think metropole: memory, citizenship and futures in Paris, São Paolo and Johannesburg

Monday, 21 May, 2012 - 15:00

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In a world populated by so many acronyms, GFIP makes a good example of a ‘technical’ name given to a megaproject with potentially wide social effects that remained submerged for most of its life. It might have slumbered on as a non-­‐issue, but instead exploded into consciousness as something scary and threatening in 2012. GFIP turned out to be an idea whose meaning, shaped over more than a decade, surfaced under the new brand of ‘e-­‐toll’. Leaping from the unknown to ensuing and entertaining controversy, e-­‐toll suddenly filled newspaper columns, talk shows, TV screens, tweet space and occasional court rooms. Contrast e-­‐toll with another project from the same stable: one that has involved summary dismissal of hundreds if not thousands of workers over the same months during which e-­‐toll turned from elegant branding to nightmare for some. This second project has failed to reach completion in anything like the projected time span, sees hundreds of almost-­‐empty, expensive bus trips every weekday, is allegedly being sued by at least one elite institution -­‐ yet hardly ever receives any press or other media exposure, except of celebratory kind. Its conception and execution remain largely in the shadows despite costing the public purse something like R35 billion. These two megaprojects – e-­‐toll and Gautrain – are both about mobility. Missing from public discussion seems to be how we can understand the direction of massive resources to them, rather than to other causes. In both e-­‐toll and Gautrain cases, a rather large question seems to be: How did we get here? This is the question, in the e-­‐toll case, to which the North Gauteng High Court has ordered an answer. The reason for opening with these megaprojects is of course that they attract interest to this rather tentative and experimental paper. More widely though, they have cousins in other city regions around the world; and along with such relatives they form windows (or prisms, or lenses) through which large and complex city relationships can be viewed. In the large city, even when its population is much more dense than is typical of most South African places, access to diverse opportunities mostly depends on mobility systems. Thus mobilities hold a special place in how the city is understood and claimed by many city inhabitants. The e-­‐toll controversy could be construed – indeed has been construed – as a consequence of many causes: an arrogant chief executive of the central state agency in the saga; paralysis of action on the part of national government; poor financial modeling; class wars around mobility expressed through freedom of the highway; and much more. I want to suggest that e-­‐toll conflict can be analysed in quite different ways, alongside many other megaprojects in big cities. Perhaps it can be thought of as a collision of aspirations in the fracturing circumstances of something rather clumsily referred to as a ‘city region’ in formation. It can be teased into being as a seam running through the geology of the messy and complicated, fractured metropolis.


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