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PublicActs/Johanesburg ACT # 5 & # 6 Participatory Research - Socio Spatial Action Research within Mai Mai Market

This project was initiated by the PublicActs/Johannesburg (www.publicacts.org) programme, conceived and curated by Katharina Rohde & Thireshen Govender, under interventions (Act #5 and Act #6) of the greater PublicActs/Johannesburg Project:

Mai Mai Market in the morning (ImageJhono Bennett)

"Focusing on new and emerging public spaces PublicActs/Johannesburg aims to investigate and showcase its many different manifestations and potentials.

Producing a catalogue of urban public conditions based on criteria that respond to the contemporary reality of our city and represent its diverse geographies, six sites are identified for their critical value. These meander between the New Imaginaries, the Everyday, the Grand and Spectacular, the Ephemeral and Politics, Power and Protest.

Acknowledging different interpretations of publicness, six creative collaborators alongside local actors are invited to produce a series of actions, site-specific interactions or performances in defined sites, to provoke discussion and the imagination around future public spaces in Johannesburg.

The project culminates into 24hour choreographed Public Acts which invites spectators to playfully engage and interact with the creative interpretations on site. Additionally to the artistic outputs, the festival program will engage local stakeholders and a greater public to critically reflect and comment on the projects findings, speculations and provocations. This will allow for thought about the conditions and production of public space in Johannesburg

With the research and experiences generated we aim to challenge urban actors and decision-makers to engage and construct public spaces in Johannesburg in innovative and democratic ways. Our findings and creative outputs shall function as a guide on how to approach, use, misuse, appropriate and imagine public space in African cities". 
(text taken from www.publicacts.org)

The Kwa-Mai Mai socio-spatial action research intervention was the 6 week culmination of a critical process of engagement with the Kwa-Mai Mai Committee and the Mai Mai users. This article explains the process undertaken by those involved and summarises the experience highlighting the key findings and discoveries along the way.

Through a series of discussions, informal workshops and mapping exercises fellow PublicActs provacateurs, Liliania Transplantor and WayWord Sun of AMBush Gardening Collective and myself began investigating the complex and layered qualities of the socio-spatial dynamic of the Kwa-Mai Mai Bazaar (referred to locally as the Mai Mai Market and the entire area as Mai Mai) in Johannesburg's Central Business District. 

View Kwa Mai Mai Market in a larger map


The Mai Mai Market is one of the oldest markets in Johannesburg and was selected as one of the top 100 places worthy of preservation during the city’s centenary celebrations.

Outsider perspective of Mai Mai Market - negative (ImageJhono Bennett)
During the initial investigation it was found that the space around Mai Mai is not commonly recognised by many city users passers-by as a market, but instead is seen quite negatively as a squatted or illegally appropriated space that is unsafe.

Context map placing Kwa-Mai Mai in Johanensburg context

Kwa- Mai Mai Market aerial View

WJP Carr a member of the Johannesburg Historical Society and for many years the Manager of the City Council's 'Non-European' Affairs Department (NEAD) compiled the following overview in 1985 (Heritage Portal Link):

"The original Mai Mai Bazaar was located on the grounds of the old Salisbury and Jubilee Compound, at the corner of Wemmer, Jubilee Road and von Weilligh Street on the East, and Kruis Street Extn on the West. The Salibury and Jubilee Gold Mine closed down before the First World War and the compound was taken over by the City Council round about 1919/20 and used for the accommodation of black men casually employed in Johannesburg. This class of worker was known as a ‘Daily Labourer’ and they carried a special pass which had to be renewed every month; since they had no fixed employer the pass had to be signed by the Council official in charge of the compound.

Inside the Mai Mai Market Traders (ImageJhono Bennett)

Mai Mai Food Court - a spoace of gathering (ImageJhono Bennett)
Inside Mai Mai Market  - a space of living and learning (ImageJhono Bennett)

Inside the Mai Mai Market - a space of production (ImageJhono Bennett)

The place got its name ‘Mai Mai’ from the habit of an early mine manager, a compassionate man, who always said “Mai Mai” whenever a mine worker who had been injured underground was brought to the surface. The Mai-Mai provided for an interesting variety of self-employed workers, such as skin workers, bangle makers, carpenters, snuff makers, sjambok makers and a number of well-known herbalists, whose small shops were a veritable cornucopia of remedies such as herbs, animal extracts, snake skins and dried snake venom. The skin workers and the bangle workers manufactured the regalia used by the mine Dance Teams and would set out from time to time, laden with goods they had made and travel along the Reef from one Mine Compound to another, selling their wares” (Heritage Portal Link):

The Mai Mai Entrance (ImageJhono Bennett)

The Mai Mai Food Court (ImageJhono Bennett)
Mai Mai cooking ladies inn the Food Court (ImageJhono Bennett)
Outside persepctive of the Mai Mai Food Court - negative (ImageJhono Bennett)


Initial contact was made with a group of market users who described themselves as an elected committee that governs the market space - the Kwa-Mai Mai Committee. This committee appeared to be made up of a chairperson, secretary, treasurer and amongst other deputies and various other members we did not actively see in the time we engaged.

DTalking with the Kwa-Mai Mai Committee member - Mdu (ImageJhono Bennett)
They described their role as the legitimate face of the market to engage with the various formal governance structures in the city such as the Johannesburg Property Company and the Metropolitan Trading Company who are the accredited managers of the market as well as most of the cities street trade and markets. These activities include rent collection, management services and co-ordination and governance of the spaces in Mai Mai.

(ImageJhono Bennett)

Through our initial discussion it became clear that this leadership committee are currently not happy with the state of the food court area and are seeking assistance to ‘clean it up’ and secure the space with the introduction of infrastructure such as lighting and periphery boundary control such as walls and gates.

The Kwa-Mai Mai Commitee not happy with the state of the Food Court - need support (ImageJhono Bennett)
Discussing Mai Mai with space users (ImageJhono Bennett)

Discussing Mai Mai with space users (ImageJhono Bennett)

During discussions with the committee, an interest in developing Mai Mai not only as traditional market space, but also as a tourist space was expressed. Their idea was to maintain their sense of cultural identity as a Zulu Traditional market. 

Committee member showing tourists around the market (ImageJhono Bennett)

The Committee, in discussion, suggested the inclusion of thatched roofing structures to eat under, painted walls depicting Zulu cultural figures and the allocation of uniform to the stall retailer’s and cooking individuals to make the space fit their vision of improvement.

Initial Observations

During these meetings and discussions in Mai Mai, my interest in the different forms of gathering developed further, especially in the food court space as people observed specific forms of gathering that followed patterns and logics not tangible to me at first.

The Mai Mai Food Court Entrance (ImageJhono Bennett)

(ImageJhono Bennett)

The research and documentation of these gatherings became my initial point of departure towards developing a more informed understanding of the space.

Observed gatherings - Waiting (ImageJhono Bennett)
Observed gatherings - Eating (ImageJhono Bennett)

Observed gatherings - Discussions (ImageJhono Bennett)

Observed gatherings - Working (ImageJhono Bennett)

Observed gatherings - Cultural Meetings (ImageJhono Bennett)

Observed gatherings - Relaxing (ImageJhono Bennett)

A table capturing the raw observed gathering - to begin deciphering patterns (ImageJhono Bennett)

Gathering Analysis Tool (ImageJhono Bennett)

These gatherings took place beyond the simple act of sharing activity and were governed by factors beyond my initial observations that and possibly derived from cultural and territorial factors that required further interrogation.

(ImageJhono Bennett)

The investigation into space, ownership and access around gathering were further analysed through a survey of perceived access and public-ness of spaces in and around Mai Mai.

(ImageJhono Bennett)

Interrogating our perceptions

As part of the ongoing process of engagement, myself and Lilly with the help of Sun set up an exercise to begin uncovering the perceived values of Mai Mai from the space users.

This was proposed to take place through arranging a gathering and asking people who use the space what Mai Mai means to them using the communal act of planting and values associated to plants as a means to symbolise and hold the meeting

The team bringing the workshop tools to Mai Mai (ImageJhono Bennett)

We designed and built a plant-able palette table and arranged with the Kwa-Mai Mai Committee requesting they invite people from the market to take part.The questions developed during the initial investigation, and became a focal point of departure into developing an understanding of the perceived value and values in the space.

What does Mai Mai Mean to you Meeting (ImageJhono Bennett)

Interviewees were to be asked a series of questions through a semi-formal discussion followed by a planting ritual:

· How did you come to Mai Mai?,
· What do you do at Mai Mai?
· What does Mai Mai Mean to you?
· Where do you see Mai Mai in the future?

On the day of the mini event the committee not only invited space users, but also the elders of the market who held a respected position in the Mai Mai hierarchy.

    The discussion with the elders (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The exercise proved deeply insightful as many cultural values, norms and practices around the act of gathering were revealed to us, as well as the rich history of the Mai Mai Market were explained in detail. 

    The discussion with the elders (ImageJhono Bennett)

    During this exercise other elements around our impact in the space and the concerns users users had about the development of surrounding area were expressed when one of the interviewees became quite emotional in his description of Mai Mai. 

    Discussing where to put the table (ImageJhono Bennett)

    At the end of the gathering the interviewees were asked to choose a plant, explain its value to the group and plant it in the table, the final act was around the discussion as to where the put the table.
    The plantable table  (ImageJhono Bennett)
    The group suggested placing the table on top of a retail container owned by one of the committee members.

    Placing the table on the Committee owned container  (Image: Lilianna Transplantor)

    This exercise proved invaluable as it gave us many leads as to what the spaces of Mai Mai meant and some insight into the socio-cultural factors around gathering.

    Debriefing post gathering (Image: Lilianna Transplantor)

    Developing the 24 hour PublicAct

    Value Collection:

    This gathering exercise had the unforeseen reaction of a Kwa-Mai Mai Committee member cleaning the public area behind the space that we had conducted the meeting in, and put forward the suggestion of ‘Let's make this space green!’.

    The space where the 'What does Mai Mai mean' meeting was held is cleaned by Committee members (ImageJhono Bennett)

    With this request, we sought to further test our observations and provoke the ideas we had developed so far, we went about collecting the perceived values from the users of the Mai Mai Food Courts asking the core question of our investigation: What does Mai Mai mean to you?

    Capturing the collected meanings of Mai Mai (ImageJoana Ferro)

    These findings were then collated and transcribed into both English and isiZulu (as per request of the Kwa-Mai Mai Committee) and painted onto a smaller version of our planting table. The idea being that we could conduct a similar planting and discussion exercise as held before. Here we would create a more informal gathering and ask space users the question of what Mai Mai means to them and request they indicate their response by choosing a planter with the value they associated with most and plant a plant in this box.

    Preparing the planters (ImageJhono Bennett)

    These planter arrangements would then be used to ‘green’ the space we were requested to intervene in while capturing the strongest values through interactive planting.

    Depicting the collected meanings (ImageJhono Bennett)

    Depicting the collected meanings (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The collected meanings (ImageJhono Bennett)

    Exploring the act of gathering:

    Parallel to the value collection processes, we had begun a parallel socio-spatial intervention, employing the assistance of 1to1 – Student League volunteers Blanca Calvo, Joana Ferro, Tuliza Sindi and Xiao Ying, using one of the most basic elements of gathering as documented in the gathering analysis tool – the seat.

    The unit (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The recently established Studio-X was generously lent to us to explore the multiplicity in seating. This intervention would introduce various pre-arranged seating arrangements to test the observed gathering patterns that were documented over the 6 week engagement.

    The Single Gent (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The Couple Drum (ImageJhono Bennett)
    3's a Crowd (ImageJhono Bennett)
    The Indaba (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The Octopus (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The Flip Flop (ImageJhono Bennett)
    The Star (ImageJhono Bennett)

    Flip Flop Bar (ImageJhono Bennett)
    Mai Mai branding (ImageJhono Bennett)
    The chairs were intentionally branded with the words Mai Mai to further test the associated meaning of what Mai Mai means to the people who use the space. The aim of this act was to constructively provoke and test the current patterns of gathering and ownership occurring in the food court.

    Gathering of gatherings (ImageJhono Bennett)

    By placing these elements in the food court and documenting the reactions to the introduction of these pieces the aim was to garner a better understanding of the hidden social and spatial relationship food court users and stakeholder held in the space.

    The configurations in motion (ImageBlanca Calvo)


    The configurations in motion (ImageBlanca Calvo)

    The full set in action (ImageJhono Bennett)

    Performing the 24 hour PublicAct

    The programme: (Image: PublicActs)

    Our PublicAct was scheduled to take place between 9:00am and 12:00pm with the parallel intervention into gathering occurring throughout the course of the day.

    Preparing for the 24 hr event (ImageJhono Bennett)
    In order to execute the intervention without interfering in the direct perception we planned to arrange the seating elements in the early hours of the morning before the Mai Mai Food Court activities began. This meant a pre-dawn set up of the gathering elements as well as the cameras to document to reactions.

    The cameras were camouflaged as waste material for safety reasons (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The long pre-dawn walk from Studio-X to Mai Mai... (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The set up (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The set up (ImageJhono Bennett)

    Once the chairs were arranged, two urban camouflaged cameras were strategically set up at varying points and hidden to not distract from the interaction with the placed objects.

    The set up (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The set up (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The set up (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The intent was to document the food court’s reaction to the chair placement throughout the day while we continued with the public planting and value capturing exercise with AMbush.

    Dawn at the Mai Mai Food Court (ImageJhono Bennett)
    This act would see people expressing their connection to the values captured on the planters by the act of planting. This symbolic gesture was intended to imbue the existing values of Mai Mai onto the committee selected green space.

    The committee selected space mid-cleanup (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The committee selected space pre-act (ImageJhono Bennett)
    WayWord Sun of We AMBush in action  (Image: Tolo Pule)

    The elders of Mai Mai join the collective gardening (ImageJhono Bennett)

    People choose which planter to plant in and express their feeling toward Mai Mai (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The elders of Mai Mai join the collective gardening (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The day continues as the planters become full (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The day continues as the planters become full (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The children of Mai Mai join on and take part (ImageJhono Bennett)
    The children of Mai Mai join on and take part (ImageJhono Bennett)

    The completed Act Part 1 (ImageJhono Bennett)

    Meanwhile, the hidden site cameras, set to take shots at 2 minute intervals, documented the reactions to the placed seating elements. The results of this spatial intervention proved fascinating as in less than two minutes (00:23 - 00:24 - Mdu Cam & 00:28 - 00:30 - Light Cams) the chairs were re-appropriated across the entire site of Mai Mai, not just the food court. As seen below:

    What was amazing was not in the fact that they were taken, but that as the day progressed the chairs were slowly returned to the site as the extended leadership from within the Mai Mai Market exercised its control over the entire Mai Mai site, and through co-ordinated movements all chairs were returned back to their original placement.

    Mai Mai Food Court before the Act began - with chairs re-appropriated (ImageJhono Bennett)

    Mai Mai Food Court before the Act began - as the chairs began returning (ImageJhono Bennett)

    Mai Mai Food Court before the Act began - as the chairs began returning (ImageJhono Bennett)
    Mai Mai Food Court before the Act began - all chairs returned (ImageJhono Bennett)

    This finding eluded to a much more complex and organised form of leadership and governance that exists in Mai Mai. Simultaneously, more intricate territories amongst the food court users were revealed as the chairs became a symbol of territorial control as users claimed ownership over various arrangements.


    While the experiment did not meet the original aim of constructively provoking forms of seating and gathering it revealed many of the intangible connections and controls that allow the Mai Mai Food Court to work as a highly successful and productive democratic public space in appearance, but a deeply territorialised and governed space in the public realm.

    (ImageJhono Bennett)

    Looking Forward - and Back

    Working Draft of Process of Engagement - see completed version at www.whatdoesmaimaimean.blogspot.com
    (ImageJhono Bennett)

    This initial engagement was the first step in a much longer envisioned engagement from both 1to1 – Agency of Engagement and AMbush Gardening Collective with the Kwa-Mai Mai Committee and its users in their own goals of developing Mai Mai into their collective vision.

    What the process revealed to us, and our project partners, was how crucial the delicate and negotiated process of trust building that is required through critical engagement to even begin to uncover important social and spatial relationships areas such as the Mai Mai Market.

    More so, how important it is for city planners and spatial practitioners to understand that not all systems reveal themselves at face value and often in such complex and rich public spaces, one needs to more engaged and critical when interrogating public space towards an understanding or an intervention.

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