Hidden Spaces and Urban Health: Exploring the Tactics of Rural Migrants Navigating the City of Gold


Urban health practitioners working in African cities require an in-depth understanding of the context within which they work in order to plan and implement effective urban public health programmes. This paper provides insights into the complexities of the urban African environment and its residents by describing and analysing the tactics employed by a population of rural migrants as they enter and navigate the City of Gold: Johannesburg. This population resides within inner-city areas that are broadly disconnected from local government initiatives, that I term here as ‘hidden spaces’. Reflecting on personal experiences and involvement in participatory photography and film projects within these ‘hidden spaces’, the paper considers the concept of ‘being hidden’ as something that can be both a deliberate tactic employed by particular urban populations to evade the state, and as a result of marginalisation where the state bypasses groups in need of intervention.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5


  1. 1.

    During apartheid, cities were ‘off-limits’ to most black South Africans, who required special permission and permits in order to enter the city.

  2. 2.

    This paper considers ‘urban poor’ groups as those that fall within Mitlin and Sattherwaite’s definition of urban poverty: a concept covering a multitude of interlinked “deprivations” (Mitlin and Satterthwaite 2004: 11). Here, HIV is considered an additional urban deprivation (Vearey 2008).

  3. 3.

    Known locally as Mpilonhle–Mpilonde (Quality Life—Long Life in isiZulu), this intervention has been described elsewhere (Vearey 2003, 2006; Vearey et al. 2005; Vearey and Oliff 2006).

  4. 4.

    The province is responsible for maintenance of the physical hostel structures, the City is liable for the water, electricity and waste management costs. The men living in the hostels no longer pay rent to the City; it appears that where rent is collected, it is paid to the Induna.

  5. 5.

    Results in this section are taken from a cross-sectional community based behaviour and prevalence survey, conducted by the RHRU in 2004. A random 10% of the population was sampled. Results have been presented at several conferences and symposium (Vearey et al. 2005, 2007; Vearey and Oliff 2006).

  6. 6.

    The IFP is the Inkatha Freedom Party. Historically a Zulu nationalist party, the IFP attempted to gain independence for a Zulu Nation in the build up to the first elections. Bloody riots and fighting between IFP aligned hostel residents and ANC supporters from the townships took place along the Witwatersrand in the early 1990s. Several of the hostels in the Benrose area hold historical fame for their involvement in rioting and fighting in the inner-city of Johannesburg. The hostels acted as ‘recruitment sites’ for the fighting; residents would travel back to KwaZulu-Natal and recruit young men, bringing them back to the hostels in Johannesburg to participate in the fighting.

  7. 7.

    This paper contributes to doctoral research into the persistent urban health challenges of migration and informal settlements in the context of HIV, through which a framework to guide appropriate local-level developmental responses is being developed


  1. Balbo, M., & Marconi, G. (2005). Governing international migration in the city of the south. Geneva: Global Commission on International Migration.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Beall, J., Crankshaw, O., & Parnell, S. (2002). Chapter 2: Reverberations from a Divided City, Uniting a divided city: Governance and social exclusion in Johannesburg (pp. 7–25). London: Earthscan.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Bouillon, A. (2002). Citizenship and the city: The Durban centre-city in 2000. Transformation, 48, 1–37.

    Google Scholar 

  4. City of Johannesburg (2002). Joburg 2030. Corporate Planning Unit.

  5. City of Johannesburg (2005). Human Development Strategy: Joburg's commitment to the poor. Johannesburg: Office of the City Manager Corporate Planning Unit.

    Google Scholar 

  6. City of Johannesburg (2006). Growth and development strategy. Corporate Planning Unit.

  7. City of Johannesburg (2008). Draft integrated development plan review. Johannesburg.

  8. Coquery-Vidrovitch, C. (2005). Introduction: African Urban spaces-history and culture. In S. J. Salm & T. Falola (Eds.), African Urban spaces in historical perspective (pp. xv–xl). Rochester: University of Rochester Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Cornwall, A. (2007). Of choice, chance and contingency: 'Career strategies' and tactics for survival among Yoruba women traders. Social Anthropology, 15(1), 27–46.

    Google Scholar 

  10. de Certeau, M. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Translated by Steven Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Galea, S., & Vlahov, D. (2005). Urban health: Evidence, challenges, and directions. Annual Review of Public Health, 26, 341–365.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Grabska, K. (2006). Marginalization in urban spaces of the global south: Urban refugees in Cairo. Journal of Refugee Studies, 19(3), 287–307.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Harpham, T. (2009). Urban health in developing countries: What do we know and where do we go? Health and Place, 15(1), 107–116.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Harpham, T., & Molyneux, C. (2001). Urban health in developing countries: A review. Progress in Development Studies, 1(2), 113–137.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Harpham, T., & Tanner, M. (1995). Urban health in developing countries: Progress and prospects. London: Earthscan.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Jacobsen, K., & Landau, L. B. (2003). The dual imperative in refugee research: Some methodological and ethical considerations in social science research on forced migration. Disasters, 27(3), 185.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Keith, M. (2005). The Ghetto: Knowing your place and the performative cartographies of racial subordination. In M. Keith (Ed.), After the Cosmopolitan? Multicultural cities and the future of racism (pp. 61–88). London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Kok, P., & Collinson, M. (2006). Migration and urbanization in South Africa. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Landau, L. (2005a). Migration, Urbanisation and Sustainable Livelihoods in South Africa. In J. Crush & V. Williams (Eds.), Migration Policy Brief. Southern African Migration Project.

  20. Landau, L. (2005b). Urbanisation, nativism, and the rule of law in South Africa's 'forbidden' cities. Third World Quarterly, 26(7), 1115–1134.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Landau, L. (2006). Transplants and transients: Idioms of belonging and dislocation in inner-city Johannesburg. African Studies Review, 49(2), 125–145.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Landau, L. (2008). Passage, profit, protection and the challenge of participation: building and belonging in African Cities, Discussion Paper Prepared for: UNU-WIDER Project Workshop. Beyong the Tipping Point: African Development in an Urban World. Cape Town, South Africa, 26–28 June 2008.

  23. Landau, L., & Monson, T. (2008). Displacement, estrangement and sovereignty: Reconfiguring state power in Urban South Africa. Government and Opposition, 43(2), 315–336.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Minnaar, A. (1993). Communities in isolation perspectives on hostels in South Africa. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Mitlin, D., & Satterthwaite, D. (2004). Chapter 1. Introduction. In D. Mitlin & D. Satterthwaite (Eds.), Empowering squatter citizen: Local government, civil society and urban poverty reduction. London: Earthscan.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Napolitano, V., & Pratten, D. (2007). Michel de Certeau: Ethnography and the challenge of plurality. Social Anthropology, 15(1), 1–12.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Peberdy, S., Crush, J., & Msibi, N. (2004). Migrants in the City of Johannesburg: A report for the City of Johannesburg. Johannesburg: City of Johannesburg.

  28. Scott, J. (1996). Cities, people, and language. In J. Scott (Ed.), Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed (pp. 53–84). Yale: Yale University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  29. Shisana, O., Rehle, T., Simbayi, L., Parker, W., Zuma, K., Bhana, A., et al. (2005). South African National HIV Prevalence, HIV Incidence, Behaviour and Communication Survey, 2005 Cape Town: Human Sciences Research Council.

  30. Tonkiss, F. (2005). Spatial stories: Subjectivity in the city. In F. Tonkiss (Ed.), Space, the city, and social theory. London: Polity.

    Google Scholar 

  31. UNAIDS (2006). 2006 Report on the global AIDS epidemic. Geneva: UNAIDS.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Vearey, J. (2003). Initiating an HIV/STI programme for migrant men in inner city hostels: the challenges of engaging government and community within the urban South African context Unpublished MSc report. London: London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, UK.

  33. Vearey, J. (2006). HIV & Public Health Interventions: Testing a Model for Enhancing Quality of Life for Internal Migrants in Johannesburg. Presented at: Migration and Society Seminar Series, Forced Migration Studies, University of the Witwatersrand.

  34. Vearey, J. (2008). Migration, access to ART and survivalist livelihood strategies in Johannesburg. African Journal of AIDS Research, 7(3), 361–374.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Vearey, J., & Oliff, M. (2006). HIV and public health interventions: Testing a model that enhances quality of life in inner-city Johannesburg, Research poster THPE0283. Toronto: XVI International AIDS Conference.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Vearey, J., Oliff, M., Gardner, J., Mbatha, T., Cebekhulu, V., & Delany, S. (2003). Quality of life—Long life: Questions raised while gaining access to inner-city hostels and informal settlements for research and interventions Reproductive Health Priorities Conference.

  37. Vearey, J., Gardner, J., Mbatha, T., Mweli, S., & Oliff, M. (2005). HIV & Public Health Interventions. Testing a model that enhances quality of life in inner city Johannesburg, 12th Priorities Conference in Reproductive Health and HIV. Stellenbosch.

  38. Vearey, J., Oliff, M., Moyo, W., Delany, S., & Rees, H. (2007). Hidden spaces, hidden livelihoods: Surviving the city of gold. Inclusive cities: Experiences and challenges in contemporary African Cities. Johannesburg: Wits.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Waelkens, M.-P., & Greindl, I. (2001). Urban health: Particularities, challenges, experiences and lessons learnt. A literature review (p. 136). Eschborn: GTZ.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


Many thanks go to the residents of the ‘hidden spaces’ described above. The author is very grateful to Jacob Rasmussen and Loren Landau for their useful comments on the early drafts of this paper. The NEWAR Network is also warmly thanked. The author acknowledges the STI/HIV Research Directorate of the Reproductive Health and HIV Research Unit, Wits where the author was based between 2003 and early 2007, and the European Commission who provided funding for the Mpilonhle–Mpilonde programme. The author acknowledges the contribution of Monique Oliff, Jillian Gardner, Witness Moyo, Sinead Delany, Helen Rees and the fieldwork team in the design and implementation of the Mpilonhle–Mpilonde programme, and initial data analysis. The author warmly thanks the participants of the photography and film projects, MPW staff, PDP students and Day Fifty films for their commitment, involvement and energy in working to create such rich and successful participatory projects.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joanna Vearey.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Vearey, J. Hidden Spaces and Urban Health: Exploring the Tactics of Rural Migrants Navigating the City of Gold. Urban Forum 21, 37–53 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12132-010-9079-4

Download citation


  • Urban health
  • Migration
  • Local government
  • Informal housing