Urban man-made bodies of water such as lakes can be sources of aesthetic beauty and leisure and can boost a city’s economy and tourism industry. They satisfy what Alex Loftus has called the ‘sensuous human activity that fulfils particular historically defined social needs’ (Loftus, 2007: 43). But the same human activity and the intensification of urbanization have also transformed such urban waterscapes into toxic dumps often sited near peoples’ homes. What this prompts, as Loftus has further argued, is the need for us to direct our attention on ‘the particular historical relationships through which people and natures have been brought into tense, differentiated unities’. Loftus extensively cites Neil Smith’s Uneven Development (1984), in which he implores scholars to analyze the disparities that are engendered as a result of these interactions and to also examine ‘struggles for justice within politicized environments’ (Loftus, 2007: 43). This essay examines the consequences of the reimagining and reinvention of a particular urban landscape on the Eastside of Johannesburg, once a sewage disposal site, into a scenic landscape of leisure and consumption by constructing and artificial waterfront – Bruma Lake in 1989. The essay unfolds the triple narrative of the physical and ecological transformation of Bruma Lake and how it morphed from a wastescape to a waterscape and ended up becoming a parkland (landscape). Finally, it seeks to demonstrate how this man-made engineering feat gradually turned into an environmental menace for the residents of Bruma and nearby suburbs as well as businesses in and around the complex in just less than two decades of its existence, prompting protests by local residents and business owners when the lake ceased to be the once idyllic place of leisure. The consequential ecological degradation of the lake built on the pollution-prone Jukskei River and the protests compelled the City of Johannesburg, after several and costly corrective measures, to embark on a process that resulted, once again, in reshaping this part of the city’s built environment into a park.
When it was built, Bruma Lake, situated about 7 kilometers east of Johannesburg, covered an area of about 30 hectares, and was intersected by the Jukskei River, which stretches from west to east across it, and was bounded by Broadway to the south; Queen Street to the west; and Marcia to the north and east. This area had previously been a sewage disposal area located in what was considered, then, a distant outer area, deemed unlikely to create any ‘nuisance’ for the eastern suburbs. However, as urbanization proceeded apace and more suburbs on the eastern fringe of the city encroached on lands such as these, there was a need to rehabilitate the land and change its wastescape identity. Thus, from 1989 these major sewage works that had serviced Johannesburg’s eastern suburbs gave way to the construction of Bruma Lake.
The lake was constructed mid-stream on the Jukskei River, thus blocking the natural watercourse. Without an environmental impact assessment having been conducted, Jukskei River would become the lake’s imminent source of environmental hazard and toxicity, leading to its eventual unmaking in 2015 when, yet again, for the third time, the area was subjected to a different type of land use when it was converted to a recreation park. The environmental engineering of this space is strikingly comparable to the history of ‘urban wastelands’ that have undergone ephemeral transformations elsewhere. For example, Martin V. Melosi’s study on Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island, New York, demonstrates how this gigantic ‘human-engineered’ waste-scape was eventually turned into a sprawling parkland. Before acquiring this new identity, Fresh Kills had had a checkered but transient history: from salt marsh to landfill, to cemetery and lastly to future park (Melosi, 2016). Similarly, focusing on the re-creation of Bottle Lake in New Christchurch, New Zealand, Katie Pickles has traced, ‘the haphazard environmental history of an area of land’ (Pickles, 2003, 419) and examined ‘the changing environmental qualities of place over time as a chain of discourses that have formed, re-formed, cross-fertilized – each influencing a new land-use or perception of the area as wasteland, playground, wetland, and site of rehabilitation and recreation’ (Pickles, 419). In much the same way as Melosi and Pickles, Jane Carruthers provides a historical analysis of how the once imposing Delta Sewage Disposal Works in Johannesburg were converted from ‘sewage sludge to pleasant park’, between 1934-1963 (Carruthers). What is common among all three case studies from the US, New Zealand and South Africa is that these were all ‘landscape(s) in perpetual makeover. More broadly, these studies constitute what Lawrence Buell has framed as ‘toxic discourse’, which emphasizes defining the forms, origins, uses, and critical implications of toxic rhetoric’ (Buell, 1998: 639).
This essay aims to contribute to and illuminate on these emerging ‘toxic discourse(s) charted by these environmental historians. Just as Melosi exhorts us to think broadly about the significance of such places as Fresh Kills instead of merely seeing them in physical terms, Bruma Lake needs to be equally recognized as ‘both site and symbol’ by removing it from the ‘realm of the tangible’ and elevating it ‘into a world of ideas and perceptions’ (Melosi, 2016: 64).
Renewal of Johannesburg and the Making of Bruma Lake
The construction of Bruma Lake as the central focus of the new infrastructural development was inextricably intertwined with the renewal of the Johannesburg inner city which was started in the 1980s so that ‘it could take up its rightful place within the major global economy and become an all-inclusive city’ (Bremner, 2000: 185-193). One way of fulfilling this sense of global recognition was to create the foremost thing Johannesburg has lacked since it was founded in 1886. As Turton, et. al. (2006) have observed, it is a historical fact that:
… the city of Johannesburg is one of the few cities of the world that is not located on a river, a lake or a seashore. In fact Johannesburg straddles a major watershed, known as the Witwatersrand (translated literally as ‘Ridge of White Waters’), which divided the continent of Africa into rivers that flow into the Indian Ocean to the east, and rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean in the west. Located in the headwaters of the two major international basins, the Orange river and the Limpopo river, water supply challenges and water quality issues are but two of the major obstacles that confront the staff of Rand Water, the institution that is responsible for supplying the water that sustains, what is, in effect the economic engine of Africa.
I would argue that part of this new initiative involved the construction of a number of artificial waterfronts meant to compensate for the city’s lack of abundant natural water sources and provide its citizens with the kind of leisure experienced at leisure and sites of consumption such as Cape Town’s Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, ‘a real waterfront that overlooks Cape Town Harbour’ (Mania, 2013: 218). Thus Bruma Lake was to become the first one of these waterscapes to provide a gateway into the City of Johannesburg. It was to be followed in 1996 by the Randburg Waterfront and many others (Mania, 2013: 218).
The Bruma Lake complex comprised luxury offices, apartments and townhouses overlooking the lake. Buildings that sprang up had names connoting their proximity to the lake namely, Waterview, Lakeside Two, Lakeside Manor, The Fisherman’s Village, and so on. The Fisherman’s Village, made up of a quayside restaurant and a range of food shops and boutiques, was advertised as the main attraction complementing the Lake. Straddling the lake was a suspension bridge – itself a miniature replica of the San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Finally, this new body of water was also designed for canoeing, windsurfing and sailing activities. Both the City Council and the Department of Water Affairs ensured the development of waterways and walkways at the Lake. These designs were later to win the 1992 Corobrik Awards for excellence in paving. A judge of the competition lavishly commended the new structure thus: ‘No matter where the eye falls, the sense of resolution is complete … it is this kind of detail which adds to the friendliness of the place’ (Building, 28, Feb. 1991: 26).
Opened to the public on 1 November 1989 with much fanfare, this new waterscape was acclaimed as compensating for Johannesburg’s unique position of being ‘one of the few major cities not located on the sea or river’ (The Star, 23 November 1989). One more newspaper headline confirmed the symbolism of this new body of water: ‘A touch of the “seaside” comes to our landlocked Jo’burg’. (The Star, 23 November 1989). For quite a number of years, Bruma Lake would remain a popular destination with many local and international visitors coming to pass time there. But, for all its celebrated luxuriant and picturesque ambience, the lake began to experience the dystopian downside of progress, with the dramatic transformation and the accumulation of toxic waste.
When the ground on which the lake was to be constructed was unearthed, there were initial challenges. The Jukskei River incessantly brought trash which tended to undermine the drainage process. In September 1989, there were complaints that the lake had already become a ‘cesspool of rotting debris emitting a terrible stench’ (The Star, 30 September 1989). Immediately after the massive opening of the lake, the authorities were forced to drain the water in order to repair some filters (Vladislavic, 2006). Thereafter the lake did not have major problems until the end of the 1990s and early 2000s when residents in the adjoining suburbs and business people increasingly began to complain about the pungent smells that regularly saturated the air around the Bruma business complex. The lake had continued to take up all the discharge from the inner city which flowed from the Jukskei River. In fact the lake ‘was the first point where the water comes to a standstill, and […] therefore acts as a big sedimentation trap’ (Gamer).
In response, businesses that had once thrived here began to move out from the late 1990s and during the 2000s. For example, The Don, an upmarket hotel, built on the lake’s banks, closed shop following incessant complaints from its guests regarding the powerful smell. In December 2000, The Citizen newspaper reported how ‘Bruma Boardwalk Centre, once buzzing with life, (now) exists as a ghost area following the closure of almost all its stores over the past three years’ (The Citizen, 2000). The last straw was the discovery of four bodies in the lake, dumped by serial killers roaming in the eastern suburbs adjoining Bruma, leading the City Council to order that it be drained to enable the police to look for evidence (Vladislavić, 2006: 94). The draining of the lake each time there was a toxicity problem has led South African literary scholar Ivan Vladislavić to mockingly observe that ‘this was a salutary reminder that the lake was artificial, that it was nothing but a reservoir lined with plastic’ (Vladislavić, 2006: 94). The discovery of dead bodies simply scared people away. In the absence of firm solutions to this continuously evolving environmental hazard, civil society organisations, such as Lake Property Owners Association and the Jukskei River Catchment Area Management Forum, individually and collectively threatened to take civil action in order to compel the City Council to clean up the heavily polluted Lake. Scientific tests conducted by a Wits University ecologist in 2011 revealed that the smell – which residents and businesses attributed to their sickness — was a toxic and flammable gas that is registered as an asphixiant. With such confirmed toxicity one can only imagine the broader detrimental effects this was having on other elements of the ecosystem, given that water from the lake fed the Jukskei River whose waters, in turn, flowed into the Hartbeesport Dam which served as a source of water supply for the City of Pretoria.
Mounting pressure from residents and businesses between 2004 and 2012 compelled the City of Johannesburg to start addressing the problem in conjunction with environmentalists. A whole range of technical, chemical and biological solutions to reduce the toxic levels of the lake and to prevent environmental disaster from spreading were implemented, but to no avail. At one point, in 2010, the year South Africa hosted the Soccer World Cup, R1.5 million was spent on a precipitation plant and the expensive litter trap ceased to function due to a storm (The Star, 18 June 2014). In 2012, attempts to rehabilitate the lake by, among other things reducing the sludge and improve the air failed because of lack of funding from the City of Johannesburg (The Star, 7 December 2012). After millions of Rands had been sunk into the rehabilitation of Bruma Lake to deal with issues relating to silt, litter and pollution, and at some point draining the entire lake to enable the police to ‘search for bodies and serial murder clues’ (Kruger, 2013: 192), the City Council was eventually compelled to take one more radical solution – namely, the creation of a recreational park and the conversion of the lake into a river.
On Becoming a Recreational Park
Following wide-ranging consultations with several organisations and residents linked to Bruma, the City Council finally decided to restore the lake and its surroundings to its ‘natural state’ and ‘let nature take its course by filling the lake and reinstating the pre-existing stream by reshaping the lake basin’ (The Star, 15 Jan. 2015). In addition, it also planned to recreate an altered vegetated waterway, improve access for cleaning debris, minimize sediment accretion, resuscitate the ecological nexus between upstream and downstream areas, and retention of the bridge, among other things. Completed at the end of 2015, at a cost of R60 million, the re-engineered former waterscape has been turned back into a landscape with a sprawling lush green park with a river full of water flowing freely thereby assuming a new and refreshing identity. The body of water that had been a site of entertainment and wonderment had now been converted to a park and the odors once produced by the stagnant toxic waters disappeared.
What can we make of the transformation of this place from one form of land-use to another? Both cases involve the re-engineering of, first, the wastescape, which was turned into a waterscape, and then finally back again into a landscape. Creating a vast body of water – Bruma Lake – to satiate consumptive desires meant altering the flows of water and controlling nature. This was done without ensuring that the state of the entire ecosystem around the lake suited the new uses. Hence, a toxic lake. In the second instance, the waterscape was re-engineered into a landscape in the name of restoring it back to nature. However, in both cases, there was not much focus on rehabilitating the areas whence the toxic waste was generated. This gives empirical expression to what Edelstein once called an ‘engineering fallacy, which involves the assumption that problems can be solved in isolation, away from the complicating factors and uncertainties of the real world’ (Edelstein: 1988). Paul Fairall, a wetlands expert who did much to try and purify the Bruma Lake, makes this point even more vividly when commenting about the new park: ‘The ghastly smell has gone, but I am still a bit worried about the amount of sewage coming in from the city and the fact that there is no litter grid on the Observatory’ (The Star, 15 January 2015). But this leads us to another question, also posed by Melosi: what exactly does ‘ecological restoration’, i.e. ‘resurrecting the site from its sordid past’ mean? (Melosi, 2016: 64). Can humans who initially presided over the alteration of nature to suit their wants also successfully preside over the process of restoring such sites back to their natural order without incurring more ecological costs in the process? Flora Mokgohloa, Director: Environmental Planning and Management in the City of Johannesburg, provides a salutary answer: ‘engineering the environment (canalization, channelization of rivers and waterfronts) should never get a town planner’s stamp of approval’. (Urban Green). The toxification of Bruma Lake was the result of humans and their activities. Finally, Martin Melosi poses a question which resonates with this study: ‘Is there a way to reconcile the human and the natural in this restored landscape?’ (Melosi, 2016: 65). Taking a cue from Buell (1998), I would say “YES”, for he has argued that: ‘more and more it may become second nature to everyone’s environmental imagination to visualize humanity in relation to the environment, not as solitary escapees or consumers, but as collectivities with no alternative but to cooperate in acknowledgement of their necessary, like-it-or-not interdependence’ (Buell, 1998: 665). Implicit in such assertions is the idea that ‘toxic discourse calls for a way of imagining physical environments that fuses a social constructivist with an environmental restorationist perspective’(Buell, 1998:656).
Muchaparara Musemwa is an Associate Professor in the Department of History and is currently Head of the School of Social Sciences, at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the author of a monograph: Water, History and Politics in Zimbabwe: Bulawayo’s Struggles with the Environment, 1894-2008 (Trenton NJ: Africa World Press, 2014). He has published widely in journals such as, Journal of Southern African Studies and Environment & History. His latest publications are: ‘Sic utere tu out alienam non laedas: From Wanton Destruction of Timber Forests to Environmentalism: The rise of colonial environmental practices in Southern Rhodesia, 1938-1961’. Environment and History, Number 4. (Nov. 2016), pp. 521-559; and ‘Narratives of Scarcity: Colonial State Responses to Water Scarcity in Southern Rhodesia, 1890-1965’, Cristina J. de Melo, Estelita Vaz and Ligia M. Costa Pinto (eds.), Environmental History in the Making (Springer, 2017) pp. 263-290.
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