It is only right that South Africans gripe about infrastructural decline (or its correlative lack of infrastructural development) in many of our urban environments. The state continues to betray its repeated promises in this regard. Yet in the necessary focus on buildings, pipelines, grids, networks and structures, our discourse sometimes seems to forget the people who inhabit the place.

Etymologically, cities are first and foremost constituted by citizens. The English word “city” comes from the Old French cité, which derives from the Latin civitas: a member of a community. Likewise, polis — as in the metropolis of Johannesburg, or the megalopolis that takes up most of Gauteng — was the ancient Greek term not for physical urban spaces but for the collective identity of a group or society...

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