Surveillance and Civic Institutions: A presence and/or absence

This article has been developed as an excerpt from my Masters’ Thesis Project developed at the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg, South Africa in GSA Unit 14

GSA Unit 14 reinforces its interest in Rogue Economies – those subversive economic practices, tactics and transactions that shape contemporary Johannesburg in bewildering dramatic ways. As a collective, we look to understand these dynamics to build a relevant architecture literacy around emergent economic practices that are defining our African cities.


“Surveillance is permanent in its effects even if its discontinuous in its action.”

– Michael Foucault

In a city like Johannesburg – characterised by surveillance capitalism; with the recent flooding and installation of about 15,000 CCTV cameras [1], an everyday journey in the society by default becomes an apparatus for very great control [2]. The insertion of a tool of the universal architecture of behaviour restriction threatens human nature.

As a result, numerous problems such as extreme levels of public fear, violence and insecurity on the streets of real magnitude emanate, contributing to the unending search for safety, freedom and privacy and the tension between transparency and accountability simultaneously [3].

How much security is too much? [4]. What kind of power relations are created as a result of these decisions? What are the spatial gains or implications? Does this make public officials more accountable? What checks and balances can be put in place with respect to mass surveillance?

My work focused mainly on the subject of political accountability, democracy, analogue and digital means of surveillance and the consequences of the forms of control present in the city of Johannesburg. It took the form of ethnographic drawings, digital collages (mimicking hand-made collages) and forensic immersive investigations with a bit of reference to technology. I also engaged in research and fieldwork at strategic locations (virtual and real-life) to produce a series of pictorial lexicons and forensic drawings concurrently outlining analytical techniques adopted and developed with supporting drawings.

My study aimed to challenge such interlocutors while becoming a bridge between citizens and public officials – not by dismantling the system but by regimenting, recalibrating and reorganising. Using social institutional imaginaries or architectural strategies as a new form of control, balance and refinement could be created.

I am convinced it is of dire importance to the architecture discipline, as it brings to limelight queries that are mostly ignored or left unanswered due to its sensitivity and political nature.

“Wherever you go, whatever you do, whoever you are, you are under surveillance!”

Big Brother

Surveillance is defined as “the act or state of being constantly attentive and responsive to signs of opportunity, activity, or danger”. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy also sketches the definition as “involving paying close and sustained attention to another person. It is distinct from casual yet focused people-watching, such as might occur at a pavement cafe, to the extent that it is sustained over time. Furthermore, the design is not to pay attention to just anyone but to pay attention to some entity (a person or group) in particular and for a particular reason. Nor does surveillance have to involve watching. It may also involve listening, as when a telephone conversation is bugged, or even smelling, as in the case of dogs trained to discover drugs or hardware which is able to discover explosives at a distance.”

I deem it necessary to frame the subject being investigated. Though simplistic yet essential as this assists the amateur and professional in demystifying such rigorously explored fields.

Surveillance in the 21st century has evolved from “sovereign power – which is control through the threat of force”, to “disciplinary power – which is control through the monitoring and surveillance of populations” [3]. It functions in such a way that even after it has been deconstructed or probably removed, it leaves a permanent effect (sometimes post-traumatic) on the surroundings, agents and institutions that are produced or being produced.

With approximately 15,000 CCTV cameras being installed and projected to reach its completion by the end of 2019 in various precincts across Gauteng, surveillance was everywhere and everyone will be subject to it. From, the use of CCTV Cameras in public and private spaces to the use of registers, attendance sheets and access cards in workplaces, to the use of digital phones, I have observed that we inadvertently become accustomed to this culture of control. Embracing the norm without interrogating or understanding its effect; be it positive or negative.

In this study, I focus on the city of Johannesburg. I situated this study at the Johannesburg Metro Police Department Intelligence Operations Center which was formerly within the Carlton Centre; the Tallest Building in Africa as of 2019 [5,6]. This structure mimics brutalism right in the Heart of Johannesburg CBD, which in itself exudes an aggressive confrontational toughness or unapologetic lack of concern for comfort, and un-displaceable presence). Interestingly, the topmost floor (50th) of Carlton Centre is referred to as “Top of Africa” because it offers a panoramic view. The JMPD IOC operates as the center of Gauteng’s surveillance and a form of institutional power.

As a foreigner in South Africa who holds a Nigerian passport, I am alien to the terrain, existing social constructs, mores, languages and interpretations in the investigated context. My positionality comes off as contested for a barrage of reasons. However, this corroborates the intention of the project which was to disrupt the digital panopticon as a form of counter-surveillance to allow for transparency, accountability and bi-partite access in a volatile and polemic space like South Africa. I recognize that this may be a harsh and instigative way to describe the environment but I consider it important and contributory to the subject interrogated.

In order to understand surveillance, I began working across scales or geographical landscapes – from the intimate to city and then, global politics of surveillance. Surveillance is a phenomenon so powerful and definitive in the future of a city and country at large. To better explore this, I strategically adopted forensic tools such as forensic data reconstruction, infiltration in combination with interviews, site visits and mapping. These enabled revisiting the concepts of space, place and scale in order to map out broader possibilities of re-making and reshaping the future of surveillance.

Figure 1: Homogeneity or Difference?
Street scan: An overlay of about 40 dimensioned street sections across select locations in Johannesburg (Olaniyi, O. T. 2018)

With this in mind, in 2018, I embarked on a series of street explorations visiting “dangerous” and “safe” locations across Johannesburg. I visited the neighbourhoods of Kliptown, Pimville, Melville and Sandton. These locations were strategically chosen due to historical connotations, usage in the late 1900s and how they evolved and adapted to all forms of social transformations in present-day Johannesburg.

Figure 1a: A call out of a section of the street scan
Street scan: An overlay of about 40 dimensioned street sections across select locations in Johannesburg (Olaniyi, O. T. 2018)

Drawing in Section was a significant methodology inspired by Robert Mantho [7]. Superimposing about 40 street sections, I began to tease out tactile indicators of danger or safety in streets such as sidewalks, lights, materiality, technical compositions (height, width, and length), furniture (outdoor seats, bollards), colour and activities present there. This process of mapping and drawing clearly accentuated the similarities and homogeneities despite the locational differences in the urban context.

Figure 1b: A call out of a section of the street scan
Street scan: An overlay of about 40 dimensioned street sections across select locations in Johannesburg (Olaniyi, O. T. 2018)

As one unfamiliar with the landscape of Johannesburg, this exploration allowed for juxtaposition while discovering South Africa; more like a predicated adventure with no idea what the process or product could yield. It was one of the most discomforting and daunting chases I had to take as an emerging researcher in the field of architecture.

From observation, sociality in the streets – seemed the most important in defining the spectrum of safety; “safe” or “dangerous”. From one of my explorations, I was fascinated about how the presence and the absence of small tools like CCTV cameras potentially and totally change how the space acts, once dropped in. These public insertions sink in like a dense object dropped into a bowl of water, intrusively creating room for itself and prompting tensions between the “watchers” and the “watched” as it took away freedom.

“Under observation, we act less free, which means we effectively are less free.”

― Edward Snowden
Figure 2: CCTV Blanket: Documenting the state of digital capitalism in Johannesburg. (Olaniyi, O. T. 2019)

Honing in on the CCTV-scape in Johannesburg [the red indicates the functioning and active CCTV cameras, and the black speaks to the dormant cameras; meaning the functionality of the cameras were unstable], it became clear that many of the installed cameras were not properly maintained and experienced some downtime in monitoring. I would argue this was largely due to the privatization of the system; where the installation was managed by private companies such as VumaCam assigned by the government, maintenance was carried out by the Metropolitan Trading Company (MTC) and supply was done by Hik-vision; a China-based company. This level of privatization and global input is somewhat permitted as a result of the association of the five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa known as BRICS [8], suggesting that such lateral associations have real-world consequences. The conveyed “agenda” to monitor the general society and instil discipline and in-turn reduce rocketing crime rates becomes a breeding ground for super-complex dynamics.

Figure 2a: CCTV BLANKET: CCTV cameras in Johannesburg as of 2019 connected to the JMPD IOC (Olaniyi, O. T. 2019).

More specifically, I understand the above drawing [Figure 2a] as a kind of “blanket” over Johannesburg. A system that is abruptly dropped from above, without any analysis or questioning of what it does in this place with the assumption that one size fits all. It shows the large network of cameras and while most of the city appeared to be under the “gaze” of surveillance, this may not be the actual case. The received feeds or information were transmitted to the core; JMPD’s Control Room, which used to be in Carlton Center for a period of time.

A great deal of my ability to research into such a polemic space was tested, as information regarding these undercurrents were “classified.” All efforts via calls, visits and more to access information proved abortive so I employed tactics of forensic data reconstruction such as becoming the ‘grey man‘. Study visits, fragmentary conversations, engaging tour guides and also building connections along the way with certain people were key to getting information that could be re-created.

“Nobody in the government is talking. They say it’s a case of national security.”

― Kenneth Eade

Given the environmental urgencies of the present moment, the opportunity to engage opens up the possibility to practice and confront profound challenges in a way that does not rely on the conventional architectural canon; architecture is evolving beyond its disciplinary boundaries.

A closer look into surveillance? Sure, why not?

The position I occupied was indicative of the possibilities there was and is to (re)make future space(s). I explored the surveillance-scape; virtual and real-life, in South Africa and how it indicated capitalism. My previous studies of the existing systems in surveillance disclosed relationships of a broader nature which I was eager to discover.

Through research and scooping, surveillance relationships, power constructs, blind spots and the linear nature of spatial control, ‘A gallery of revelation‘ containing 12 vignettes was documented as a “parodical hall of fame”. This deliberate choice of representation speaks back to the fragmented nature of the information made available while conveying the obscure interrelated undercurrents to these politically charged surveillance networks.

Figure 3: Gallery of Revelation: 12 vignettes of uncovered surveillance relationships (Olaniyi, O. T. 2019)

Three of these vignettes are further elaborated on in this article.

Figure 4: Surveillance City: Carlton Center as the center of Gauteng’s surveillance (Olaniyi, O. T. 2019)

The building became a site for and of surveillance. The ‘surveillance city’ depicted an exaggerated and overpowering presence in all facets. The location of this surveillance community; the JMPD Intelligence Operation Center, within this specific structure, especially, can be argued to be a strategic political move because this structure remains recognized worldwide as the tallest building in Africa. It gives multi-levelled advantages with its height in terms of uninhibited and unlimited crop frames of looking, seeing and monitoring. It emphasized that surveillance is an overarching and accumulative institution of networks that diffuses beyond the four walls of its physical materiality and location.

Figure 5: Espionage: Unlimited subscription to interrelational information (Olaniyi, O. T. 2019)

It represented South African companies’ links to global military organizations in Russia (BRICS relations) that supplied tools, military weapons, and military equipment used in combat when necessary. It made use of the surveillance network existing in South Africa as a global spy coverage to obtain political and military information with respect to assembling and running of rockets to be sent off to space for data collection. This described the porous nature of surveillance and how it could be used as a tool to eat deep into the fabrics of any nation within its confines.

Figure 6: Partnership: Impact of relations with the Chinese government (BRICS) association (Olaniyi, O. T. 2019)

It represented China and South Africa relations. It depicted China’s presence, here in South Africa. The CCTV Cameras implanted into the South African nation were manufactured and supplied by Hik-vision (which happens to be a Chinese company) to Vumacam which was the local distributor. It explained the flow and dissemination of power; from global to country and then local context. Because it was manufactured by the Chinese, it had been identified and opined by a number of investigative experts in South Africa that China had the propensity to access, exploit, monitor and/or manipulate feeds captured by these tools. The information could be transmitted across any connection to any part of the world. Thus describing the volatile nature of surveillance.


So, where do we go from here?

To conclude, this murky world of global surveillance capitalism helps to understand that there are degrees to the thresholds of control beginning from the micro to macro scale or the human to the country. Its presence leaves an absence and its absence leaves a strong presence.

These investigations revealed the existence of space and place in everything people in the built environment do or make in both digital and physical spheres. In this project, I attempted to respond to the possibility of ways that can counter, disrupt, and/or dismantle by becoming knowledgeably aware of the fragments of the existing institution(s). After rigorous analysis of the afore documented pieces of information, a pattern generic to the operational cycle or ecosystem of surveillance was uncovered.

Identifying its essential parts, components and outlets in real-time concurrently displayed concealed blind spots. These spots were targeted as sites to interrogate the system. Sometimes, minute but initiating ripple effects which begin to uphold the potency of architecture.

I thus argued that the “gaze is an integral part of surveillance that acts as a bridge between both sides of a tunnel but is biased in the way it receives information causing a disconnect and imbalance in the perspective considered as embodying certain aspects of the relationship between the observer, the subject of observation and jurisdiction of manifestation.

To create a system that was automatically triggered and feeds back into itself, the gaze of surveillance was hijacked, monopolized and transformed into the sequential political margin between power and control that adopts a bipartite flow of operation.

Interesting to note that not all the proposed research questions were answered. I rather say more questions were unearthed, which I find rather interesting and provocative for knowledge creation and innovation in architecture in Africa.

Can we as practitioners in the built environment begin to embrace alternative intellectual perspectives from which to rethink and recenter architecture?

Space and place is a cultural locus with many different robust indicators, readings, voices, translations and imprints. As a maker of space, I am of the opinion that this radical mode(s) of enquiry, attempt to recenter and the desire to connect space enriched by lived experience and unravelled inner workings hand back the reigns to Africa’s architecture.

It allows the charting of a course for inclusivity and equitable distribution of power, shattering political boundaries and imbalances, and detaching from both positive and negative effects of western scholarship; capitalism, within the South African urban society with the hope of repetitively informing the unique contextual organization of space.

These ideas and understanding of pursuing the common good through citizenship, collective action, and active participation, should time and time again be at the core of the endeavours and excavations of most design or space practitioners – particularly when engaging in design that works through spatial justice and spatial inequality.

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies, and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city.

David Harvey, Social Justice and the City


[1] Swart, H. 2019. Business Maverick Investigation; Article on Video Surveillance and Cybersecurity (Part Two): Chinese cyber espionage is a real threat. Available at:

[2] Foucault, M. 1995. Discipline and Punish – The birth of prisons. Vintage Books.

[3] Zuboff, S. 2019. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. Profile Books (First Published in June 2016).

[4] Blum, R. H., 1972. Surveillance and Espionage in a Free Society. Praeger, 1972.

[5] Gauteng Tourism Web Archives. 2014 – 2018. Available at: [Accessed: 08-07-2019]

[6] SA News. 2013. Carlton Centre – Africa’s tallest building. Government Communication and Information System. Available at:,they%20purchased%20it%20in%201999 [Accessed: 15-07-2019]

[7] Mantho. R. 2014. The Urban Section: An Analytical Tool for Cities and Streets. Routledge.

[8] BRICS. Available at: 13-07-2019]

[9] Lefevbre H. 1968 – Le Droit à la ville, 1996 – English translation as The Right to the City.

[10] Olaniyi, O. T. 2019. The People’s Control Room: Disrupting the Digital Panopticon. Unpublished Master’s Thesis. Graduate School of Architecture, University of Johannesburg, South Africa.