Google Earth Augments Viewing the Spectacle of Ruin in Selected ‘In-Between Places’ of Old Industrial Johannesburg

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South Africa is said to have the worst social inequality in the world, and examples of this inequality can be seen in the shack settlements, backyard shacks and hijacked properties in many parts of the city of Johannesburg. These unsafe and neglected ‘interstitial places’ are where the poor live in inadequate housing, squeezed between factory buildings, railway lines and motorways in the city. One of the challenges of capturing visual information about these settlements in these difficult settings is getting access to the areas where photographs can be taken. In Johannesburg, many areas are no longer safe for outsiders to visit. These unsafe, informal and often well-hidden areas can be considered ‘interstitial’ in relation to other areas where middle-income earners live in decent houses in pleasant suburbs with amenities. It is these ‘unsafe’ areas that the author wished to explore as a source of images and impressions for creative works.

This study takes an autoethnographic approach to exploring three neglected suburbs of Johannesburg, South Africa (Cleveland, Denver and Jeppestown), which all date from soon after the first discovery of gold in 1886. Through this work, the author hoped to make sense of observed changes within the city and the proliferation of informal, survivalist settlements seemingly arising without town planning interventions. Many open areas and dilapidated buildings are now occupied by low-income earners, perhaps because city governance has been overwhelmed by the thousands of work-seeking migrants arriving in the city on an ongoing basis.

To explore the many visual indicators of poverty in these selected areas of Johannesburg, the author used Google Earth remote sensing images and Google Earth Street View to augment site visits. Google Earth is a valuable research tool, as one can quickly explore marginal areas that are not safe for outsiders to visit. One can also view activities that are not visible from the street – for example, illegal motor repair operations occurring behind high walls. Ethical issues
abound in these acts of anonymous looking at the poor and destitute and finding the picturesque in neglected buildings, dismal living conditions and slums, as well as the privacy and surveillance issues relating to those being observed. This essay will dwell on some of the benefits of the Google Earth virtual globe software, as well as the ethical discomfort that can result when observing people, poverty and informal living places – whether using remote sensing methods and driving around these areas with a camera, or using the images and perceptions gained for personal use as a source of inspiration for art making and fiction writing.

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Author Biography

Dr Sue Taylor

Sue Taylor holds a PhD in Plant Biotechnology from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. She is a development consultant with experience in researching, writing and lecturing about sustainable development, climate change and social development issues in South Africa and Africa. She has worked in the biotechnology research sector, in nature conservation and in the NGO sector as a climate change activist, and more recently as a science writer. Her current interest is cities, slums and urban climate change adaptation.

Dr Taylor is one of the editors of a book on Phuthaditjhaba, an informal city in the former homeland of QwaQwa, South Africa, published in January 2023, and has also written one of the chapters discussing greening as a way of climate preparedness for towns and cities. The book is called Sustainable Futures in Southern Africa’s Mountains: Multiple Perspectives on an Emerging City, Editors: Andrea Membretti, Sue Jean Taylor, Jess L. Delves. Springer 2023. The book is available with open access at