What does Mai Mai mean? was the initial research question that guided the PublicAct/Johannesburg urban provacateurs in their participatory action research engagement with the Kwa-Mai Market users and leaders in Johannesburg Inner City CBD in March 2014.

Through a series of discussions, informal workshops and mapping exercises initiated through the PublicActs/Johannesburg project www.publicacts.org, the research group began investigating the complex and layered aspects 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.

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PublicActs/Johannesburg Act #5 - The basic unit of public space

About the Act:
Act#5 explores the public act of gathering in the culturally and socially diverse space of the Kwa-Mai Mai Market in Johannesburg. 

Through a participative process of critical research an action-research spatial experiment was established and performed with the Mai Mai users alongside Act#6 of the PublicActs/Johannesburg project. 

The process revealed many interesting findings in regard to the social and spatial dynamic of the Mai Mai Market.

The Mai Mai Food Court Entrance (ImageJhono Bennett)


Act#5 - The basic unit of public space began during the initial meetings and discussions in Mai Mai and guided by the different forms of gathering that occurred in Mai Mai, especially in the food court space as people observed specific forms of gathering that followed patterns and logics not tangible to me at first.

(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)

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

Gathering Analysis Tool (ImageJhono Bennett)

(ImageJhono Bennett)

(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)

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/Johannesburg)

Preparing for the 24 hr event (Image: Jhono 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)

 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 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)

Performing the act
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

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.

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