck!

“Next, Botes’ team investigated the Zama Zama’s methods of operation. The cleverest among them exploited the mining house’s operations. When the legal miners detonated explosives at the end of their shifts, the dust was given four hours to settle before the next shift arrived to remove all the rocks containing gold.

The Zama Zamas covered their faces with wet cloths and accessed the blast site after two hours to remove the gold-bearing rock.

They ground, washed, separated, and burnt their loot in the tunnels. They used ingenious methods to smuggle the pure gold out of the mines, Botes says. Some filled condoms with gold and asked female miners to insert them in their vaginas when they went to the surface.”5

Gold is the grand irony of Johannesburg.

Its lucky unearthing in 1886 galvanized the shaping of a sleepy stretch of leftover farmland into the continent’s richest metropolis. But the gold that brought Johannesburg was also used as a device to deepen the race divide. Migrant and black labor forces were exploited in the mines, and the mass mountains of yellow earth excavated from the underground in search of were used to contain the areas that separated race groups during apartheid.

Today, large areas of the city are hollow underground, and most of the accessible gold is gone—leaving an extensive underground network of tunnels in its wake. Miners who scavenge on the leftover gold underground are known as “zama zamas” in South Africa (which translates to “try and try” or “try your luck!”). Their modus operandi is to enter the underground city, often paying exorbitant bribes to do so. Once the miners are in, they dwell underground for months at a time, “invisible citizens of an almost surreal, subterranean state.”6 The miners’ skins become grey, their lungs become polluted—their very existence is a complete feat of persistence against the extreme conditions. Naturally, because the miners are persistently underground for months at a time, whole subterranean economies develop in response to their needs to survive, with prices getting steeper the deeper underground the miners are.

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Zama Zamas, or illegal miners, participate in a subverted economy; where the price of commodities underground exponentially appreciate value, due to the adversity against their attainability. Image by Sarah de Villiers.

Botes’s spies established the prices of food sold to the Zama Zamas: a loaf of white bread cost R80 [R8 surface price] when delivered to a shaft, a jar of peanut butter R150 [R20 surface price], a bottle of brandy R1,500 and a loose cigarette delivered underground was R10 [R1.10 surface price].7

The leftovers of the start-of-the city—a completely expansive set of tunnels, arguably taking up more volume than the city itself, is largely forgotten, and has eroded out of sight, shrouded by edifices, highways, and Highveld grasses. They have found new inhabitants, a group who is, at the very least, among the most vulnerable in the city—a reminder that the gold that built the city still allures desperation.

b. Disappearing houses/sinking sand

“An early morning on Delagoa colliery in the Witbank area, a man goes in search of coal. The local community of KwaGuqa live near the abandoned mine. David Ndlovu, from KwaGuqa, is one of the many who have fallen victim to the abandoned mines in the area. In 1999, he was walking to work along one of the many footpaths, which criss-cross the mine when a sinkhole collapsed beneath him. As he sank into the ground, he was badly burned up to his waist by the coal, which has been burning underground since the mine was decommissioned in the 1950s.”8

“Anna’s breathing has been badly affected and she relies on medicated breathing apparatus to relieve the tension in her lungs. The family suffer with sinus problems and constantly take antihistamine pills to relieve the symptoms. Anna’s grandson often wakes up with a bleeding nose and sleeps with a steam machine in his room to clean the air. Black dust is a constant problem. The value of the property has also drastically reduced. They had plans to build houses on the land. Soon after building commenced these plans were halted due to the foundations becoming saturated with acid mine drainage.”9

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Ashes to ashes–dust to dust: Mining of coal may be lucrative to many, but for those who live close to its extraction suffer the burnt of sustaining the lives of others. Image by Sarah de Villiers.

“The dolomitic situation is satanic,” says Gauteng MEC for local government and housing, Humphrey Mmemezi.10

“[Residents don’t realize] it comes during the night. . . . People can wake up and the section [of the township] is not there.”11

“For instance, in the middle of the night on Aug. 3, 1964, a massive sinkhole swallowed a house in the mining village of Blyvooruitzicht, 50 miles west of Johannesburg. Six people were sleeping inside the home, and the hole was so deep that no trace of the family was ever recovered.”12

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According to one account, a massive sinkhole, caused by unstable ground from the deep level mine below; swallowed up a house–and no trace of the inhabitants were ever found because the hole was so deep. Image by Sumayya Vally.

Meanwhile, across the gold mining belt, deserted mine shafts have filled with groundwater, which mingles with the metal sulfides in the rock, turning it an orange color and rendering it potently acidic. Rising up through the shafts, this so-called acid mine drainage (AMD) spills into rivers, streams, and groundwater, poisoning drinking water and threatening the Cradle of Humankind, the UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to some of the oldest known hominin fossils in the world.”13

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Time and Space Spiral: Similar to the Geological Time Spiral developed by Joseph Graham, this image adopts the system of time-based progress to represent mutations of hidden creatures inhabiting an artificial landscape. Image by Amina Kaskar.

These news media excerpts describing architectural abduction and invisible toxic forces would almost fit well into the pages of a science fiction novel. The aftereffects of toxic mining processes are becoming visible a century after the mining commenced. Many of the mines were left unmarked after their closure, and it is not uncommon for structures to be swallowed into the hollow earth. Brilliant colors from the toxic earth surfaces eventually—ground water becomes contaminated as it reaches the toxins in the ground and oxidizes as it makes contact with air. These colors are often an eerie reminder of the mining, sometimes surfacing in areas that were not recorded as formal mines. Much of this unstable, sinkhole area is inhabited by informal settlers—although much of the gold is long gone, its haunting still persecutes the poorest citizens of the city.

2. Informal Recyclers (-20 to +20 feet)

Italo Calvino describes Beersheba as a city with two projections of itself—one where it has a “celestial zenith”; a monument adorned with expensive, useless items, and its opposite, an inferno of thrown away, discarded waste; items no longer functioning.14 Calvino remarks certain honesty in the latter, where in its abandon, is just itself, raw and unmiserly. We find a similar observance in the close followings of the informal recyclers and their regenerated, Frankensteinian economies in Johannesburg. A spy may make the sludgy climb up to the summit of one of these waste-mountains, and find upon it all sorts of intriguing evidences and traces of the lives and secrets Johannesburg shelters. A discarded exam paper from St. Johns, a renowned boys high school in the city, strewn over used condoms or stripped wires. The tickets to educational and eventual financial access, once seen, become information, their physical counterparts rendered useless, except for their material worth—R1.00 per kilogram of recycled paper. These waste dumps, therefore, become transient archives of all existence, completely democratic and equal to all types of uselessness—it is all collected and piled up here the same, vulnerable to anyone who could, but probably won’t, sift through it.

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Informal recyclers sorting gathered waste. Photo by Michael Flanagan.

What also remains intriguing is the striking sense for anonymity by some sects of Johannesburg recyclers. Many explain that due to the nature of their work, they would prefer to not risk being recognized by a family member in a photograph in the press, and so many make use of the various forms of masks they carry on their person when approached by an outsider.

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Image by Sumayya Vally.

3. Transport Interchanges. (-20 to +20 feet)

Reading the Johannesburg’s palms reveals secrets and futures fit only for the smoky rooms of the esoteric, or dark cinemas of science fiction. Perhaps the lines of its hands are the lines of recyclers emptying out the discarded truths of the suburbs on a weekly basis and collecting it on a mountain of democratic banality; or it may be studying the sluice gates of the lines themselves—the bustling transport nodes of Johannesburg for a surveillance of fugitives to its story, in flight across its surface, every day. A considerable amount of spatial practitioners in Johannesburg have been involved in the last two decades following democratic policy-making of infrastructural projects relating to taxi and bus nodes across the city, intended as enabling stepping stones for many of the far-flung to gain opportunity for entry into the city and to its daily economies. South African urban practitioners Dewar and Uytenbogaardt initiated ideals for public space-making in post-apartheid cities, one of which interestingly argues that “good public space” should provide environments that contain qualities of secrecy and complexity in order to be fully absorbed into a context which it sits, and provide opportunity for creative interpretation of space by its users.15 Whatever Dewar and Uytenboogardt had in mind as meaning “good,” secrecy does seem to be part-and-parcel of today’s Johannesburg’s major taxi ranks. Eddies of gambling, convening men, and porn DVD sales gather in the gloomier corners of thoroughfares in these spaces; often separate from any institutional structure or governing systems; but certainly there because they exist, because they bring a desirable clientele, and because they can be serviced or protected by the quotidian structures of bureaucracy should the need arise. These sometimes occur on overhanging balconies, or basements to the main transport spaces.

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In a quiet, derelict back-alley behind a major taxi rank in Alexandra, Johannesburg (seen in the background), men gather around a drafts table to gamble. Photo by Amina Kaskar.

4. Underground Underground. (-20 to +20 feet)

At eye level in and around the above-mentioned transport interchanges, Johannesburg streets are blazoned with an eye-height burgeoning tape of subliminal subtitles of dubious adverts for bodily endowment, reproductive remuneration, refound lost lovers, and immediate financial resurrection. Nutall discusses advertisements of Johannesburg as an uprooted projection of Johannesburg’s “surface,” indicative of the city’s unfixedness of commodity.16 Sure enough, these plastered adverts are ripped off overnight by some opposing, unseen forces of the night; only to be repapered a week later with refreshed adverts of new numbers and agents to call. These adverts become the only crystalized physical sediment of this world that remains of this eddying, elusive economy of many (often bogus) traditional healers and paid-for-magics. Certainly, in Johannesburg, a lot is hidden because it is concerned with the processes of forgetting, for replacing and hiding the recent unsavory pasts with commodities of the fresh and current—this is echoed in OMA, Koolhaas and Mau’s observances of “hidden” where often a city’s processes contain with it skill of invigorating ignorance of a demonstration, in the process of the demonstration itself.17 The future of Johannesburg slips from the gold pan of any hopeful one who tries to sift it.

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Adverts for muti (traditional medicine) paper the vertical surfaces of the city. A large conglomerate of muti practitioners and vendors is visible at Mai Mai market, south east of the city. Photo by Amina Kaskar.

The Villages under the Highway

Beyond the equivocal underbelly of imitation supernatural, there are locations in the city with rich heritage of traditional healers, pockets of sanctuary and culture that exist in almost parallel spots of unlikely seclusion.

The islands between highway interchanges, abandoned buildings, and indeed many mine dumps in the city, are ritual spaces for many. Underneath an interchange of the M2 highway, in an abandoned old stable-yard, believed to be as old as Johannesburg, is one such place of retreat. An average day at the Mai Mai Market sees men and women carting trolleys laden with bovine heads, serving meat to hungry customers in their courtyard which functions much like an eating space in a village kraal. Beyond the courtyard are men and women selling medicines bearing ingredients from snakeskins, tree roots, and many unidentifiable constituents.

The space houses many cultural religious-affiliated activities, including prayer ceremonies and coffin making. Many of these spaces exist in such unlikely blind spots of space. Leftover, available pieces of land which carry with them a feeling of seclusion, left to transition into a state beyond what they are, these ruins sometimes become something of a paranormal wilderness, adopting new program and function through their newly grown spirit of unuse. It is interesting that most of these are manmade constructs, leftover pieces of unthought infrastructure, or sites of industrial waste; yet they are adopted and revered by their everyday protagonists as sites of catharsis and ritual. A pertinent and very prevalent use of the mine-waste dumps as ritual sites is described further up in the archaeological section.

5. Backyard / Balcony secrets (+0 to +200 feet)

Another unfolding, unexpected, hidden surface to Johannesburg’s standard datum is that of the backyard addition, a common phenomenon in many of Johannesburg’s proscribed Apartheid township properties, and to in recent decades in the high-rise apartment blocks of Hillbrow and Yeoville. What appears like one house or one apartment, in fact indoors or behind it, or on its balcony, has swelled to accommodate two or three extra households; mirroring the urgency for housing and business accommodation with the rapid growth of the city. Many hidden processes thus arise from this, for example the illegal sub-connection of power from the main connection to the squatting sub-spaces; as well as invented undeclared sub-renting economies to people from foreign countries or the urban poor. However, these sub-populations bring with them a whole set of resources unaccounted by the plain-site of the city; including goods and skills and presence in the city which adds to its vibrancy. Here, quite literally, fugitives of the state actually add to the street life and presence of the city, observing the processes, effectively acting as counterespionage agents to the city’s originally intended population.

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A whole subvillage of shack-dwellings is visible in three consecutive backyards of Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Photo by Sarah de Villiers.

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From a vantage view from Ponte City tower, many of the balconies in Yeoville and Hillbrow show the hidden lives of the dwellers inside- the often dense living quarters spilling outwards, so that the balconies serve as outdoor cupboards, laundries, and playgrounds; never visible from the street below. Photo by Sarah de Villiers.

6. Rituals on Man-made Mountain (+65 feet)

“The uniform of the John Masowe churches consists of white gowns for both men and women. They worship without shoes, belts, watches, and cell-phones on them as this is viewed as interfering with the descending of the Holy Spirit. The many different Masowe groups are mostly populated by Zimbabwean migrants although often times, other nationalities do come to seek help from the [priests].

A place of worship cannot simply be chosen out of the available land. The exact location needs to be revealed by the Holy Spirit through [priests]. After the Holy Spirit has revealed an appropriate place, the performance of sacralization rituals involves the marking and spiritual separation of the sacred from the profane land. There is a general belief among respondents that the bush us an abode of evil spirits that the groups need to get rid of. Usually the first step involves a night vigil to spiritually claim and take over the space from contrary spirits. As one member said,

If there is something wrong in this place we will definitely know through the spirit. We pray and sprinkle water around to cleanse the place.
—Peter Kankonde Bukasa, Lorena Nunez Carrasco, Melekias Zulu, Matthew Wilhem Solomon18

The mountains of incandescent mine waste are monumental (but eroding) in areas along the gold-reef—mass scale architectures when seen from the air in relation to the built form of the city.

But a zoom-in of the dust mountains reveals new networks of activities. Though these are man-made mountains, they have become entangled in natural processes. The highly toxic chemical saps seeping from below often surface as iron red and cobalt blue rivers. Grasses and foliage—some planted during the mining age to contain the dust, others planted more recently in attempts to remediate the soils—are sprawling and uninhibited. The mine dump’s almost unearthly luminescent yellow structure is interrupted by smaller topographies of crevices and walls—slowly printed into a geology by an accelerated settling of the blasted rock with the poisonous by-products of the explosives. The invisible code for composing this landscape came from abrasive industrial processes decades ago—and their implications are still producing this landscape. Clues in the landscape are often testimony of toxic activity, even when the site is disguised or reconfigured from its prior use as a waste-dump site or an old mine.

Being on the mine dump often feels like being in a scene from a sci-fi film. Perhaps it is this otherworldliness and seclusion from the city that attracts ritual activity. The Masowe churches often use the mine dumps as sites of ritual sermon and ceremonial prayer. An exercise in place making: The process of preparing the space for ritual prayer.

  1. Chase former evil dwellers.
  2. Remove dirt.
  3. Dig a hole, place salt in it.
  4. Add a sheep’s tail to the hole if available. Sheep’s tails act as good amulets against witchcraft.
  5. Cover the hole with soil.
  6. Draw a circle of hot ashes within the limit of the cleared space.
  7. Have three priests gather around it with a bucket of water in the middle.
  8. Mix coarse salt in the water.
  9. Pray over the water, simultaneously sprinkling it around.
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A congregation of church-goers on the outlays of Vilage Mai Mine, south of Johannesburg. Photo by Sumayya Vally.

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A group of white-clothed church-goers walk well-beaten path over the mine dump after leaving the ceremony. Photo by Sumayya Vally.

7. Sky Locations (+200 feet up)

Perhaps the most fascinating strata of Johannesburg inner city today is that of the uppermost—the innercity rooftop—an extruded surface, antithesis of the extracted volumes beneath the city, and an agglomerating symbol of its wealth. Elevated far above its natural datum, one may witness a myriad of strange and subversive apparitions of people and activities of building rooftops—ironically one of the most private spaces of the city (although open to the skies above).

Historically, the rooftops of inner city Johannesburg hosted a multitude of poorer servant staff during the mid-twentieth century, superimposed onto the riches of the elite below it. As Malcomess and Kreutzfeldt describe, in 1952, it was alleged that 40,000 people lived in Locations in the Sky (Locations = local word at the time for black slum). When the ruling party of the time tried to limit the growing amount of family members joining the already dwelling resident in the rooftop servants quarters, the removal of such was given friction by the white landlords and building associations below it. As Malcomess and Kreutzfeldt note.19 It is ironic that these rooms possess the best views in the city, and places where freedom for loopholes in the Apartheid regime could be explored. Overtime, many of these locations have developed into sprawling communities and networks of cities in the sky, with the descendants of housekeepers moving into the space as well.

Even today, when viewed from a vantage point on the top floor of the Carlton Centre building, the tallest building in the city, many unexplained, third-space activities continue to be hosted by this spectral strata of the city; echoed in the observances by Mary Wafer who shows that these spaces often provide a sort of marginality, “in-between,” a place that people can use and be accommodated, for however temporary.20 Thus, here, it would seem, the hidden spaces provided a sort of “breathing gap” for the short comings of the city; where its inner accommodations and services are inadequate, and require an unseen, bleed out space of the sometimes unsightly services of the building, or temporary nature of structures that may pop up there to accommodate people moving though the city.

1 Sarah Nuttall and Achille Mbembe, eds., The Elusive Metropolis (Durham and London: Duke UniversityPress, 2008).
2 Oxford English Dictionary Online, s.v. “counterespionage.”
3 Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), 39.
4 Neil Leach, ed., Rethinking Architecture (London. Routledge, 1997), 174.
5 “Inventive Zama Zamas not interested much in doing it legally,” Business Day Live, May 15, 2015,
6 Dean Hutton, “ZAMAZAMA4LIFE,” 2point8, viewed December 2015,
7 “Inventive Zama Zamas not interested much in doing it legally,” Business Day Live, May 15, 2015,
8 Ilan Godfrey, “Legacy of the Mine,”,
9 Godfrey, “Legacy of the Mine.”
10 “‘Satanic’ sinkholes plague Johannesburg: MEC,” Times Live, October 5, 2011,
11 Ibid.
12 Godfrey, “Legacy of the Mine.”
13 “Pollution Reaches Cradle of Mankind,” Rainharvest, January 15, 2011,
14 Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities. Picador Edition (London: Pan Books Ltd., 1974), 112.
15 David Dewar and Roelof S. Uytenbogaardt, Creating Vibrant Urban Places to Live: A Primer (CapeTown: [s.n.], 1995), 11.
16 Sarah Nuttall, “Stylizing the Self” in Kerstin Pinther, Larissa Förster, and Christian Hanussek, eds., Afropolis: City Media Art (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2011), 278.
17 Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, S, M, L, XL (New York, NY: The Monacelli Press, 1995), 746.
18 Peter Kankonde Bukasa, Lorena Nunez Carraso, Bettina Malcomess, and Matthew Wilhelm-Solomon, Routes and Rites to the City: Mobility, Diversity and Religious Space in Johannesburg (Johannesburg: African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS), 2015).
19 Bettina Malcomess, Dorothee Kreutzfeldt, Not No Place: Johannesburg. Fragments of Spaces and Times (Johannesburg: Jacana Media, 2013).
20 Mary Wafer, “Invisible Johannesburg Seen and Unseen: An Exploration of the Imaged/Imagined City” (thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, 2009), 9.