The Next Page: Losing objectivity, embracing hypocrisy in Johannesburg

Mt. Lebanon High School graduate Anna Premo went to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship to explore and develop a neighborhood's potential. A friend's murder has forced her to view her work in a different light.


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My heart has never held a place for those residents of a city who wrinkle their noses at the mention of areas with a bit more grime and crime than most. In fact, I have spent much of my time looking down my own nose at them, feeling decidedly superior because it is in those areas of the city that I do my work.

In becoming a city planner, I could have concentrated my research on any number of topics, from housing to environment to politics. But it is the urban manifestations of conflict that most fascinate me. Such a path inevitably leads to stints of fieldwork in places considered dangerous by many measures. As long as you employ common sense and your luck holds out, you can learn an immeasurable amount in those places about life and death and politics and everything in between.

Since fall, I have been studying on a Fulbright scholarship in Johannesburg, South Africa, mapping how different demographic groups perceive, utilize and move through the physical space of the city. My chosen study area is Hillbrow, the neighborhood with a reputation for being the most violent and crime-ridden of all. I previously had spent some time there and found it to be a pleasant-enough place with very friendly residents and an air of hope that was missing elsewhere in the city.

In other parts of Johannesburg, people have a survivalist mindset. They do enough to get by with the goal of eventually moving somewhere marginally better. But in Hillbrow, people want to stick around and see change. When asked what they considered the main issues, Hillbrow residents didn't mention crime or violence, topics regularly lamented in other parts of the city. Instead, they cited the lack of investment and interest in Hillbrow due to its negative reputation.

In Hillbrow, people have visions beyond the immediate and the practical. They want to do more than just survive. How could I pass by an opportunity to work in such a place?

And so I began work on my project, the crux of which was to gather data to create an accurate picture of Hillbrow. From this data, specific sites could be identified whose redevelopment would be beneficial to businesses and the community. While I regularly would go into Hillbrow for fieldwork, common sense told me always to go with a longtime resident of the area. I went with Theo.

I thought that I'd one day know the area and residents well enough to move about comfortably on my own, that I'd no longer need Theo's help. But the thing about Theo was that he knew everyone, and so he proved indispensable. I could tell him that I wanted to speak with owners of small businesses, and he would make the arrangements. I could tell him that it felt like a day to converse with Nigerians, and he would set up appointments. I could tell him that I wanted to communicate with government officials, and he would schedule meetings. If I had told him that I wanted to speak with entrepreneurial pygmies in their twenties who had been in Hillbrow for at least twenty years, he would have found them and arranged a rendezvous for that very day.

And so I found myself spending time with Theo in the office and in the field, discussing my research and new theories and hypotheses. While he was one of the city's many homeless and had little in the way of formal education, he knew more about Johannesburg than anyone I had met within the academic community.

I spent the December holidays cozied up by the fire with my friends and family in Pittsburgh. When I returned to Johannesburg shortly after New Year's Day, I resumed work in earnest, having a bit over half of my nine-month grant period left to go.

Theo goes missing

My first week back was productive, but it would have been more so if Theo had been there for me to bounce ideas off of. Although Theo typically called or stopped in every day, it wasn't unusual for him to disappear for up to a week when he became absorbed in his own projects. He was rarely away more than a week, though, and after several more days without contact, I began to worry.

There was always the chance that Theo would get caught in one of the many raids on the places where the homeless lived or that his vocal criticism of the police force would get him into trouble. I consulted the postdoctoral student with whom Theo also worked, and together we made our way to the Hillbrow police station to see what we could find. During the period when neither of us had heard from Theo, there was only one murder in which the victim remained unidentified.

The details were these:

Outside one of Hillbrow's hotels at 7:49 p.m. Dec. 23, the victim had been shot in the back eight times at point-blank range while lying on the ground. It had been an execution. After speaking with a number of police officers and showing them a photograph of Theo that I had taken a few months earlier, my colleague and I were increasingly confronted with the likelihood that the victim might be Theo. The inevitable and unforgettable next step was a trip to the morgue.

With a growing sense of dread -- and a piece of paper marked "Body Number 2292" -- we made our way down the street to the Hillbrow forensic pathology building. We were instructed to wait in a bizarre reception area with dilapidated couches. An Afrikaans soap opera played on television.

The waiting room was filled with people who dangled papers like our own. They, too, were waiting to identify numbered bodies. Eventually, we were ushered into a small room with chairs in one corner and a curtain drawn across the opposite wall. Once the door had been shut, the man we had been silently following drew the curtain aside just far enough to expose the head of Body No. 2292.

And just like that, Body No. 2292 was no longer an unidentified black male. He was Theo.

In that moment everything shifted, though nothing had changed. The person with whom I had spent the most time over the past four and a half months was dead, and so was my faith in Hillbrow. Whenever I was with Theo, I felt safe.

But my feeling of safety vanished with the murder of the person who had ensured my security. Feeling comfortable in Hillbrow was no longer an issue of employing common sense, and I was no longer an objective observer.

A struggle to go on

I had known from the beginning that murders occurred in Hillbrow almost daily, so Theo's murder did not change the reality of the space in the slightest. My own perception was altered, nothing more, yet it seemed an insurmountable task to reconcile my shattered perception with the quantitative picture of Hillbrow that had dictated my research.

Perhaps this disillusionment is the inevitable cost of attempting to conduct field research through immersion. In trying to truly grasp the reality of life in Hillbrow, I stumbled into success. It just wasn't what I envisioned. I experienced only one incident of violence and now cannot bring myself to see the potential for development that I know exists. Most of the residents I've interviewed have experienced an exponentially greater amount of violence but still manage to live and dream in the place that is destroying them bit by bit. Perhaps the key lies in their own givens.

Whereas my set of givens had been composed solely of the potential that existed, Hillbrow residents also understood crime and violence as an unfortunate part of theirs. In framing research as an objective exercise, I had managed to miss a fundamental concept. The study of a city is the study not only of statistics, but of people. In such a context, objectivity may cloud judgment more than clear it.

Theo's death is more than a loss. It is knowledge that with crime comes an incredible, unimaginable level of brutality. While the sense of hope in Hillbrow remains striking, I understand it far less. As long as my own perception of Hillbrow remains at odds with the basis of my project, I am acting hypocritically, conducting research based on a premise in which I no longer believe. Continuing the work, however, may be the only path to reconciling the two sides at war within me.

The key to urban research may lie in making sense of the juxtaposition of a city's objective and subjective portrayals -- understanding the black and white picture and infusing it with color. At times, the colors will be garish. They will speak to unnatural and inhumane happenings, and the researcher will pass judgment. Rather than sweep the judgment aside, I vote that it be embraced as part of the process.

And so I thank Theo. Not for setting up interviews and helping to refine my project, but for teaching me the value of instinct and idiosyncrasy. I thank him for teaching me the importance of being human.

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Anna Premo, a 2007 graduate of Mt. Lebanon High School, has a bachelor's degree in urban studies and planning and a master's in city planning from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (apremo@alum.mit.edu). When her research in South Africa is completed, she plans to work for an educational organization in Philadelphia.


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