Downtown Johannesburg is a complex network of social relationships and economic activities, where the power of informal exchanges overcomes and supercedes more formal commercial interactions. Located at the centre of the old city, between Braamfontein and Park Station, Joubert Park is the perfect example of such a powerful vitality, and where a holistic urban ecosystem has taken shape.
“I work here in the park – explains a vendor – selling chewing gums. Just as I do, many others deal with ice creams or fruit, others take passport photographs, others are painters or sell food. I come from abroad, and what I found here in Joubert is enough for a living. I can pay the rent and afford some meat, chips and a beer every day”.
Joubert park, moreover, hosts plenty of immigrants, mostly from Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique or Zambia. “In certain seasons,” continues the vendor, “I can make good business with the immigrants who go back home and need to bring this or that product. I can provide them everything, because I know their needs. I often think about leaving here, leaving this country to look for fortune overseas. But then I understand here I have all I need, and this is the kind of life I like”.
In Joubert park and its surrounds, basically everything can be found, any problem solved. Moreover, a strong sense of community can grow. The users of the park, some of whom are unemployed, can enjoy the many social exchanges that happen, like religious gatherings, or sports games displayed on the maxi-screen at its centre. In fact, the right friendships, made watching a soccer game and playing chess or draughts, can open many doors.
This way the park becomes a fundamental safety valve to avoid social segregation and, as a result, crime.
“Why should people beg at the robots or go around stealing? They could sell flavored ice blocks or food. It’s easy enough to pay a rent in town, this way. In town you can always find a way without breaking the rules,” says another vendor.
Although crime still exists in the park, there is a difference between being inside or outside its gates. In Joubert a thief will promptly be identified and isolated, thanks to stronger community control amongst park vendors and users.
This closed ‘eco-system’ of the area also makes it a perfect example for a local micro-economy to thrive. The income of a vendor will directly be spent in loco for another internal purchase, creating an economic ring which covers a significant percentage of the money loops for each person involved. This seems to be enough to keep this network hub alive and working, and creates a micro-oasis at the centre of a tough reality that exists in downtown Johannesburg.
An old man remembers Joubert Park as a place where “movies were shown on the weekends, and occasionally ballets and plays were performed”. However, it seems that the true soul of the park and its eclectic nature have still stood the test of time.
Images 1-4: Scenes in Joubert Park