Image Credit: Scott Beyer

Johannesburg: Where Apartheid Never Ended

Three decades later, the city and country are still extremely segregated.

May 29, 2023

Johannesburg is three decades removed from Apartheid, yet it’s hard to tell when walking the streets. My first day there was instructive. For several hours on a weekday late morning, I walked through the city center. As an American, I’m used to such areas being melting pots. Johannesburg’s center was indeed hyper-crowded, full of outdoor malls and street markets. I probably saw 10s if not 100s of thousands of people those few hours. Only three of them besides myself were white—two of whom appeared homeless, and the third who was briefly walking from a nice restaurant to her car. This in a city that’s 12% white. 

I later learned that the center, once the heart of the city, had been abandoned by whites. Even black locals told me I was risking it by walking around there. 

Such is the spatial order that remains in Johannesburg and other parts of South Africa 29 years after it finally ended Apartheid and instituted democratic governance. 

South Africa has long been segregated. It was first colonized by the Dutch, then by the British. They used the Cape of Africa to supply ships going to Asia with food. 

Scott Beyer's route from Cape Town to Johannesburg.

Johannesburg was founded in 1886 when gold was discovered, drawing people from worldwide. Population grew rapidly, reaching 100,000 in a decade.

The booming population stoked racial tensions. Black people from across southern Africa flocked to Johannesburg. Many worked in mines and as rickshaw drivers and domestic laborers. The government cracked down and began to forcibly relocate blacks from the city. A 1923 law defined Black people as “temporary sojourners” who were only allowed in the city to work for whites. 

By the 1940s, Johannesburg became urbanized. The percentage of black people living in the city increased. Many worked in manufacturing. During World War II, white people went off to fight, so blacks were left to work in factories. The black population in South Africa doubled during this time, to 400,000. 

The black population increase created tension. Some politicians argued that black urbanization was an inevitable part of economic growth. But the Nationalist Party, which won the 1948 election, argued for total segregation. They promised to protect white jobs from black competition.

That led to the period known as “apartheid,” or “apartness.” During this time, people were classified into different groups: Whites, Indians, Coloreds and Blacks. Laws were passed that kept ethnic groups completely separate, restricting who could live where. The government established a separate education system, interracial marriage was banned, and public areas, like libraries, bathrooms, and beaches, had separate amenities. 

80% of South African land was set aside for whites. The government created areas for black people to live in known as “Bantustans” in the outskirts of urban areas. Over 3 million blacks, including several hundred thousands in Johannesburg, were forcibly relocated. In order to travel through white areas, they had to carry documents that gave them permission to be in the area.

Blacks protested Apartheid. Nelson Mandela, then an activist, was jailed in 1962 but others continued to resist. Much of the international community condemned Apartheid and international pressure led South Africa to release Mandela from jail in 1990. In 1994, the African National Congress, a party led by Mandela, came into power and ended Apartheid. 

Although it’s been almost 3 decades since Apartheid ended, the city remains segregated. Many of Johannesburg’s wealthy whites live in gated communities. They sprang up in the early 2000s in response to violent crime. These communities also formed neighborhood watch groups and the streets are patrolled by private security. Some have parks, playgrounds, and even schools and clinics. Walking through, these communities make Johannesburg the most fortified city I’ve seen.

One example is Rosebank, where I stayed during my two-week visit. Big homes sit behind walls that are topped off with spiking and barbed wire. Guards sit in booths outside of certain homes. There’s little to no interaction between residents and the streets, but interestingly, there are still many pedestrians. Most of them are outside black commuters: a mix of people who work in these homes or in nearby retail complexes.

This segregation extends to commercial real estate. Whites mostly stay in heavily-securitized areas such as shopping malls, offices or their automobiles. You’ll find almost none walking the street. Sandton, another upscale district, had two parallel economies in this respect. Whites (and some professional-class blacks) remain in buildings. The “street economy” right outside, all black, is full of construction workers, jitney services, motorbike deliverymen and retail shacks. 

Black people still mostly live in townships on the outskirts of Johannesburg with thoroughly 3rd World living standards—dirt roads, sporadic electricity, and no restrooms or running water, depending on the area. When Nelson Mandela came to power, he promised he would improve these areas. But the end of Apartheid also brought in a new influx of residents who built shacks on the edges of cities. That makes integration harder. Colored neighborhoods, meanwhile, are still full of colored people (defined as those of mixed race). And even Soweto, the famed area where Mandela lived pre-arrest, remains exclusively black. 

The government has tried improving the conditions in townships. Still, South Africa has the highest inequality in the world. 

Some research shows that Johannesburg desegregation is happening more than most people think. Government research from 2016 shows that Johannesburg is the most integrated city in South Africa. One reason is that the black population has increased, often arriving as refugees from other African countries, while the white population stayed the same. Another major factor is black upward mobility. Even during Apartheid, the number of black middle class workers increased from 11% in 1970 to 25% in the 1990s. South Africa’s extreme post-Apartheid affirmative action policies, for all their flaws, have also helped.

People born after the end of Apartheid, known as the “Rainbow Generation,” hope to live in a fully-integrated society. In Johannesburg and elsewhere in South Africa, they’ll still face a built landscape of walls, gates, government zoning and restrictive covenants. Economic growth and the continued rise of black professionals can help end the segregation.

All images credited to Scott Beyer and The Market Urbanist.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine,, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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