Early one Sunday morning with a husband away on business, I decide to lure my offspring to a (private) urban bicycle track in order for my middle child to master his new bicycle.
Before entering, I am already irritated with the fairly steep price I have to pay, amplified by the relentlessness of the salesperson to sell me membership of this park that I have never tried, and sealed with the patron in front of us mumbling something along the lines of: "Ja, this is how it is in the new South Africa."
Enter the park, and the rules are clear and everywhere. Rules devised for you, that you agree to abide by because you enter the park. Of course, the convenience of having all sorts of tricky courses in close proximity, the comforting knowledge of a medic at hand should the middle child not master his bike, and the clean toilets do make a difference.
But this is a far cry from our usual Sunday afternoon ride in the (public) park dodging dogs and turds, the quick stop on the playground, the testing of the new outdoor gym equipment and the show of the latest wedding – where the laughter of the kids freestyling is enjoyed by a diversity of people.
Where rules are socially negotiated, and where you figure it out in interaction with other people. Where we get to see people who are different from us (in terms of identity), but also where we see people doing a diversity of activities.
When I leave the bike park, the relentless salesperson wants to know if I am going to join. "No thank you, I prefer public spaces," I tell him. Perplexed, he wants to know how this is not a public space.
Well, the fact that there is a fairly high fee barrier should already answer the question, but so should the fact that there are hardly any people, identity-wise and socioeconomically speaking, who are different to us.
Social, commercial, city-state administration – all took place in the agora. The rectangular law court was in the middle, surrounded by a low wall so that people busy with other activities could peer in. There were various other spaces where people could observe the goings-on in the agora, while not being in the agora.
People and shops are being transplanted from the streets to these malls where we all walk like consumer robots, ticking off lists in order to leave.
A space like the agora is important for democracy, because it allows for a space where people can consider views other than their own. These public spaces, to follow from Aristotle, allow for the awareness of difference, a place where diverse people converse and intermingle in everyday life. Not only diverse in the sense of identity (race, gender, class) but also diverse in the actions, the things that people are doing.
For Aristotle, this difference was important, because if people are accustomed to a diverse, complex milieu, people will not act violently when they are challenged by something they're familiar with. An open space like the agora allows for differing views and conflicting interests to interact.
In South Africa, we are increasingly closing down public spaces, like the bike park. We build home estates in which the public is kept out at the gate (and in some instances, even told how to move within the estate, as in the recent Mount Edgecombe Country Estate case – see also Prof de Vos' commentary on that case). We have boomed areas.
These estates are often homogenous communities where we trade off the possibility of diverse interaction for a feeling of safety (which is questionable). Malls swallowed the grocery stores from the community, where it was tucked between the post office and the police office, and placed it next to just another Edgars store.
People and shops are being transplanted from the streets to these malls, where we all walk like consumer robots, ticking off lists in order to leave. Other than that, we might have various areas in the city where we chose to go, depending on how it matches our identity. If you are young and hip, you will hang out in Maboneng, for example.
In the streets of Maboneng you will probably not find a poor person (read this and this) or a two-tone wearing boer. So not all public places will foster diversity and dialogue (except perhaps for echoing) – especially not in South Africa, where the apartheid project was all about spatial segregation. Many of the public spaces on a local level are still fairly homogenous in terms of identity.
When these private spaces are homogenised, we can choose not to confront diversity. And this might be one of the biggest dangers to our democratic project.
In a sense, the public space is a political space – just by being public and holding the space for the diversity of the public to emerge. It allows for dialogue, observation, and at times protest. This is not new. If we think about pivotal moments in history, they took place in the streets: Tiananmen Square in China in 1989; the Purple Rain protest against apartheid in Greenmarket Square; the Egyptian revolution taking place on Tahrir Square.
Some political engagement is not always so grandiose or pivotal. The Sea Point Promenade is an example of a public open space that holds the space for multicultural interaction that was acknowledged as an important place for democracy in a court case. The court prevented a luxury hotel being built there for this reason.
The importance of the public spaces to our democracy should not be undermined. In Johannesburg, people are reclaiming public parks, and the effect on the community and the wellbeing of citizens is emerging with the creation of spaces for democracy.
At a time in South Africa where we are fed sanitised or amplified versions of reality, it is important that we cherish for ourselves the spaces that hold the possibility of interacting with people who are different from us, and who do things differently to us – whether it is by direct interaction with such people or just by observing.
If not, we are going to take conflicts and the handling of difference into private spheres that are not democratic – and that are governed by rules made by corporations.
Private spaces have proven unable to deal with this diversity – in fact, they tend to create more homogenous spaces in the process. When these private spaces are homogenised, we can choose not to confront diversity. And that might be one of the biggest dangers to our democracy.