Money Mirages: Across the River Styx1 in 21st Century Johannesburg

“So you think that money is the root of all evil? Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?”
- Ayn Rand 2007

What is money, if not a line, which retains the power to separate, and in some ways, connect? This argument seeks to demonstrate that income disparity often manifests itself as a viscerally urban spatial experience in cities of today. One can observe areas of extreme poverty and extreme wealth sometimes literally separated by a highly militarized boundary. At other times, this boundary is abstracted, but its affects remain tangible. This discussion attempts to hold in balance the abstract notion of money borders globally, and in Johannesburg; and introduces the cognizance of money as a spatial and architectural informant. In an effort to bridge the gap of highly financialised abstractions and architecture, anthropological and urban theorists have been studied. This is initiated with an awareness for money as an abstract sign; which acts as a method for value of power of a person in the city. Following this, the discussion ‘Money as Divider’ circumscribes money’s ability to structurally divide certain parts of society, through political fore-bearings, access to technology, and the outplay of time. However, the divisive qualities also alludes to a heightened sense of exchange that happens between wealthier and poorer groups, therefore suggesting the ironic notion of money as connector. This analysis reveals that many South Africans experience much tension around this line, or ‘money wall’. And, like in a case of a prison wall, much energy and thought is spent over finding alternative ways to overcome its totally restrictive obstacle. This is elaborated under the sub-theme ‘Six Wormholes through a Money Border’.

> Money As an Abstract Sign

In a quick overview, money philosophy is an expectedly extensively theorised subject, through socialist approaches that vary through those of Marx (1932:307) to theorists who conversely depict the distinguishing of the individual in a monetary system, as in the likes of Georg Simmel (1907:10) or Nietzsche (Leach 1997:70). In addition, equality means different things for people - leftists on one hand might idealise it as the basis of equal freedom and the repression of competition for rightists its equality of measurement in property (Kymlicka 2002:2, Leach 1997:70). This is important, because the measurement of property often involves a line, boundary or wall. This wall demarcates the zone of those who own and those who do not.
Simmel depicts a view that money becomes a method for distinction, since he theorises it as seated in culture (Frankel 1977: 4). This affords money the inevitable quality of distance, of setting someone apart from another for the accomplishments that person or that person’s family has made. The corollary of that could be argued that it sets up connection too, to another person - both in the way that the recognition of worth is understood in the same language (currency) and because it would cause people of similar money-standings to relate on a basis of commonality. Money thus becomes a language for value communication, where the language is based on work or previous events. This resonates with the previous words of Ayn Rand, that money is representative of this, and serves as method for one and other to deal with each other (Rand 2007). Money, in furthermore, is a sign which is not exclusively in the domain of the colonialist elite; as in fact, as Prins (2008:74) shows, money has long been part of rural African society before the existence of notes and shares, stating that money is “anything that you can trade for something.” However, extended on the metaphor of currency as language, the group that speaks the most popular language has the overarching say in the communications that are transacted, and minority transaction modes are either forced to comply or are ignored. This returns to the other side of the coin, as money as a divisive tool, which sets a gap of distance between those who are financially enabled and those who are not.

> Money As Divider

The income gap certainly has grown; with ninety-four percent of the world’s earnings going into the coffers of forty percent of its people, and the remaining six percent serving the remaining sixty percent (Yunus 2008:1). According to the World Bank (2014), South Africa experiences the world’s lowest Gini Coefficient-iii - an indicator for average wealth gap. Interestingly, it is not only the spatial policies of apartheid that may be to blame for insurgence of money borders in Johannesburg’s landscape, but additionally the cause of private interest that many people have not been reached, still many years post apartheid era.


Not many things may make a money border more apparent than the spatial designs for an ideal apartheid city (see fig15). Van Onselen (1977:132) notes that after the events of the Anglo-Boer War, the ruling classes of Johannesburg took opportunity to “…engage in a round of radical social engineering”. The Group Areas Act of 1950 displays specific spatial barriers to non-white race areas, including strong natural barriers such as rivers, or alternatively ‘strong man-made’ types like railway or high should be used, all failing which, a buffer of considerable open land would be used.

These areas were barred from individual land ownership, and business were prohibited (Bremner 1999:52). In the case of Alexandra, a sort of anomaly occurred, where northern-Johannesburg suburbia was unexpectedly blotted with a “black spot” (Bonner and Nieftagodien 2008:10) Here, land intended for white working class suburb, instead became settled by black people in 1912, around it which lay the “neat suburban mansions of the white bourgeoisie” (Bremner 1999:50). Under the Pass Law, blacks were required to pass into white economic zones, one such Alexandra resident of the time proclaiming that ‘Pasi aisikhata abantu behe’ - the pass is the evil of all evils (Bonner & Nieftagodien 2008:135. The pass drove home the epitome of this boundary as a institutionalised border.

The barring of the majority of South Africa’s population largely from any economic gains meant that a select few would have access to all its resources. AbdouMaliq Simone (1998:181) argues that this is the cause for Johannesburg long being Africa’s most developed city, putting in place “two distinct developed trajectories” of very wealthy and very poor.

In addition to negative legacies that present South Africa has to deal with of state barring entrepreneurship to non-whites during the apartheid era, the state also used to and continues to over-spend, (Hull and James 2012:6) causing less trickle-down enabling capital to make it to those who need it most. The government also prioritises maintaining private investment, in juxtaposition with democratic objectives (Hull and James 2012:4), the two obviously being cross-purposed and counter-productive.

Twenty years post-apartheid, many outlying, high unemployment, high-density areas prevail, without fully enabling transport systems to connect them to the other parts of Johannesburg (Muller 2014).
Concurrently, the state promotes commonly held goals, but South Africans lives are increasingly becoming obsessed with self-interest and division. (Bremner 1999:63). Lyotard (Dovey 1999:33) describes the shift from modernism to post-modernism as including a loss in the notion for universal theory with increased importance toward differences (Fig 20). Nisbet argues (1990:13) that money seems to further loosen cohesive social forces that exist between these fragments of difference. South Africa’s unsatisfied thirst for neo-liberal wealth in post apartheid can be argued to be, as Jean and John Comaroff state, that it was mostly a matter of very unlucky timing: “The bitter irony of South Africa is that, as one of the worlds’ last colonies, it won its right to secular modern nationhood just as global processes were compromising the sovereignty and material integrity of the nation state” (Comaroff & Comaroff 1999:287) Thus, just as collective resources and powers were able to be of help, they began to be undermined by global processes.


Although one argument claims apartheid is at fault for the black population of South Africa largely remaining with a lack of access to capital, another says that it was the private sector acting in its own interest, post 1994 that was the bigger cause (Hull and James 2012:6) . The global processes discussed by the Comaroffs above have been shown to consequently improve the state of private interest in South Africa, while creating a further abstract and tangible rift between formal financialisation and more latent informal markets. (Hull and James 2012:1). This is most noted in Johannesburg, “which has become a field of violent contestant between extreme wealth and extreme poverty, between luxury and subsistence, idyll and inferno, excess and need” (Bremner 1999:51). It is has also created a rift between global and parochial, so much so, that it can be argued that its citizens can feel like “tourists in each other’s worlds” (Bremner 1999:62).

Beginning on the rich, more immediately global end of the stick, Johannesburg sees a massive boom in stock market gains in the seventies and eighties; this made physical in the highly sophisticated and slick architecture occurring at the time. (Chipkin 2008: 290). In the 1990s, South Africa experienced another boom, but left still many unemployed especially workers that were unskilled and semi-skilled (Bonner & Nieftagodien 2008:392). In the case of Alexandra, Bonner and Nieftagodien (2008:392) further exemplify that very few people were actually absorbed into the formal economy, despite its proximity to the Sandton, the “financial capital of the city” (Toffa 2014), as well as the industrial precincts of Wynberg and Marlboro. However, the richer of South Africa plot a trajectory of richer and more global still; with expansion via the financial sector of the country to repay its debts neglecting manufacture markets. (Hull and James 2012:5,6)

This seems to plot an abstraction far away from the average South African. Furthermore, state bureaucracies make it difficult for people to enter the formal market (Bremner 1999:52, Simone 1998: 176). Muhammad Yunus, pioneer of the Grameen Bank, argues that freemarket (stock trade) contains within it a remarkable weakness missing a sort of human essence, cut off from religious, emotional, political and social human regimes (Yunus 2008:8). However, in the case of South Africa, at least, this is not entirely true. Parallel to the formal ones, less regularized but sometimes equally sophisticated and intricate ‘informal’ systems arise: Simone (1998: 17) shows that to circumvent difficulties in access to credit, many South Africans rely on more organic structures of agreement, in the form of trustworthiness through known family connections. This also arises the proliferation of cash-based transactions in this ‘informal’ zone (Simone 1998: 183). However, still, this type is seen as disabling, often particular to local impoverished communities (Hull and James 2012:1). The International Finance Corporation also shows that
in developing countries, the poor turn to social networks in difficulties (IFC 2014). Furthermore, as Louw (1999:333) shows, these self-reliant markets have the ““potential to merge eventually into organized structures with immense bargaining power.”

Despite the contradictory view of informality being a bad thing, “outside the view of bureaucracy” (Hart 2001, cited Hull and James 2012:11), from the other end of ‘formality’ is also negatively viewed - due to “uncertainties of the formal financial system”, liquid assets rather being put into land and household goods which restrict the freedom of mobility for such people (Simone 1998: 176). In addition, various social saving-schemes are employed, such in the case of stokvel (see Figure 27), in lieu of high bank charges or opacity of formal financial institutions. (Questionnaire on Banking in Alexandra, 2014). These funds are more often than not saved or invested in any financial institution whatsoever, even though their worth of South Africa is estimated at R25 billion (Sapa 2014:21).

Yunus(2008:2) argues that contrary to the resilient benefits of the local exchange, globalization has the potentiality to bring benefit to the poor than any other alternative types - as companies could benefit from tax and regulatory conveniences and operation advantages. Without such regulation, he gives the analogy of a highways as global trade, that the small vehicles, for example the farmers truck, will be pushed off the road to make way for large trucks,. some sort of regulation needs to be in place to “ensure that the poorest have a place on the highway” - to get out of financial imperialism” (Yunus 2008:2). However, it could be argued that such advocation for an overarching regulation, could, in fact, call for the eradication of the ‘farmers cart’, dependent on who is making these regulations, Globalisation, therefore, isn’t necessarily the ‘right answer’, but access to it should be available, as Hull and James (2012:1) argue: “The more such economies appear to be tied to wider global arenas and operations that place them beyond the reach of ordinary people, the more necessary it is to explore the logics and decisions that tie them inexorably to specific everyday settings.”


Furthermore, there is another force which is more abstract which seems to be adding to the dislocation of finance and the ‘everyday’ - this in the form of risk. People in the informal markets in South Africa have long been viewed as ‘high risk’, since they had historically never had experience using financial services before; and also had no stable history on paper to reassure lending banks (Hull and James 2012:6). This reluctance of formal financial institutions to dance with the high risk means that the informally financed situations pervade; being at risk to stock volatility in trade, and vulnerable to theft (Van Wyk 2012:24).

Instead, one can see, until 2004 at least, South African banks supporting the formally employed sector, which represented mostly white, middle-class demographic (Hull and James 2012:6). We see economic growth spatially follow these demographics northwards towards the suburbs; with Sandton, Rosebank and Randburg as new capital centres. (Simone 1998: 182, Bremner 1999:50)
But this market has become somewhat saturated, and banks realised tapping into the unbanked, informal market could be the next mode for lucrativeness. (Hull and James 2012:6) Therefore, in an effort for the private sector to grow or sustain their profits; they begin to base their practice on less tangible reality; A new attitude to the financial sector claims that “The biggest risk is the risk you don’t take” (Gordhan 2014). It can be said, though, that this is not a new practice; especially in the example of Johannesburg, which was discovered and made successful by hugely expensive, risky mining tests all over its landscape. (Malcomess & Kreutzfeldt 2013:131). This, in fact, was the origin of the Johannesburg’s Stock Exchange, which provided syndicate funding for such expensive risk capital needed (Malcomess & Kreutzfeldt 2013:131). Now, though, the ‘promise of unimaginable gold’ lies in the ghostly, opaque world of the cash-based trade of Johannesburg.

The point of this is that money is now attracted in various ways which are invariable and fluctuating, and for both the poorer and richer, money is seen as both able to be instantaneously gained or lost, at the hand of “invisible forces”. (Van Wyk 2012:25). Money, thus, becomes divided from reality somewhat, as an agency sporadically part of one’s life; meaning that it is also again perceived as distant from predictable social mechanisms, such as gaining and keeping money for hard earned work. Even with banks returning to a more conservative relationship with risk following the credit crash in 2008, people turn to other methods of sustaining this ‘money for nothing’ tendency; as described in ‘Six Wormholes Through a Money Border’ later.

The casino, here, as architectural manifestation, can be argued to epitomize the current state of affairs, risk and chance invading the economy past simply gambling (Giddens 1991; Hacking 1990, cited Van Wyk 2012:27). The Comaroffs (2000: 318-328) argue gambling epitomizes this new state of capitalism, coupled with both riskiness for uncertain outcomes and stronger belief in magical acquisition. This strangeness of money thus distances itself again from people who really need it.


This unpredictable reign of money on South Africa’s landscape has meant that now both in the formal sector as well as informal, or unbanked sector, there originates a structuring of rich and poor - this is illustrated through Bremner’s description (1999:58) of Johannesburg become a squash of space-time where the businessman clutching his briefcases and taxi hit-man holding an AK47 exist side by side.

In the previously disadvantaged sector of South Africa, there is a widening gap between the select few of “liberation aristocracy”, and the many poor who remain left behind (Hull and James 2012:4) The reality is that many remain distant from economic opportunity despite governments efforts and the illusion of magical acquisition. The gap between the worlds global north (those who have) and south (those who are walled out) has widened and continues to do so (Yunus 2008:1). This gap, in the meanwhile, becomes a sort of spatial entity in itself, housing frictions and tensions that exist between both worlds, and shows the money border as a place of dependency exchange.


As a spatial logic, on the other side of division, is connection - A wall is a line that both separates, and draws a seam for join between two elements. As discussed earlier, money can be seen as a leveller for equal modes of conversation through the words of Simmel (cited Frankel 1977:1), Hull and James (2012:15) and more colloquially through those of Ayn Rand (2007). Interestingly, Simmel depicts (cited Frankel 1977: 1) money as a social tool, rather than that of the individual, allowing “differences in the range of activities to which highly abstract concepts of calculation or money can be meaningfully applied as between different societies, or even the same society”.
Of course, however, money philosophically holds within it two weaknesses to make this a contradictory and dubious statement -    firstly, that money becomes a method for individual expression as Simmel himself describes  (cited Frankel 1977:25), as well as money become a method for the blasé -    a tool which in fact blankets the parochial activities of the small enterprise under globalised views and regulations.

Be this as it may, that the argument for money connection bearing within it divisive qualities; it is a simple corollary that will be accepted for the purpose of this argument. Money stands as a common thread between public and private, local and global ,rich and poor.
As an example, one can regard the methods of communication sought between these worlds in the case of AfricaBank, where the formal banking sector tries to monopolise on the unbanked (Hull and James 2012:6) The Comaroffs depict that post-colonial commerce in some way erases its “long-standing racial lines in its millennial pursuit of virgin markets” (Comaroff & Comaroff 1999:293). We see spatialised landscapes in Johannesburg, where rich and poor sit juxtaposed, joined, although incongruently (Malcomess & Kreutzfeldt 2013:7). The more affluent take advantage of the cheaper or more obscure informal poorer markers; while the poor mobilise themselves near areas of capital in the hopes of finding work.


More than for the sake of livelihood, money is also seen as a sign for social distinguishing (Simmel, cited Leach 1997:77). In Johannesburg, this is exemplified in an upcoming interest in Izikhothane, or Skothane (The Star 2012). This is a showmanship battle where groups or individuals compete with each other to flaunt wealth; with the showing of expensive goods and cash (see figure 24), and destroying their own in an effort to show how ‘unimportant’ that wealth is to that person or group. Izikhothane denotes ‘to lick’ in Zulu; referring to fingers licked when dealing cash. (The Star 2012). Rosie Spinks suggests a reasoning for this as “Removed from the struggle of apartheid, these morally bankrupt and entitled youths ostensibly see no problem wasting the money that not long ago their parents would have barely been able to earn” (Spinks 2014). Lebo Otshegoa depicts this as not a particularly new practice: “In my time, almost fourteen years ago, if you had enough money, you’d buy Carvela or Rossi Moda shoes. They made a statement that you were now living the life” (The Star 2014). Any money earned, in this practice, thus goes toward flaunting economic status rather than actually improving the current state of living. This goes beyond earned, but into the realm of debt, too (Hull and James 2012:115-16). Simone (1998:184) describes that Johannesburg entrepreneurs similarly wear expensive clothes and accessories as “badges of the up-and-coming entrepreneur.”

But Izikhothane really sits as an ironic slap in the face to some who are desperate for a livelihood - in one Izikhothane case torn money thrown in to the air was immediately after seen being grabbed and taped together by bystanders (City Press 2012). It displays a system where people that want to be enabled either by way of their wealthy image, or actual money gains. Either way, money is desirable, even it means having the ability to choose to protest by destroying it or casting it up as ‘waste’.

Malcomess and Kreutzfeldt (2013:18) describe Johannesburg, somewhat ironically as “defined by nostalgia less for the past than for the future. ” Some argue that people are driven by a want to exit the “chill of desperation, of being left out of the liberation” (Comaroff & Comaroff 1999:284). Money acts as connection to past dreams for the future, in its excess it flaunts its previous state of lacking. But in the face of unemployment, this contact with the wealthy world is endeavoured through creative, non-standard means - the sort of ‘path of human miracle’ that Simmel speaks of between two separated entities (Leach 1997:66). While capital becomes increasingly militarized an protected, parallel wormholes of its penetration are devised particularly in the case of the more desperate (Hull and James 2012:8).

Part 2 of this essay is given in ‘6 Wormholes Through A Money Border’. 

Essay published in December 2014, University of the Witwatersrand, School of Architecture and Planning. Written by Sarah de Villiers, broader project in which this text features was supervised by Kirsten Doermann. Original document containing this essay available here.


1. River Styx - A river in ancient Greek mythology which divides the world from the Underworld. Some myths recount that the river held powers of immortality for someone who went into it. Some ancient customs of burial involved placing a coin in the deceased’s mouth, supposedly to bribe the ferryman who transports the soul to the afterlife. (Morris 1992:106.)

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spaceKIOSK      is a multidisciplinary architecture, research and design studio based in Johannesburg, South Africa.