The dirty business of clean streets: Johannesburg’s ‘illegible government’ and the imposition of modernist schemes on the inner-city street economy
- Transformation: Critical Perspectives on Southern Africa
- Volume 99, 2019
- pp. 61-80
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In 2013, the Johannesburg municipal government evicted 8,000 street traders from the downtown area of the city. Dubbed ‘Operation Clean Sweep’, the operation was eventually overturned in South Africa’s Constitutional Court. The relationship between local government and street traders has since been characterised as being at an impasse. This article seeks to uncover what Clean Sweep reveals about the relationship between the state and street traders, when treated as an extended case study. I argue that modernist impulses are central to the municipality’s management of street trade. These impulses are pursued, however, not through the classically theorised means of documentation, but rather a process of rendering the inner city legible from a distance by what I define as a ‘grammar of aesthetics’. I suggest that this grammar emerges from a complex knot of local government, where decisions are both the result of a fealty to investor and rate-paying classes and an ‘illegible government’, in which bottlenecks of contesting, and often partial, visions bestow undue influence to political expediency, budgetary limitations and the particular motivations of individual bureaucrats.