Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

A Failure of Privacy?

Public and Private in Johannesburg, South Africa

Julia Scheller


The privatization of public space in Johannesburg and the withdrawal of wealthy sections of the population to privatized gated communities are widely regarded as an obstacle to nation-building processes in South Africa. Given South Africa’s history of socio-spatial segregation, spatial practitioners and intellectuals therefore consider it imperative to create new public spaces which can be used by all sections of society. This normative agenda depicts public space as something unreservedly desired by the wider public which provides for its general well being. In doing so, this agenda neglects the important fact that, during Apartheid, “black” citizens were not only denied a right to the public but also a right to the private.

Why privateness appears merely as a residual category in political, public and scholarly discussions in South Africa and why it consequently, in a manner of speaking, fails in its public perception, has hitherto been neglected in social science research and is the central question of this research project.

Given this background, the project is interested in practices and discourses through which, depending on the situation and socio-spatial circumstances of the social actors involved, privateness is made possible. This approach promises to provide important insights into alternative (possibly counterhegemonic) concepts of privateness. The project starts on the assumption that the ideological critique of neoliberal discourses and practices has up to now impeded an analysis of the private in South Africa since these discourses and practices are widely considered a barrier to transparency, participation and publicness. Yet, this critique is voiced by a social elite which, through this action, replicates the very hegemonic structures it aims to eliminate by demanding more transparency and publicness.