Johannesburg is unequal but so are all global cities. Can Jozi lead the way in reversing inequality? Or is Jo’burg becoming more unequal? These are the questions addressed in short essays in a new book Reversing Urban Inequality in Johannesburg.

Recently, when I was conducting research in India, a friend in Bangalore told me that the residents in one of the fancy gated communities that populate this IT city had debated whether to celebrate Halloween or the traditional Hindu festival of Diwali. Some of the privileged, upper middle-class children in this luxurious complex apparently found the idea of eating candy gained from trick or treating more fun than lighting Diwali candles and watching fireworks.

Halloween is celebrated on 31 October in the United States but thanks to globalisation—the intensification of US-led capitalism—it is now celebrated in a growing number of countries. Other consumption-oriented days like Black Friday and Cyber Monday, which occur just after the American holiday, Thanksgiving, are becoming features of national life in many more nations. These days boost consumer spending as businesses promote dramatic sales.

In China, Christmas is increasingly celebrated in the big cities, not as a religious holiday, but again, as a shopping extravaganza as people buy and exchange gifts. In Muslim-majority countries like Egypt, Christmas decorations adorn various businesses targeting the middle classes and are especially flamboyant in high-end, American-style malls.

The spread of a Western, capitalist calendar speaks to the force of the globalising process in reordering the temporal plane. This same force is also transforming the spatial plane. With the spread of capitalism—a socio-economic system that produces both wealth and poverty simultaneously, thus an inherently, fundamentally ‘unequalising’ force, the spatial dynamics of the ‘globalising’ city in a capitalist world order are creating more division between social classes, not less.

In the 21st century, large cities around the world are exhibiting intensifying spatial inequality. This inequality increasingly takes the form of a wealthy, privileged urban core ringed by a periphery of lower-income denizens far removed from the city’s resources and amenities. This trend towards swelling socio-spatial division is especially pronounced in cities purporting to be ‘global,’ ‘globalising,’ ‘world,’ or in the case of Johannesburg, South Africa’s financial capital, a ‘world-class African city.’

This book focuses specifically on Johannesburg, but it resonates globally with many, if not most, cities and metropolitan regions because ‘the kind of city most of us inhabit today’ is ‘the capitalist city.’ Ironically, Johannesburg’s historical legacy of immense spatial inequality thanks to apartheid is the direction in which most ‘global(ising)’ cities such as New York, Cairo, London, Shanghai, Paris, New Delhi, Jakarta, Lagos, Berlin, and São Paulo are headed. The globalisation of neoliberal urban policy—winner-takes-all capitalism on steroids—has made the city less welcoming, liveable, accessible and friendly for lower-income city residents.

This similar global context means that those located both in the ‘overdeveloped’ and ‘developing’ worlds will find an echo of their own urban dynamics in Jo’burg. These pithy, solidly researched, accessibly written essays are instructive for all those who are interested in questions of urban development, history and planning and the general goal of spatial justice—making cities more liveable and accessible for urban dwellers of all income levels.

But Johannesburg’s local context is especially illuminating at this particular historical juncture. There is a specific reason that Jo’burg, or Jozi as the youth call it, provides a fertile site for study. Both the country, South Africa, and the city of Johannesburg regularly feature amongst the world’s most unequal societies according to the Gini Co-efficient rankings which measure income inequality but Jozi’s attempts to overcome the historical legacy and post-apartheid context of exacerbated spatial disenfranchisement open the door for us to examine how and if this spatial inequality can be reversed.

How can Johannesburg ‘unstitch/restitch’ its complex urban fabric to create a city with democratic public transport, affordable housing in desirable locations and safe, socially and racially integrated public spaces? These sharply argued essays grew out of a seminar which took place at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study entitled, ‘What is spatial transformation? Possibilities for a more equitable, liveable Johannesburg.’ They address these pertinent issues with prose made as engaging as possible to attract a wide range of people working in diverse disciplines and fields as well as the general public that lives in and cares about cities.

Like most cities today, Jo’burg’s development is overdetermined by urban policy that is based upon the ideology of neoliberal capitalism. Davis and Monk boldly ask, ‘Toward what kind of future are we being led by savage fanatical capitalism?’. This is the question we explore throughout this volume as we probe how this ‘savage’ neoliberal urban policy complements or contradicts the socio-economic developmental aims of the South African national, regional and city-level governments which aim to reverse inequality?

Can it be done? Is it possible? Are these two forces irreconcilable?

Find out more about Reversing Urban Inequality in Johannesburg and buy the book. Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is the editor of this book.